The democracy of maps

Land has long been private, but space has always been public, shared, universal. Moving through space is the most fundamental prerogative of a free being, human or not. The problem is not moving through space, but knowing where to go. After all, the condition of being lost has nothing to do with the freedom to move. You’re lose, evet – and especially – when you have all the space in the world.

All the space in the world. Space doesn’t have any meaning until it’s conquered, and one of the many things human cultures have always done was to set out on the conquest of space. Just like astronomy, calendars, temporal divisions and clocks constituted so many spoils during the human conquest of time, cartography and maps represented the chief gain from the conquest of space.

With Google Maps at our fingertips, it’s hard to think that there was a time when maps, like space, weren’t shared and universally available. In fact, for most of the history of cartography in the West, from Anaximander in the 6th century BC to the 16th century, useful maps – the ones that got you somewhere – were jealously guarded, almost like industrial secrets. Knowing where to go, usually for business and trade, offered an important competitive advantage. During the Age of Discovery, everyone had an idea of where the new lands were thanks to world maps circulating in books and atlases, but to get from one place to another, to avoid obstacles and ensure a smooth sailing or land journey, was knowledge in the hands of few enviable men.

The democratisation of maps cannot be understated. Almost anyone today has access to the most accurate maps and charts. For a fee, one can even purchase flight and nautical charts, the most precise cartographical tools. Although many of the tools required to make such incredible navigational instruments are not truly shared or made public – the GPS satellite network is an example –, we reap the benefits of this important type of democratisation.

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