Tools like GPS and Google Maps are so embedded in most people’s lives today that they can hardly seem worth remarking upon. Want to get from “Work” to “Home”? Simply open up the preset path into your smartphone, and the app of your choice will be glad to show you—or rather, a large blue dot—its path through the maze of streets, subway junctions, and bus lines that separate you from home.
Few people, in 2016 at least, would think about using an actual paper map to navigate from A to B. Most of the information about the other parts of your city beyond your path home are simply irrelevant to you at that particular moment, and what matters most is the accuracy of your GPS-reliant device as it guides you and the blue dot home. Not least from the perspective of the directionally challenged, the advent of GPS and similar devices just seems like the latest chapter in a history of ever-improving (because ever more accurate) mapping technologies that allow users to track moving points in space.
But as our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, William Rankin, shows in his recently published book, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century, such a Whiggish account of modern mapping is itself far from accurate. It may be true that mapping accuracy improved over the course of the twentieth century. But such an obvious statement fails to say anything about the kinds of geographic knowledge that were produced over the same period. It also overlooks the story of how the kinds of tools used to generate said cartographical knowledge changed over the twentieth century.
If we accept the GPS beacons embedded in our smartphones—or guided missiles—as the exponent of “progress,” we risk overlooking how differently (and not just “better”) GPS’s relationship to territory and space is from those of earlier world-mapping technologies. After the Map seeks to provide, then, not just a technical history of different mapping tools over the twentieth century. It provides an analysis of how shifts in tools engendered shifts in what Rankin dubs geo-epistemology: “not just what is known about the earth, but how it is known— and how it is used.”
The story that Rankin, an Assistant Professor of History at Yale University, explores in After the Map (published with the University of Chicago Press) is thus a crucial intervention into more macro debates among historians about the importance of territory and territoriality throughout the twentieth century. It is a story of how printed maps on paper—once the sine qua non of military operations, with some fifty maps printed per British and American soldier during the 1940s—became less and less relevant in the face of new coordinate systems, radionavigation, and ultimately GPS over the course of the century. It is, in short, a story that encourages readers to go from thinking about maps merely as illustrations, or tools of centralizing political authority, to seeing them as a crucial tool through which makers and users were rethinking the meaning of concepts like territory and sovereignty. In order to discuss some of these questions, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently spoke with Rankin about After the Map.