Travel writer Colin Thubron once wrote, “over there, as likely as not, everything will be depressingly the same”. Is the world homogenising, everywhere morphing into everywhere else? The worldwide lockdown seems like a good time to armchair travel and reflect on places other than our own. Using the philosophy of maps, I argue we should be optimistic: our world is not everywhere the same.
For generations, travellers have complained that places are becoming more similar. Eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “All capitals are just alike … Paris and London seem to me the same town”. In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill lamented that the “European family of nations” was losing its “remarkable diversity of character and culture”. Slowly, Europe was “making all people alike”.
Some reasons to think the world is homogenising are undeniable. Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent describes Anywhere, USA: new towns all sharing the same stretch of gas stations, motels, and hamburger emporia. (He adds these “purplishly-lit islands” are so bright they must be “visible from outer space”.) Global companies have placed the same fast food restaurants, gas stations, and hotels in every city. Geographer J. Douglas Porteous bemoans this “efficient rush toward deadly dullness”, captioning a photo “Anywhere in the world, 1990s”.
Although some reasons are undeniable, I argue there is a further, illusory reason contributing to our feeling that everywhere is becoming the same: online maps. Although online maps lead us to believe the world is homogenous, this is an illusion we can dispel. To make my case, I turn to the philosophy of maps.
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that investigates reality, enquiring into the nature of things. You can turn metaphysics on anything, including maps. We usually think of a “map” as a straightforward representation of the world. Roadmaps show us how to get from New York to Philadelphia. Lunar maps show us the locations of mountains and craters on the moon. Yet Brian Harley’s pioneering 1989 article “Deconstructing the Map” argued this is not the case. Harley was the first thinker to ask after the metaphysics of maps, and he argued they are far from straightforward representations of the world. Instead, maps are dark, and complex.
Harley showed that maps are “rhetoric” devices: they persuade or influence. For example, we perceive whatever is centred on a map to be important. Harley notes that many historical maps centre Athens or Jerusalem, adding a subtext of geopolitical force to what appears to be straightforward geography. Mapmakers frequently place their homeland at the centre of world maps. Flemish mapmaker Geradus Mercator’s 1569 “Mercator” projection places western Europe in the centre. Online searches for “American world maps” or “Chinese world maps” produce world maps centring on USA and China. In 2006, the Norwegian Foreign Minister funded a new set of maps, centring on the “High North”: Norway and the surrounding polar regions. The minister wants us to see Norway as an emerging energy province — at the centre of the map, and Europe.
Further, maps do not represent everything. As geographer Peter Taylor observed, “Throughout the cities of the world, maps omit the shantytowns, bidonvilles, black townships, public-housing projects and council estates as nonplaces, revealing their irrelevance to the public eye”. Writer Robert Macfarlane points out that maps rarely feature wild places: “The fells, the caves, the tors, the woods, the moors, the river valleys and the marshes have all but disappeared”. In contrast, maps prominently mark parliaments, palaces, tourist sites. Maps can reinforce existing power structures. They can also advance political agendas. Today, maps disagree on the location of the Palestine-Israel border, on whether disputed Crimean territory is part of Russia or Ukraine. They can even represent things that mapmakers hope to be there. Mercator included Terra Australis on his world maps, a hypothetical land around the South Pole, based on his philosophical musings.
Rather than think of maps as representations of reality, I think it’s best to think of maps as parcels of information. Humans produce information to communicate with other humans. Like any parcels of information, they can persuade us of things. And that’s where we come to online maps.
The world wide web was invented in 1989, and online maps emerged shortly afterwards. 1994 saw the first online atlas, The National Atlas of Canada. OpenStreetMap emerged in 2004, Google Maps in 2005. In 2017, Google Map reached over 1 billion monthly users, and part of its appeal lies in its simplicity.
If you search online for maps of Cambridge, you’ll find images of all kinds, many of them ornate, intricate. For example, the cluttered Ordnance Survey map uses many contrasting colours and lines to represent buildings, waterways, kinds of roads, fields, parks. In contrast, a Google Maps view of Cambridge ignores many of these features; it uses a few soothing pastels, white spaces, sparse lines. Cartographers such as Alexander J. Kent describe these online maps as “blandscapes”: they lack detail, homogenise their subjects, feel artificial.
I argue these online maps contribute to the feeling that the world is everywhere the same. Whether you use Google Maps for directions in New York or New Delhi, you’ll find the same pastel greens and greys. Harley’s metaphysics of maps taught us that maps don’t just represent reality, they can influence our perception of it. As online maps become ever more pervasive, their homogenised representations of the world sink ever deeper into our consciousness. Google Maps are all the same, and this amplifies our perception of the world as being all the same.
The great news is that these online blandscapes do not reflect real richness of the Earth. New York is different to New Delhi. Bryson’s purplish-lit islands are pinpoints of uniformity in a world that is not, largely, bland. The online blandscape is illusory, an unreal digital blanket, fogging the rich, varied world beneath.