Surveying G.P.S.

Hannah Hauptman

William Rankin, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century
The University of Chicago Press, 416 pages, $55.00

Ed. James Ackerman, Decolonizing the Map: Cartography from Colony to Nation
The University of Chicago Press, 392 pages, $55.00

THERE IS A FISHING BOAT in the central Indian Ocean. It sits off the shores of a tiny, 12-square-mile atoll called Diego Garcia. It is a large vessel, and on its mast fly several Taiwanese flags. It has been cruising around the area for weeks, and has always managed to stay just over 200 nautical miles away from little Diego Garcia.

I can’t see this boat, but I know it is there. I can’t tell you how many haulers or crew members it has, but I can tell you the coordinates of dozens of its latest locations. Thanks to the website Global Fishing Watch, I know what flags the boat is flying. On my computer screen, I can trace the ship’s approximate path, following its voyage along the border of Diego Garcia’s marine protected area.[1] I can do all this because the boat has a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracker.


Popular histories of GPS and its applications — Google Maps, Geographic Information System (GIS), Global Fishing Watch, etc.—tell a story of inexorable progress. Over the course of the twentieth century, technologies like SONAR supplanted paper maps. Eventually, radionavigation and military satellite technology gave us GPS, the fundamental infrastructure for a globalized political economy in which international borders seem increasingly porous, traversable, and, for that very reason, contentious.

For William Rankin, these narratives are far too simple. In his new book, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century, he argues that GPS is not just a technological advancement. It is instead a spatial tool that reflected and replicated the ‘emerging logic of the grid.’ These systems, of which GPS is the latest iteration, embed the user in the experience of geographic space, rather than presenting her with a cartographic representation. They were not made to rest on paper surfaces. Rather, users began to locate themselves within a three-dimensional grid.

These shifts transformed the user’s geo-epistemology—the way in which representations of the world affect the user’s relationship to and understanding of reality itself. While traditional paper maps reinforced international boundary lines, these new technologies emphasized the regional interconnectedness intrinsic to air travel or oceanic navigation. In his broadest claim, Rankin argues that these changes in spatial knowledge paralleled — and perhaps hastened — worldwide shifts from a national-international to a regional-global divide. But even as GPS decouples cartography from state-based territory, it also marks national boundaries with more precision and stability. This is not to say that territoriality is now meaningless. As Rankin suggests, it has been redefined in the age of GPS.[2] Such a claim may seem paradoxical: how does GPS erect fences just as it tears them down?

Consider the island of Diego Garcia and the Taiwanese vessel circling it. That ship doesn’t get any closer because that would violate international law—it would be crossing into Diego Garcia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). An EEZ is critically important to any nation with a coastline. It extends a nation’s territory 200 nautical miles out into the open ocean, and grants the government exclusive oil and gas exploration permits as well as fishing rights. In ship control rooms, GPS maps display the boundary of the EEZ as a thick line cutting through an otherwise undifferentiated swath of ocean. Most fishing vessels, if they know they are being tracked by NGOs or state agencies, respect these electronic lines as though they were strings of buoys.

But Diego Garcia is more than just some point on a map. Diego Garcia has been a colonial outpost since the 1500s, used by the Portuguese, the British, and the United States, and is now part of the British-administered Chagos Archipelago. In the 1970s, the British forcibly removed over 1,500 islanders from the atoll to Mauritius, and the United States opened a massive military base on Diego Garcia. The base became one of six original U.S. Air Force ground stations originally used to deploy GPS. Along with outposts like Kwajalein in the Pacific and Ascension in the Atlantic, Diego Garcia provided the worldwide ground support network necessary for GPS satellites to go global. Without Diego Garcia, and without its accompanying history of colonial and neocolonial intervention, GPS would have been just one regional satellite mapping system among many.


Decolonizing the Map: Cartography from Colony to Nation—a collection of eight academic essays on colonial and postcolonial mapping projects, edited by James R. Ackerman—highlights hyper-local intersection points between cartography and colonialism in the Global South. The contributors, like Rankin, challenge the common tendency to view maps as passive representations of reality rather than active constructors of boundary lines and national identity. In the process, the collection grapples with many of the themes that go unaddressed in Rankin’s work: how do individual agents repurpose cartographic tools? How do dominant, state-sanctioned mapping systems come to dictate the rules of engagement, even for fervent anti-statists?

One of the central concepts that numerous authors in Ackerman's collection address is co-production. Co-production describes the relationship between technology and society, tracing the development of the technology through the ways in which it is used. Any cartographic tool, as Rankin argues, carries with it a certain geo-epistemology. But co-production helps us understand how those who expand a geographic technology’s use also affect its epistemological assumptions. In other words, geo-epistemology is never fixed: it changes as we use mapping technologies in new ways.

