The digital age has of course transformed maps—or geospatial applications, as they are known online—and the biggest winner has been Google, with its Earth application being downloaded by more than half a billion people, and its Maps becoming central to its domination of the online search market. Google has now taken its rightful place in the history of cartography, and is at the forefront of maps’ evolution from stone and papyrus to paper and now pixels. But there are concerns about the company’s monopolization of geographical data and its use of maps for primarily commercial ends. Nor does Google offer a ‘perfect map’ as it claimed recently: like maps throughout history, Google’s have to omit some things if they want to show others. It seems that rather than coming to the end of a chapter in the story of mapmaking, we are at the beginning of a fascinating new history of the world. And how it is mapped.
Jerry Brotton is a professor of Renaissance Studies at University of London and the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps.