Engines of Knowledge in the First Information Age: Geography and the Map

by Hamish Robertson


The map and hence geographic thinking and cartographic skill are as old as human civilisation. It has been suggested that spatial cognition may even precede the emergence of both numeracy and literacy. Navigating the world in which we live has been underway at least since humans began their journeys out of Africa. The earliest known maps range from those produced in Babylon to those of China’s Qin Dynasty, in a conceptual, artistic and practical device that is almost universal. Map making and navigational skills took the ancient Polynesians from the coasts of what is now Taiwan southwards and eastwards to the eastern edges of the Pacific Ocean and as far south as anyone had been until European explorers arrived. We can even understand spatial thinking (including cartography and astronomy) as a human evolutionary advantage, suggested by Keith Clarke, foundational to our current place in the world.

Geographic perception, theorising, information accumulation and practical application have clearly developed over the millennia, with a primary instrument of such understanding being the map. Maps have their own history, a huge topic, which I will only briefly mention here but for which a variety of detailed free resources exist. The focus here is on the centrality of geographic knowledge to our understanding and interpretation of the world, and the influence our spatial epistemologies, ontologies, methods and instruments have on that understanding. Maps and mapping imply not only an abstract conceptualisation of the ‘world’ which we cannot understand by other means but also a basis for the measurement and quantification of that world.

Latitude, Longitude and Projections

To know where we are on the planet requires a level of abstraction supported by mathematics and geometry in particular. While we have known for centuries that the world is not flat, it is also not entirely round either being a lumpy mass with water filling in the remaining space (to put it very briefly). Crossing its seas and oceans has always been highly risky so much so that forms of maritime insurance were developed as early as the classical Greek and Roman periods, with fully developed schemes developed in the Renaissance Italian sea-faring states of Genoa and Venice. Travel, transport and the concept of risk have probably been linked since the very earliest times.

Latitude and longitude were theorised long before they could be accurately measured but this also indicates that the idea of a spatial logic emerged very early too. The conceptual and representational limitations of the two-dimensional map become especially apparent in the issue of projection. The earth is 3-dimensional in reality and flattening this onto a piece of paper distorts that shape and its proportions enormously. Historically the Mercator projection has dominated mapping while the more recent Peters projection is technically more accurate if far less familiar. There is a now famous segment on the television series West Wing that connects these issues of physical representation to our politics and cultural assumptions in a very concise manner. Consequently, we can the map and geographic understanding as possessing both scientific, as we now understand it, and profoundly cultural underpinnings. To know space is to possess a certain kind of power than can be converted in political and social authority.

Cartography and Modernity

If the imperial state dominated the 18th century, the 19th century was characterised by the emergence of nation states in a variety of forms and through a variety of means. More particularly, the demand for, and suppression of, cultural and linguistic self-determination became a refrain across the whole of that century and on into the next. One of the ways of understanding the scope of the nation state was to map it, a process that had emerged from the earlier sovereign’s desire to know the extent of their dominion and the people or people’s contained within. The discipline of geography developed rapidly in response to this demand for knowledge of the nation, the land and its peoples. Cartography became the applied science that supported both imperial imaginings and nationalist fantasies alike. To draw the map was, at least in miniature, to be able to conceptualise and contain the nation.

The European nation, it has been argued, was often engineered into existence, a process that we see repeated down to the present day. Large scale engineering projects, especially roads and canals, not only connected the centre to the periphery but gradually acted to formalise and aggregate older, looser systems of identification, containment, administration and governance.  Mukerji has described how the emergent French state was shaped by early canal-building efforts including the Canal du Midi, while Alder showed how the French Revolution saw a huge effort at standardisation and uniformity in manufacturing, administration, measurement systems and elsewhere. Carroll’s work on the colonisation of Ireland has shown a variety of discourses emerged in these environments which proved both highly flexible, and portable, under both nationalistic and imperial frameworks.

In the United Kingdom roads were driven into the previously rebellious Highlands and the growing discourse of ‘improvements’ justified not only colonial Ireland but much of the British Empire. Mythologies of progress rapidly took shape which persist down to the present day in justifying almost anything that suits dominant interests – with ethnic primitives set against rational modernists. The architecture of the modern state increasingly relied on knowing about the extent of its territories, its physical characteristics and its inhabitants. No surprise then that the first comprehensive statistical survey in the United Kingdom were Sinclair’s Statistical Accounts of Scotland first published in the 1790’s and modelled on the German concept of statistics as state-istics, that is the counting and calculation of the population as the foundational basis of the modern state.

Quantifying the Physical World

The Victorian era saw a huge expansion in the type and quantity of geographical knowledge being produced. Navigation was increasingly accurate but travel itself was still highly risky and mapping systems emerged to capture and measure data about navigational processes, tides and weather patterns (rainfall, air pressure etc.) in support of safer maritime navigation. A result of this was a growing quantification of the physical world including not only the production of thousands of maps and the measurements it took to produce them, but also maps at different orders of magnitude or scale.

