As we live our lives increasingly in the digital realm, the sights, sounds, and moving images of the internet impact our conception of the world around us. Take, for example, the many online mapping services. What began as simple tools to find driving directions have evolved into advanced applications that map multiple layers of data.
But who decides what we see? What features are considered sufficiently important to be included? And what information about our country do those design decisions make invisible?
As a fan of Google Maps, I became accustomed to a visual style that favors brevity and aesthetics over sheer volumes of information. Until recently, when you used Google Maps, this is the type of image you’d get of the U.S.:
Notice the light grayish splotches that I circled in red in states such as South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona? Even if you zoomed in, they remained unnamed, mysterious features.
Google Maps has been updated since that screenshot was taken; here’s the map of South Dakota you get today:
Now the mysterious blotches have disappeared from the map altogether.
I happened to click on a link that took me to Bing Maps. I ended up scrolling around, and I noticed something different:
What were just discolored gray geometric shapes in the first Google map, and disappeared altogether in the second one, actually have names on Bing! They are Native American reservations. Yet even when you zoomed in on Google Maps, you never saw a single label that identified these gray areas in South Dakota (or any other state) as political and geographic entities with names.
Among the other map services, Yahoo! Maps and MapQuest do label Indian reservations while OpenStreetMap does not.
Some enterprising Google Earth enthusiasts also wondered about the absence of reservations — which are, after all, sovereign political entities — and have since created several unique layers that identify and outline Indian reservations throughout the United States.
While these mapping tools certainly empower the individual, it is the designers and the developers behind them who hold the real power. I can only speculate as to why Google Maps did not include the labels and then opted to remove Indian reservations altogether, but their decision impacts the way we understand (or don’t understand) the geographic and social reality of this country.
Stephen Bridenstine is pursuing a history masters degree at the University of British Columbia, where he studies popular attitudes and public memory concerningIndigenous peoples, the historic fur trade, and the natural environment. He blogs about non-Native America’s weird obsession with everything “Indian” at his blog Drawing on Indians. He allowed us to include some of his observations about the inconsistent representation of Native American reservations in online map programs.
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