11 Dec

Mapping meaning, making power: On gentrification, maps and global governance

How can critical cartography help us map space and power in a post-2015 world?

“During the war, we felt the silence in the policy of the governments of English-speaking countries. That policy was to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterward. The result was, of course, that the meanings were lost.” – Muriel Rukeyser

Returning to London after my studies at Oxford University was a disorienting experience. Places that were once intensely familiar to me, had been significantly reconfigured through the process of gentrification. If you live in a neighbourhood that has undergone gentrification, you may have experienced this disorienting feeling too. Gentrification eviscerates the social structures in a way that they are familiar enough to recognise but not familiar enough to have any specific meaning to your relationship with the neighbourhood.

One of the ways in which gentrification transforms social structures is the way poverty is transformed from a lived condition to an aesthetic. Previously run-down community markets full of vendors unable to (or unwilling) to afford property licenses remain shabby in appearance but only shabby enough to maintain the poverty chic attracting new droves of ‘cool’, subversive culture communities. Areas which used to be accessible to you, now make you feel like an act of transgression, as new stratified communities move in and spread out. Peckham, a neighbourhood once akin to war zones (remember the time MP Harriet Harman, wore a bullet proof vest while touring her constituency of Peckham?), features in publications such as Vogue as the place to be in town. Yet the communities heralded in these magazines are not the ones I recognise. The spaces in London where I used to feel visible are now invisible in the eyes of Vogue. I’d be hard-pressed to see a review of a Nigerian Suya restaurant in Peckham yet the newest bars littered in between are visible enough to be reviewed and given whatever must-see/must-visit/top pick rating the magazine in question uses. The places familiar to me are not placed on the map of the new Peckham and so remain outside the confines of visibility.

What gentrification reveals is the way power is constituted by and constitutive of space in the process of mapping. Accessibility to a space and visibility in a space represent different manifestations of the power-space nexus.

The map, from the medieval Latin phrase mappa mundi (sheet of the world), has transformed to reflect the structural changes happening in the world today. The decline of manual street maps is more a sign of the digital transformation in our current age rather than the declining significance of maps. New mapping technologies have increased the utility and degree of integration (interoperability) of the map in our daily lives.

Innovations such as Ushahidi by Juliana Rotich push the boundaries on how we can merge new mapping technologies and participatory development approaches to improve our response to humanitarian and development challenges.

New mapping technologies have also led to new ways of presenting the world. In addition to geographical representations of the world, information visualisations (i.e. info-graphics) present the world according to issue areas; poverty rates, gender pay gap, quality of education. This, I believe, is driven by the process of globalisation which has reconfigured the relationship between the local and the global or as William Robinson says, ‘globalisation fragments locally and integrates select strands of the population globally.’ Whether using a Peters map or an info-graphic, mapping is about visibility and when we talk about visibility, we are talking about power because visibility is an exercise in power.

Critical cartographers have been grappling with this power-space nexus for the last few decades. Critical cartography is a discipline which emerged as a practice to challenge the idea of mapping as an objective and scientific field of inquiry. Critical cartographers contend that mapping is a subjective process informed by the motives and the ideologies of the cartographer. This has implications for the tools used and the type of information the cartographer renders worthy to be made visible in a map.

There are at least two levels of analyses in critical cartography which are of interest to the post-2015 era and the way we conceptualise the relationships between space and power in global development.

Resisting the subject in mapping

The first level of analysis is the role of the subject (i.e. the cartographer or the infographic designer) in the process of mapping and the extent to which their power can be countered. Marian Doerk’s research article views critical cartography as an important contribution to challenging the subject’s power to shape, define and select reality for their interests and ideologies.  According to Doerk, a critical approach to info-visualisation challenges the mapper ‘to be aware of their own power and who is being empowered by the visualization, and conversely, who may be excluded due to issues of access to technology, literacy, perceptual abilities, gender, and other forms of oppression.’ Doerk proposes four principles to counter the power of the subject on the mapping process:

Disclosure: Sharing with the audience the approach, process and data put in/left out of the visualisation process

Plurality: Presenting the different opportunities for interpretation and presentation of the data (Fluidity in the process).

Contingency. Enabling as much as possible the role of the audience as cartographer by providing them the tools and the data to investigate what interests them and in doing so reach their own conclusions (Fluidity in the outcome of mappings).

Empowerment. In conjunction with the aforementioned principles, the process of mapping through information visualisation provides the audience with the capability to create mappings of the world which meet their own purposes, transforming mapping from ‘awareness to action.’

As the development community increasingly relies on infographics to disseminate research and raise awareness, these four principles can be useful tools to ensure that infographics do not further increase power imbalances in the process of knowledge production.

Mapping as normality

Another level of analysis in critical cartography, important to the post-2015 agenda, focuses on the nature of mapping. This line of inquiry proposes that mapping is not political because of the processes and the interests of the mapper. Rather, mapping is political because the idea of it is political.

Jeremy W. Crampton’s argues that there is no configuration of space which exists prior to the process of mapping. Crampton contends that configuring space is an act of power which has nothing to do with presenting reality and everything to do with presenting normality. To create a map, one must define what is in it and what remains outside of it. What is rendered inside of it, is made visible and consequently normal and what is put outside of it, is outside the confines of normality. An act of normalising is situated within a context that supports the boundaries the act produces. A projection of the world which is deemed to be normal is thus within social norms (behaviours, practices, acts, discourse) legitimising these boundaries.

Both Crampton and Doerk’s contributions to critical cartography are important but contradict each other on the point of mapping as normality. If cartography is about normalising rather than presenting reality, to what extent does Doerk’s four principles represent an aversion to normality in the post-2015 era?

In the context of challenging a centralised approach to mapping (i.e. one subject, one perspective) as normality, Doerk’s four principles does this as his focus is on plurality and decentralising power in mapping. Doerk’s principles of critical cartography would have been relevant to the mapping practices of the 20th century in which the normalised practice of mapping was having one voice, and one perspective presented.

However, when we contextualise Doerk’s four principles in today’s multipolar, globalised and digital world, his approach to critical cartography appears to affirm normality rather than counter it. His principles of disclosure, plurality, contingency, empowerment reify the conventions of today’s world which promotes plurality, customisation and individual autonomy as empowerment. This is not a negative thing but puts in to question how it can be a critical approach.

The state of maps

Another area to explore with regard to the relationship between power and space in the context of the post-2015 era is the role of the state. As new mapping technologies focus on maximising the autonomy of the individual and more broadly, global civil society as actors in global governance, the role of the state is not shrinking but rather transforming.  Let us not forget that mapping technologies such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) which are now accessible to civilians were initially created and used by state military agencies in the 20th century.

Mapping, the process of making visible this world, is still an exercise which states use to reinforce existing geopolitics. This research piece reveals how Google and Bing Maps alter their geographical maps to ‘meet government requirements and user preferences’; in other words, tailor ‘contentious’ political borders which different territories claim ownership over.

As the spatial knowledge of global politics shifts from international relations to global governance, critical cartography has important contributions to make to international development’s conceptualisations of space and power and the ways this relationship may or may not be changing. As Crampton and Doerk show, how we define this relationship will have important implications for policy and action.

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