"Google has inadvertently waded into disputes from Israel to Cambodia to Iran"
July 18, 2010 1:26 PM   Subscribe

The Agnostic Cartographer : How Google’s open-ended maps are embroiling the company in some of the world’s touchiest geopolitical disputes.
posted by desjardins (23 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The map of the contested territories in palestine is very, very confusing.
posted by tehloki at 1:43 PM on July 18, 2010

Correct me if I'm wrong, much of this is from memory.

Much earlier than this, I believe there was a Windows time zone selector that placed the Kuril islands in Japan, rather than Russia.

The outcry was great enough that Microsoft decided not to highlight borders any more in the selector.
posted by poe at 1:47 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Armenians and Azerbaijanis are constantly requesting Google map/earth name changes for contested territories.
posted by k8t at 1:50 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm just glad that my house finally showed up on Google Maps after being a dirt lot for two years. I exist again! Google hath validated me!
posted by Burhanistan at 1:51 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

And will the street names in Helsinki, Finland ever change from Swedish to Finnish?
posted by infini at 1:51 PM on July 18, 2010

Well, we know they have a trend of putting librarians' towns in lakes so somehow, this is unsurprising...
posted by Alterscape at 2:04 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

And will the street names in Helsinki, Finland ever change from Swedish to Finnish?

We'll get right on that. In the meantime, would you mind using Russian?
posted by Sys Rq at 2:04 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

To be fair to the article, coding errors and other anomalies are very different from the kinds of social issues people have with maps being drawn certain ways. It's kind of amusing that a company that generates its revenue from clickads and uses some of that to fund neat tools is looked to as some kind of final authority on geopolitical boundary definition. It's also kind of scary.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:07 PM on July 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

Correct me if I'm wrong, much of this is from memory.

Well, we know it isn't from reading the article :)
posted by Chuckles at 2:10 PM on July 18, 2010

Well I think they said the same about Microsoft when the big hoo haa about the India/Kashmir/Pakistan border stuff took place

its all imperialism if you ask me
posted by infini at 2:10 PM on July 18, 2010

As Poe mentions, there used to be an active world map in Windows to set the time zone. You could click anywhere on the map and the time zone would be set. This was a great user interface. The political fallout from it, though, became an international incident. I think the primary border dispute was Punjab, though, not the Kuril Islands.

For the next release of Windows, the map was still there, but it did nothing. There were no time zone lines, and clicking on the map did nothing. As a software engineer, in my world of nifty user interfaces not politics, I suddenly became aware that I have to be aware of the politics anyway.

Some places don't have canonical names, countries, or even time zones (especially historically). Google had to have known up front that this was going to be an issue when they released Maps and Earth. They seem to be dealing with it as best they can, but it is going to be an ongoing issue for them. As an international company trying to make money in countries on both sides of a border dispute, it is going to be very difficult for them to navigate without annoying both sides of the border.
posted by Xoc at 2:15 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wait, so Google knows everything, and they can't get this right?
posted by Solomon at 2:29 PM on July 18, 2010

@Burhanistan "coding errors and other anomalies are very different from the kinds of social issues people have with maps being drawn certain ways."

I think the implicit message I got from reading this article is that this line is becoming increasingly irrelevant: Google, the online tools we use have become so pervasive to society. These tools don't merely serve a technical utility, to influencing, and possibility dictating our future sociopolitical discourse.

It's scary, but kind of exciting.
posted by artificialard at 2:31 PM on July 18, 2010

And about that Windows Time-Zone-Setting map:
The Great Polish Sea
posted by hexatron at 2:33 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

That cartography is political was made very clear to me while watching Michael Palin's awesome TV series Around the World in 80 Days when, in Saudi Arabia, he discovers that none of the maps or globes show the existence of Israel.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 2:45 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The map is the territory.
posted by Nelson at 3:29 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I remember being surprised to discover at the age of eight or so that the inhabitants of the nation of Germany for some reason referred to it as "Deutschland". I wondered at the time why the rest of us didn't use their name for their country, and quickly discovered that the practice was near-universal. Almost every language had special names for places that were completely different from the names of the same place in other languages, many un-pronouncable (by English-speakers) or written in non-English alphabets.

Just making the local name canonical seems the easiest solution at first glance but local names aren't necessarily canonical. Some nations have two or more official languages, and different names in each.

Tagging is probably the only way to make it work. You can call a place whatever you like, and only if enough others independently agree will your name for it be displayed. Although in a world that contains 4chan, "the inhabitants of 4chan call this place Pen Island", is a very likely outcome.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:38 PM on July 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Are you dissing Pen Island?!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:22 PM on July 18, 2010

Why did Google have that perfect set of Chinese names lying around, ready to swap in for the Indian ones?

It's called Internationalisation, and it's how most software available to global audiences is set up to work. Managing all of the translations is a tricky job which software can sometimes simplify. Keeping different localisations from bleeding into each other remains one of the hard challenges in version control.
posted by honest knave at 11:41 PM on July 18, 2010

If you want signs of "true" softpower, forget Google: look at globes and printed maps. Virtually _all_ the globes and world-maps I see sold here in Singapore's book-shops (except for Nat-Geo ones) show Arunachal Pradesh as part of China.

Without going into whether that's acceptable or not (my personal view is that ArP is a "good" cause for India, mostly coz most of the locals want status-quo, special status under the Indian constitution), the persistence of the Chinese view in globally available maps is a bigger demonstration of softpower than Google or MS can ever demonstrate. You can't really use PetitionOnline or something for this.
posted by the cydonian at 12:43 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The maps of the future won't display borders, roads, cities, or bodies of water. Instead everyone will just get an unmarked sphere and they can mark on anything they want.

Borders exist only in people's minds, and no opinion is any more right than another - popularly held beliefs? If we believed those, we'd still have flat-earth maps. Given that my opinions on geography are as accurate as anyone else's who is Google to just *decide* that Texas is bigger than New York?
posted by Mike1024 at 1:26 AM on July 19, 2010

no opinion is any more right than another

Depends how many guns and how much money you have.
posted by desjardins at 7:57 AM on July 19, 2010

Not to make light of centuries of nationalism and other such jingoism, but in reading about the Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf brouhaha, I realized if there was a online map that was listing a name I had a problem with, I would just go looking for a greasemonkey script to suppress it for me rather than control what other people's options were.

I don't like to highlight the differences between "you/them" and "me", but I think that's one that's a fundamental* one.

* - pun intended
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:04 AM on July 19, 2010

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