Many people don’t like my insistence—which goes back into the very early 1980s—that maps are political, that maps exhibit and promote a political orientation. They’re about something. They have an agenda. There are a lot of mapmakers who really object to that. And this is in 2011, when my colleagues and I have been at this critical thing now for twenty years, and it has largely been accepted. It’s the new cartographic dogma that maps have perspectives and make arguments and things like that. But when I say that maps aren’t representations at a meeting of cartographers, it’s very usually the case that the first person who stands up to ask a question says, “How can you say that maps aren’t representations?”
Also, a lot of [cartographers] don’t want to acknowledge any complicity with the way things are, and maps have a huge deal to do with the way things are. They want to pretend their hands are clean: maps are just a tool. But you can do bad things with a tool and you can go good things with a tool. I’ve been suggesting to the hardest-edged people of all that they could put their epistemological and ontological arguments on a really firm foundation by simply acknowledging the fact that they are making the world. And they recoil from that, viscerally and instinctively, as they continue to make the software that enables them to make the world. In explicit terms, some of the most brilliant analyses of how maps do what they do have been carried out by these people who are basically building machines to make maps. When someone drops a bomb on something and kills a bunch of kids, and they do that using a map that you made, you either accept the responsibility for it—a kind of well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs responsibility—or you say, “Damn it, I can’t do this anymore.”
The problem with making the map is that by the time you’ve decided, “This is something that constitutes data,” and you’ve collected it, and you’ve massaged it to the point where you can make a map out of it, you already know the worst that’s going to come out of the map. When you’re working at the scale I’m working at, you’ve already decided up front that you’re going to record locations of wind chimes. Now, it might be somewhat of a revelation to actually map them out, but it’s not going to be shocking or anything.
But I’ve seen maps that I find completing terrifying. Maps of uranium mining and of various illnesses in the Navajo reservations—they’re just insane. They just make you furious. Bill Bunge’s map—which I still think is one of the great maps, the map of where white commuters in Detroit killed black children while going home from work—that’s a terrifying map, and that’s an amazing map. He knew that. They had to fight to get the data from the city. They had to use political pressure to get the time and the exact location of the accidents that killed these kids. They knew what they were looking for. I didn’t have anything to do with that project, so when I saw the map for the first time, it was like, “Oh my god.” It’s so powerful to see maps like that. That’s the power of maps, or one of the powers of maps: to make graphic—and at some level unarguable—some correlative truth. We all knew that people go to and from work. But to lay the two things together reveals something horrible.