Rankin, After the Map

William Rankin, After the Map (Chicago, 2016)

William Rankin, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation ofTerritory in the Twentieth Century. University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp.416.

Review by Jacob Darwin Hamblin, originally published in Technology & Culture 59:3 (2018), 806-806.

What do Inuit hunters and guided missiles have in common? In the twenty-first century, they both rely on global positioning systems, based on measurements made by satellites, each one calibrated by an atomic clock as it orbits the earth. And they, like everyone navigating with a smartphone or wearing a GPS watch, live in a world that has left behind traditional way-finding and world-representation embodied by printed maps. In their place is a relatively new religion—the grid. William Rankin’s After the Map tells an intriguing a story of an epistemic shift in the world of cartography and navigation, and perhaps even in human consciousness.

Rankin’s tale begins with early twentieth-century efforts to create a global map through scientific conferences about map projections, surveying, and printing. The most celebrated of these was the International Map of the World, an effort by Americans and Europeans to coordinate the mapping of the entire world at a scale of 1:1,000,000. That project died out mid-century. Not only were there disagreements about symbols (such as dams, windmills, telegraph lines, and oases), there were questions of national values, imperialism, sovereignty, and the responsibility to map at all.

What succeeded were projects, largely of a military nature, that were oriented toward functionality—and they often discarded scientific conventions. Both world wars saw the creation of grid systems, which made no attempt to even acknowledge the spheroidal shape of the earth but instead made everything flat. This worked very well in local settings, particularly when trying to fire artillery without sight of the enemy. Known as “map-firing,” this practice marked an epistemic shift (says Rankin) that substituted Euclidean coordinates for the land itself as a measure of reality. In World War II, radar equipment abandoned geographic north in favor of “grid north.” The U.S. Army Map Service and Aeronautical Chart Service compiled maps based largely on a “global crash program of aerial photography” (p. 83) at high altitude, combined with mass-produced charts that sacrificed global coherence for functional value for pilots and soldiers.

Navigating with radio waves reinforced the grid mentality, convincing users that even a spot in the ocean could be marked permanently with anX. Yet there was no universal truth to it. Americans established flight paths reminiscent of railways, whereas Western Europeans used a beacon system similar to lighthouses. Postwar navigation systems found champions in varied nations, industries, and branches of the armed services. The U.S. military eventually broke with its tradition of fragmentation and developed a single global positioning system—today known as GPS. 

Despite the title, Rankin is not suggesting that maps have disappeared. Instead, they now exist to help humans interpret something that we take to be more real, namely the GPS-ordained coordinate system. Instead of looking to the map as a source of truth, we lay the map on top of the grid. Rankin refers to this as a “geo-epistemic shift” (p. 209) and notes that while we often laud GPS as an advanced navigation system, there has been “relatively little meditation on its geographic or epistemic implications.” For Rankin, GPS has “created a parallel reality: an intangible knowledge space of electronic points that shares space with the physical world but does not refer to it” (p. 280).

Historians of technology will find After the Map to be a fascinating book that rewards careful reading, with insights about epistemology embedded in detailed descriptions of mapping conventions and navigation technologies. Some readers may find Rankin too quick to dismiss the claims of scholars who worry over GPS’s origin as a military system. Yet he does point out that what we often take to be militarist mentalities embedded within GPS—such as surveillance—have been taken up by NASA, law enforcement bodies, and private corporations. After reading Rankin, one might be less likely to accept that GPS is simply advanced and accurate, and more likely to wonder about the consequences of putting so much faith in the grid.