Radio news

Mapping the Future

30 June 2020

Maps have been transformed from paper to pixels - the rise of Google maps -  but in an age of pandemics and political protest across the globe whose interests does digital mapping really serve, and are we being mapped by the new technology in turn? 

Jerry Brotton explores the quiet digital revolution that has happened over the last 25 years and which changed maps forever. 

The world is changing faster than ever before and, to understand it, we are using maps more than at any time in our history. As the paper map gradually disappears, its replacement - online geospatial mapping applications - are at the forefront of our everyday lives and they're doing far more than just getting us from A to B. 

Maps no longer represent reality, virtual mapping techniques are now making reality. Space and geography, rather than time and history, have become the dominant model of interpreting our interconnected global world. From tracking pandemics and visualising capital flows to how we manage Big Data or our online searches to find the nearest takeaway, maps are now key to how we process and organise modern life. 

Jerry meets a new breed of mapmaker, no longer cartographers but ‘geospatial technicians’ who work for multinational corporations like Google and Apple. Nearly half of all online searches contain a geographical element, leading companies like Google to build mapping applications that now reach billions of users. Today, we use maps based on our online searches without thinking. And yet online maps are not peer-reviewed. Traditional cartographers argue they are an extension of the global organisations whose commercial interests they serve. Are we in danger of surrendering our cartographic reality to multinational corporations? 

The feature discovers the world of ‘counter-mapping’ - mapping activists using open access data and guerrilla cartography, pushing back and offering different ways of applying maps to address some of our more pressing political and environmental problems. 

Contributors include: Google spatial technologist Ed Parsons, author Shoshana Zuboff, AI and map specialist Simon Greenman, former head of maps at the British Library Peter Barber, Bloomberg MapLab editor Laura Bliss, Ordnance Survey's Chief Geospatial Officer David Henderson, co-founder of the Counter Cartographies Collective Craig Dalton and map-making artist Stephen Walter.

Presenter: Jerry Brotton, Producer: Simon Hollis  

A Brook Lapping Production for BBC Radio 4