Google Maps & Cartographic Discrimination Against Africa

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 4/28/2014 12:01:00 AM
Oh, the burdens of having ignorant Westerners relate to Africa--a continent that is largely a mystery to them. US television network CBS received much flak for playing Toto's hit "Africa" over mournful footage of Nelson Mandela's funeral. Aside from "Africa" being a composition of an LA band, Toto had never even been to the continent when it released the song back in 1982. Surely there are African performers of note known even to the least curious of Westerners such as Youssou N'Dour, Hugh Masekela, King Sunny Ade or Ladysmith Black Mambazo?

Whatever the case, the example of paying "tribute" to South Africa's deceased leader with "authentic" music is but one in a series of continuing slights against Africa by Westerners. I tend to view the matter on the more optimistic side: the CBS producers were not consciously belittling Africa, African music or African culture. Rather, their limited perspectives tend to present a bland, samey view of the World According to White People. Hence my criticism of much IPE produced by the hegemony of Western universities as "White PE." These scholars may not be trying to parade their ignorance so clumsily--save for a few--but their analysis tends to be limited since (as I've said) they usually represent "lots of monolingual white guys at American and British universities talking to each other and calling it 'international.'"

Today's Western offender du jour is Google. This California outfit is ostensibly about not being evil and observing proper lefty behavior about respecting other cultures. As it turns out, however, they too are guilty of slighting Africa in a way their predecessors have by using the Mercator projection of the world map. From James Wan (not the actor):
[O]ne particular model gradually surpassed all the others to become the world map that is now ubiquitous on classroom walls, in books and now even on Google Maps. For many people today, that projection − invented by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569 − is the world map.

The main reason Mercator's projection became so popular was because of its navigational usefulness; in his map, straight lines represent lines of constant compass bearing. However, in manipulating the map to ensure this feature, the sizes of countries become hugely distorted. In particular, the southern hemisphere appears much smaller than it is in reality.

For instance, in the Mercator projection (below), North America looks at least as big, if not slightly larger, than Africa. And Greenland also looks of comparable size.
But in reality, Africa eclipses both. As is apparent in the Gall-Peters equal projection map (below), you can fit North America into Africa and still have space for India, Argentina, Tunisia and some left over. Greenland meanwhile is one-fourteenth the size of the continent.
So Google stands accused of replicating prejudices that show the white man's lands are "bigger" than those of others. Is Google really being hypocritical in violating their so-called motto of "Don't Be Evil"? My guess is that it is again an unconscious decision stemming from not knowing any better being stuck behind computers all day and not really striving to understand other people, places or cultures. Wan then delivers the knockout blow that even if Google knew any better, they still would use the Mercator projection since there isn't anything much of (commercial) interest in the vast African continent from a moneymaking perspective:
Google relies on advertising for almost the entirety of its nearly $60 billion annual income. One way to think of Google's business model is that its massive advertising revenue allows it to offer its services free of charge. But another way to think of it is that the near monopoly the company achieves by providing its ubiquitous services for free gives it the dominance necessary to generate those ad dollars in the first place. Google's corporate motto may be 'Don't Be Evil', but it's bottom line is still 'Make A Profit'.

It is arguably this reality that has led Google to spend massive sums of money on developing Google Maps, but which also affects what is put in and what is left off its maps. "It is telling that some townships in South Africa are just blank spaces on the map," says [cartographer] Brotton...

[I]t is much harder to quickly highlight Google Maps' particularity because there are no real alternatives to which we can look. We can imagine that if all of Google's data and programming ability was suddenly in the hands of a Namibian agriculturalist, a Sahelian nomad or a Senegalese fisherwoman, the maps they would conjure up would be completely different. They might well prioritise soil types over Starbucks, wells over Walmarts and the state of land degradation over panoramic streetviews of American towns. But we can only imagine. As was the case a century ago, it is still just a small group of Western individuals with specific ideas of the world that have the resources to map the world [my emphasis].
And to think that all these years we've been fed a steady diet of white persons' biases by literally grinding Africa small. The cartographer Jerry Broton explains in his book that just as history is written by the victors, so are maps drawn by them to reinforce their biases. I'm saddened but not surprised, and hope this post makes some amends. On this matter we can (correctly) reference Toto:

I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become...  

UPDATE: It is true that some cartographers do not consider the Gall-Peters projection accurate either and prefer the Robinson projection or the even newer Winkel tripel projection. Fair enough, but keep in mind that both do the same thing as the Gall-Peters projection in rendering Africa significantly larger in relation to Western Europe and North America than the hoary Mercator projection.