The Ethics of Google Maps

Maps have been traditionally inherently deceiving. They are generally perceived as objective tools to assist in navigation, when really, the scope of their power is far reaching. Maps have the ability to promote specific ideologies, generally those of the creators, that are often entrenched in ethnocentrism and have vast political consequences. “Maps are cultural artefacts that are deeply implicated in the history of ideas; intrinsically linked to our conceptualisations of space; and inform our political and personal subjectivities” (Strom 2011, p.3). This has become increasingly true with the introduction of online mapping programs, such as Google Earth and Google Maps. These types of programs are essentially available to anybody with internet access and thus their influence is exponential as their popularity flourishes. 

Google-Maps

Image source.

The assumption that Google Maps is objective is dangerous because it clouds the numerous ethical issues surrounding the tool. It’s important to understand that Google is a giant digital empire whose revenue is earned mainly through advertising, thus Google Maps operates in order to generate profit. For example, if you delete all cookies, and thus personal information from Google Maps, the default starting position is an empty field next to the Coffeyyville Country Club golf course in Kansas – coincidentally a Google Maps advertiser (Strom 2011). Advertisers are also able to pay to upgrade their appearance on google maps and include their company logo. However the circumstances surrounding the hierarchy of advertisers is murky and unclear.

However, perhaps the biggest ethical breach of Google Maps is its promotion of Western ideology. On a low key scale, this can be seen in the symbol of a knife and fork used for Asian restaurants in Western countries, but also for all restaurants in Asian countries which is obviously not relevant. At a higher level, it involves under or misrepresentation of areas that are not important to Western interests, such as slums and forestry; and at a large scale it involves the censorship of certain areas.

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Or?

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It is becoming apparent that a tool taken to be void of any political agenda is actually quite the opposite. Maps, especially ones as popular as Google Maps are invasive because their ideological promotion is so subtle. However they have the ability to represent to users what is valid and relative. They can be manipulated by rich and powerful nations to hide unsavoury areas or present information very carefully. As explained by Monmonier, “all maps distort reality. All mapmakers use generalisation and symbolisation to highlight ritical information and to suppress detail of lower priority” (1991, p. 4) and Google Maps is certainly no exception.

References

Monmonier, M 1991, How to Lie with Maps, University of Chicago Press, London

Strom, T. E. 2011. ‘Space, Cyberspace and Interface: The Trouble with Google Maps’, M/C Journal, vol. 14, issue 3, pp. 3

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