• Digital Doxa

The Geopolitical Rhetorics of Networked Mapping - Jeremy David Johnson

Chances are good that you’ve opened up a map-based app in the last week, be it Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze, or even a game like Pokémon Go. These apps now blend seamlessly into our everyday lives, helping us navigate cities, find restaurants, and discover new favorite spots. Networked maps are convenient and helpful, but their role is much more important; as Amber Davisson (2011) contends, many maps “help us to locate ourselves on a more philosophical level, and work to build our identity in relationship to our location in the world” (p. 109). Accordingly, networked maps are an unsurprising location of social and political contention, wherein struggles over representation carry significance well beyond the pixels displayed on screen. In 2018, for example, a “vandal” or “hacker” modified data in OpenStreetMaps to rename New York City “Jewtropolis,” which briefly displayed in apps like Snapchat that used OSM (Gallagher, 2018). But even when map systems aren’t vandalized or hacked—when they’re working “as intended”—they’re not objective, neutral, and apolitical. Mapping apps define, label, and affect flow in the “IRL” world. The collective identities of businesses, neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations are all shaped by mapping systems, making them key agents in today’s networked geopolitics. As I’ll explore in this post, mapping systems, and Google Maps in particular, are important political vectors. Despite claims otherwise, networked mapping is a fundamentally rhetorical and political enterprise.

Google’s long-term plan, according to Wired’s Greg Miller (2014), is to make Google Maps a comprehensive and constantly updating system for mapping the “Ground Truth” of the world. The language of ground truth is fascinating for many reasons, not least of which is its connection to the military, where the term is used to describe the observable reality of the world.[1] Here, as elsewhere, tech companies showcase their desire to capture truth and reality through data collection and algorithmic filtering; “The algorithmic technification of the calculating human mind extends to a geospatial and multitemporal scale” (Ernst, 2018, p. 165). This hope might be feasible when it comes to natural features (though those are ever-changing as well), but it’s far-fetched to believe that data alone can understand all the patterns of human thought, movement, and interaction that collectively make up geography. Christopher Schmidt (2011) observes that “a new awareness of digital media’s ability to misrepresent the world has resulted in a compensatory impulse toward making photography and writing more apparently indexical and grounded, if not real” (p. 305). Similarly, awareness of slippage in mapping seems to have made Google more determined to map “ground truth” and bolster its authority as the indexer of the “real world,” making the company an important geopolitical actor.

In 2010, Google published a blog post entitled “Improving the quality of borders in Google Earth and Maps.” In that post, Geo Policy Analyst Charlie Hale (2010) claimed, “In the case of geopolitical features on our maps, the depiction of borders is something upon which local authorities, governments, and internationally recognized bodies often disagree. Our goal is to provide the most legible and accurate maps we can given the information available in these oft-changing areas of geopolitical disagreement.” If the company wants to map borders, Google has to take a political position. Even the cop-out of a dashed line to signify contestation is, in itself, a political declaration. According to Jordan Branch (2011), “Since mapping played a key role in the foundation of modern sovereign statehood . . . contemporary changes in cartographic technologies could undermine or transform that foundation” (p. 29). By pulling conflicts over borders and other sites out of the sole authority of nation-states and global bodies and into multinational corporations, networked mapping re-orients geopolitical power relations: “these technologies are again outside the exclusive control of political actors . . . nonpolitical motivations may lead to new depictions, potentially changing how actors negotiate over space, make political claims, or conceive of political authority or community” (Branch, 2011, p. 30). While the role of multinational corporations is novel, though, the role of technology is not: geopolitics has always been determined in part by cartographic technologies, from surveying techniques to the creation and distribution of maps designed for particular political ends.

Networked mapping’s role in geopolitics might be best characterized as layering new dynamics (via data politics) on top of established patterns. Wolfgang Ernst (2018) claims, “City streets are no longer simply physically and bodily conquered but navigated along metadata, shaped by web infrastructures” (p. 168). Controlling data means controlling movement and flow, which is why artist Simon Weckert recently rolled down the streets of Berlin with a wagon filled with 99 phones, making Google Maps believe there was a traffic jam (Barrett, 2020). The integration of digital technology into physical space may seem radical, whether in the sense of Weckert’s wagon or in the disruptive technologies of rideshares, food delivery, and augmented reality. Yet, as Agnieszka Leszczynski (2015) argues, “reality may be understood in terms of mediation, i.e. as always-already mediated. This is the notion that reality is always the product of the myriad intersections and mutual constitution of technology, society, and space relations that are themselves the products, or effects, of mediation” (p. 731). I agree wholly with Leszczynski, which is why Google’s efforts to map “ground truth” are perplexing: Google is not an outside observer, but, a powerful creator of networked topography—an ever-changing space (topos) written (graphed) in data and code. As a result, geopolitical contestation doesn’t just come in the form of nation-state politics; it also manifests in the corporate practices of Google, the usage patterns of consumers, and in the rhetorical actions and resistance of citizens.

