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Maps and Power

Written By: Stephen Davies  |  Posted: Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

            The modern world (meaning since the later eighteenth century) is different in several profound ways from earlier times. One of the most important of these is the nature and power of government. Modern States can do things beyond the reach of earlier ones, however large or aggressive. This expanded capacity is a feature of modern government whether it is actually used or not: It is always there as a possibility. The kind of extensive government we have now, the range of activities it undertakes, and the degree of control and regulation exercised by political elites over everyday human affairs were simply not possible in earlier times. Whether or not this capacity is used depends on beliefs, ideas, and interests, but the capacity itself has a different source. It derives from "technique," a category that includes technology but has a wider meaning. Above all it includes ways of organizing and understanding information.

            In this context a key technique and one of the most important foundations of the modern State is the map. The apparently neutral art of cartography is actually one of the main sources of modern political power. The most important aspect of this is the cadastral map or survey. Unlike a topographical map, it does not simply record the natural features of the terrain. It also captures, in a radically simplified and systematized form, a huge amount of knowledge of such matters as ownership, rights and entitlements, values, social relations, and obligations.

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