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AFTER THE MAP by William Rankin

  • Written by  Mick Herron
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AFTER THE MAP by William Rankin
14 Nov
2016
Until recently, physical maps were indispensable tools of government, especially at times of war – the US and UK produced over a billion of them in the 1940s; almost 50 for every soldier

But by the time of the first Gulf War, their role had been usurped by the ubiquitous GPS, which allows the user to be constantly at the centre of the mapped landscape. The focus has thus changed to one of ‘pointillist space’, allowing vast areas to be reduced to sets of coordinates; there is no longer any need to represent areas which are of no ‘use’, and this, argues Rankin, has altered our very conception of what territory means. His examination of this change is wide-ranging and ambitious, covering the technical aspects of GPS coverage – both civilian and governmental – and the political implications, particularly as regards national sovereignty, that its continuing development holds.

It makes for fascinating reading. With GPS, he argues, the traditional infrastructure of mapping, with all the cumbersome equipment and national agencies this involved, could be bypassed, usurping the state’s role as the guarantor of reliable knowledge. To a degree, then, it’s a devolution of power, even if, in practical terms, one of the first and most devastating illustrations of the system’s effectiveness was the troop deployment during Desert Storm known as the ‘Left Hook’, whereby American troops navigated a desert in southeastern Iraq. This manoeuvre, which effectively ended the war, was made possible by the replacement of non-existent physical landmarks with electronic coordinates. But such military application aside, territory, Rankin reminds us, is a way of inhabiting space, and the very manner in which we do this is undergoing radical transformation.     

This review was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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