The use of latitude and longitude coordinates are themselves navigational devices using quantification – the traditional degrees, minutes and seconds approach. Also the accumulation of log books by navigators for military and civilian purposes meant that processes of data accumulation were engaged in with naval log books usually submitted to authorities on a ship’s return. Much of this was secret information in the early days of European exploration and colonisation because good data was so scarce but gradually it became part of an increasingly shared knowledge system. Filling in the remaining gaps became, for the most part, more important than holding on to strategic data when such information had been incredibly limited in supply.

In India the British began the Great Trigonometric Survey in 1802, finally completing it in 1871. Exceptions to this growing openness remained including during the Great Game of the 19th century during which British agents, the pundits, secretly helped map Tibet which was largely closed to outsiders. The most famous of these was Nain Singh Rawat who not only learned the Tibetan language and customs to facilitate his mission but was eventually honoured by the Royal Geographical Society. The Society, founded in 1830, was not simply a gathering of armchair geographers but an active promotor of (1) specific expeditions to new locations about which little was known and (2) technical developments that supported the production of improved geographic knowledge. In effect, geography was a discipline heavily engaged in what we know consider geopolitics. Even today the politics and mapping of borders and boundaries are alive and well, and deeply integral to many of the major conflicts of our time.

Geographical Knowledge and Modernity

In both empires and emerging nation states, concerns with travel and infrastructural development also meant that transport systems started to develop rapidly for civil and military purposes, often serving both purposes in periods of insurrection. Knowing how far away one town (and also what defined a village, town, city etc.) was located from another grew more important as clock time became the norm and economic systems expanded internally and externally. We can see how speed became both a necessary concept and a driving factor in the ‘conquest’ of distance which persists even today when we hear business pundits talk about the ‘elimination’ of distance by technology. From roads to canals and on to steam ships, railways, bicycles, motorcycles, cars and so on – the search for and measurement of accuracy and exactitude became integral in the development of Victorian and now modern logistics and infrastructure. There were supported by additional technologies such as telegraph, facsimile and telephone – all emerging information technologies designed to speed up communication processes. All of these technologies involved a rising tide of calculation and quantification.

Postal systems, for example, relied on the safe, consistent and confidential delivery of the mail and on locational accuracy for its delivery. Mapping towns and cities with the location of public and private buildings became even more important. From traditional medieval towns and cities we see a logic of urbanism emerging in the 19th century with planned cities and suburbs in association with theories of health, safety and a rational basis for modernity. Form became closely wedded to function and knowing where buildings, sewers, roads, footpaths and public spaces became important mappable information. This conception of the city as space can still be seen to conflict with more social, organic conceptions of the city as place in yet another geographical discourse.

Where and when became intimately connected and this was achieved through measurement and quantification. As quantification fed this emerging knowledge system new variables could be added by definitional agreements and then processes of data collection. Agreement amongst parties could support such processes and did, eventually, in cases such as the Greenwich meridian mentioned above. But other systems such as tidal or weather data became increasingly useful in expanding the ‘systemic’ knowledge base as geographic and related information sciences developed.

From Analogue to Digital

The struggle to translate growing volumes of analogue data to a digital format began quite early in the piece including the Jacquard loom, the Babbage machine and a variety of pioneering and precursor efforts in what we now call information science. The logic was clear in that growing data types, data measures and data quantities required new methods for their collection, management, analysis and storage. The earliest computers were individuals trained to calculate and tabulate census results and similar large-system data. As this system expanded with typewriters and calculating machines, that labour process was gradually deskilled and feminised in a pattern familiar for decades to come (the male secretary became a female one, the person was replaced by a machine and so on).  Despite the recognition of the scope of the problem, its full resolution proved difficult and took a long developmental curve through the likes of mechanical calculators, tide-measuring machines and IBM’s tabulation technology. Electrification and World War Two finally connected the previous steps towards what we understand today as the fully digital data environment. Today the map is increasingly digital, including geographic information systems, and the concept of ‘data visualisation’ more generally is spatial in nature.


Spatial conceptualisations are central to the human experience. They are so deeply internalised that we frequently take space and our relations with it completely for granted. We can see this in the way that spatial technologies become incorporated into everyday life without many people even considering how these technologies emerged or their complex and contested histories. Where we now have digital maps integrated into an expanding range of technologies, the possibility of these features of modernity emerged in a previous period, one in which the paper map reigned. The map was not only an epistemic device for reducing and understanding the complexity of the world but produced its own distinct ontologies. The political and modernist ideologies that maps increasingly served relied on data production, collection, analysis and storage. Knowing the world gradually segued from an experiential phenomenon to an abstract, quantified and scientific one (map scales for example). Not only the map itself but the geographic knowledge production processes it supported emerged as an engine of knowledge in their own right.

Hamish Robertson is a geographer at the University of New South Wales with experience in healthcare including a decade in ageing research. He has worked in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and he has presented and published on a variety of topics ranging from ageing, diversity, health informatics, Aboriginal health, patient safety and spatial science to cultural heritage research. Hamish is currently completing his PhD on the geography of Alzheimer’s disease and recently finished editing a book on museums and older people.

Categories: Digital Sociology


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