Ghanaian surveyors, for instance, played a key role in the development of British claims to the Gold Coast and their administration of the territory. As Jamie McGowan shows in his essay, these surveyors functioned as intermediaries. They modified British survey techniques to fit the landscape, co-producing British imperial tools. In the process, they thoroughly convinced themselves of the scientific neutrality of these technologies. Not only did these surveyors see the legend and symbols as apolitical, but many described their own roles — recording landmarks and inscribing the boundaries of British rule—as objective and technical, even as their professionalized performances earned them distinctions like ‘Black European.’ It’s unsurprising, then, that when the British left Ghana in 1957, the cartographic boundaries and ‘conventional signs’ they left behind remained the same, much to the surveyors’ satisfaction.

Similarly, Thomas Bassett argues in another essay in the Ackerman collection, South African road-mappers and road-trippers collaborated to create maps that reflected the interests of white South Africans. During apartheid, South African mapmakers enlarged sparsely populated white towns and deemphasized demographically-rich but infrastructurally-poor black townships. Designers at major road map companies cited their audience as an excuse: ‘we make maps for our members,’ that is, white businessmen and tourists. Mapmakers measured town size by the number of amenities rather than population because, to their audience, ‘a map of South Africa showing places based on population wouldn’t be recognizable.’ Since the maps were designed for a specific user, the user became implicated in both the map’s interpretation and creation. These apartheid-era relationships of co-production live on in post-apartheid road maps. Though inclusive toponyms and more historically accurate orthography are slowly changing South African road maps, ‘conventional’ sign systems normalized during periods of external and internal colonialism still dominate.

Co-production is critically important for our understanding of GPS. GPS makes local geographical knowledge accessible to an outside observer, be that a state planner, a satellite-environmentalist, or a tourist with a smartphone. The end to which the technology is used is up to the user. When organizations like SkyTruth — an original collaborator on the Global Fishing Watch project — fashion themselves as sky police, ready to take on polluting villains, they radically transform GPS by turning its quasi-imperial history on its head. Sky-Truth and other watchdog organizations aim to make geographic knowledge more accessible to on-the-ground activists trying to protect local resources from powerful extractive industrialists.

In the present moment, geographic knowledge is both consolidated and democratized; a single user can absorb more geographic knowledge from one location than ever before, but that same information is available to a much wider set of potential users. This can, as Rankin suggests, create a ‘geoslavery’ of tracking and surveillance. But it can also streamline humanitarian aid, give permanence to informal settlements, or keep fishing boats honest about their haunts. It is neither a military device nor a neutral source of geographic information. Like all mapping technologies, GPS functions on at least two levels. It accomplishes some explicit purpose, even as it reproduces certain assumptions about ownership and territory.

Though these notions of territory and ownership are undeniably colonial in origin, postcolonial resistance movements still make use of them. ‘Counter-mappers’ employ limited, non-usufruct definitions of property, claim ownership via Western survey techniques, and often privilege measurability and legibility over other aspects of knowledge. Indigenous forest management often requires staking claims to land via GPS and GIS technologies, foregoing more fluid definitions of ownership and boundaries in the process. In adopting primarily Western mapping technologies, decolonization movements have also subscribed to Western geo-epistemologies.

Take Diego Garcia, for example. When the Chagos Islanders were forcibly removed in the 1970s, they used the language of EEZs and legal property to claim exclusive Mauritian fishing rights within the marine protected area. In June of 2017, the United Nations General Assembly sent the decades-long territorial dispute between the British and the Chagos Islanders to the International Court of Justice for resolution. By using the language of EEZs, exclusive property rights, and legal semantics, the Chagossians may have implicitly embraced and accepted the very geographic concepts used to justify their displacement. This is another example of co-production. Here, though, Chagossians are expanding the future direction and capacity of these legal principles.

It is frustrating and somewhat fruitless to ponder whether GPS, launched ten years earlier, could have substantiated the original claims of the Chagossians and perhaps prevented their displacement. It is more productive to consider how they use technologies like GPS to reimagine and reclaim their rights today. Why attempt to rid oneself of all traces of the colonial past, when instead one can repurpose colonialism for one’s own ends?

This is to say that the work of decolonization—of maps and otherwise—may never be done, but it might also just be a fool’s errand. Decolonizing the Map and After the Map are testaments to the lasting influence of colonial technologies and their accompanying ideologies. But, rather than waxing nostalgic about the pre-colonial past or quixotic about a future free of colonial legacies, the authors all work with the postcolonial possibilities of colonial technology. They engage deeply with questions of hybridity and nuance, of representation and participation. And in the process they reveal what the map, its maker, and its user would rather keep concealed. Taken together, these two investigations of territory, objectivity, and colonial relationships leave the reader with an important truth. Maps don’t just describe what exists—they produce new realities.

[2] As I read through Rankin in a Panera Bread in suburban Maryland, I look up from my musings, checking to ensure that no one is staring. The man at the next table over looks up briefly and nods, then returns to his work. Trying not to stare myself, I note his Department of Homeland Security staff polo and Marines ball cap. Spread across his table is a creased, detailed road map, about twice as long as it is wide. I can’t figure out the what state it depicts—Illinois, maybe?  I almost can’t believe the irony. “State territoriality is alive and well, indeed.” Laughing softly, I return to After the Map.