Figure 1: Google Maps screenshot displaying a dotted line between Crimea and Ukraine

The geopolitics of networked maps implicates the rhetoricity of digital mapping. Google has recently found itself mired in political turmoil as Google Maps has become a site for geopolitical contestation. Consider some headlines from the past couple years: “Russia accuses Google Maps of ‘topographical cretinism’ [in regards to Ukraine]” (Taylor, 2016); “Behind China’s Firewall, Google Maps Shows Nine-Dash Line [near Taiwan and the Philippines]”(Abkowitz, 2016); “Google Maps accused of deleting Palestine – but the truth is more complicated” (Cresci, 2016); and so on. In each of these cases, Google Maps has been a continued site of geopolitical tension, particularly when borders are contested. J.B. Harley (1989) claims that “all maps are rhetorical texts” that “state an argument about the world,” and that “we ought to dismantle the arbitrary dualism between ‘propaganda’ and ‘true,’ and between modes of ‘artistic’ and ‘scientific’ representation as they are found in maps” (p. 11) Data collection, contextual interpretation, and algorithmic filtering are all rhetorical processes that shape physical movement and symbolic interaction. The techno-scientific frame of “ground truth” serves to obfuscate the inherent rhetoricity of networked mapping; it treats a mobile device as a passive window into concrete physical spaces, rather than recognizing the constitutive power of the device in creating and recreating the map, physical spaces, and collective identities.

Figure 2: Image of Google Maps failing to identify Palestine

I’ve thought a lot recently about the purported divide between “real” and “digital” spaces. These no longer make sense as separate ontological categories. We’ve fulfilled William Mitchell’s (1999) prediction that “the distinction between building and computer interface will effectively disappear. Inhabitation and computer interaction will be simultaneous and inseparable” (p. 60). The digital devices through which we access geolocative media help us interface with our worldly surroundings; as Leszczynski (2015) contends, “our mediated, material realities . . . are themselves produced, in relation to objects (spatial media), as an (interface) effect of the encounter between the technical, human, and spatial” (p. 743). “An interface connects,” as Jeff Rice (2012) tells us (p. 114), drawing relations among humans, machines, and physical spaces. Thus, the interface isn’t just a mobile device, but rather a system—in this case, a mapping system—that mediates reality.

These observations fit well with a definition of rhetoric I’ve increasingly adopted lately: rhetoric is a means for interfacing with the world. Rhetorical processes draw connections among people, nonhuman animals, technologies, and physical phenomena. These processes might be symbolic and verbal, as in an oral tradition of rhetoric, or they might take place through algorithmic systems that convert data into procedures for movement and interaction. As a means of interfacing with the world, rhetoric can explore how humans, digital technologies, and physical spaces are mediated and co-constituted. In the example of Google Maps, its network mapping encourages certain patterns of movement, uses symbols and representation to cultivate and shape individual and collective identities, and provides opportunities for participation, intervention, and resistance. The techniques for interfacing through and with Google Maps, then, are rhetorical and political, reinforcing the need to reject claims to objective and mathematical “ground truths.”

We need to have continued conversations about the power and politics of networked mapping systems and data regimes. Miranda Bogen (2016) rightly argues that “we should be looking closely at the decisions that the Googles and Facebooks of the world are making in the international political context. Maps, place names and borders are just the tip of the iceberg.” Indeed, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other tech giants wield immense (geo)political power, accumulating wealth in both cash and data. Their data systems have wide-ranging effects that should be scrutinized and overseen on a global scale. More locally, by recognizing the rhetoricity of these systems, we can use rhetorical techniques to interface with them and alter power relations. Stuffing 99 phones in a toy wagon may just be the start. What’s next is up to us.

[1]For an example, see how one military analyst casually uses the phrase to describe the reality of the world: (Mills, 2019, p. 46)


Abkowitz, A. (2016, September 13). Behind China’s Firewall, Google Maps Shows Nine-Dash Line. Wall Street Journal. https://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2016/09/13/behind-chinas-firewall-google-maps-shows-nine-dash-line/

Barrett, B. (2020, February 3). An Artist Used 99 Phones to Fake a Google Maps Traffic Jam. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/99-phones-fake-google-maps-traffic-jam/

Barwari, R. (2018, December 26). Google erases Kurdistan from maps in compliance with Turkish gov. Kurdistan24. https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/e6a0b65e-84fa-447b-9ed4-5df8390961d3

Berger, M. (2017, December 10). When Waze Won’t Help, Palestinians Make Their Own Maps. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/palestine-jerusalem-mapping/

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Hale, C. (2010, July 20). Improving the quality of borders in Google Earth and Maps. Google Lat Long. https://maps.googleblog.com/2010/07/improving-quality-of-borders-in-google.html

Harley, J. B. (1989). Deconstructing the map. Cartographica, 26(2), 1–20.

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Miller, G. (2014, December 8). The Huge, Unseen Operation Behind the Accuracy of Google Maps. https://www.wired.com/2014/12/google-maps-ground-truth/

Mills, G. (2019). Revisiting “A Soldier’s Guide to Rhetorical Theory”: Intelligence Analysis in the Open. In J. Ridolfo & B. Hart-Davidson (Eds.), Rhet ops: Rhetoric and information warfare (pp. 33–53). University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Taylor, A. (2016, July 29). Russia accuses Google Maps of ‘topographical cretinism.’ Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/07/29/russia-accuses-google-maps-of-topographical-cretinism/

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