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Maps and Power

Stephen Davies

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.

Cadastral Surveys

Maps and surveys of this kind were found to some degree in the ancient world but they disappeared with much else of the governing power of the great empires of antiquity during the sixth and seventh centuries. Such maps began to reappear during the late Renaissance, initially in Italy, latterly in the Netherlands, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

Before the creation of a cadastral survey this knowledge existed in the form of dispersed and tacit knowledge, scattered among many people and only accessible to those in a locality and then only partially. In this situation many kinds of action by rulers, particularly taxation but also control and regulation of the physical environment and people’s use of the land, were difficult or even impossible.

Cadastral surveys do not capture all this dispersed knowledge or even the greater part of it. They do, however, capture a significant part in a way that makes it simplified, standardized, and systematically organized or structured. This enormously increases the ability of rulers to act on society and control or direct human interactions, and so in turn to have great influence on the outcome of those interactions, whether intentionally or unintentionally. This point is explored by James C. Scott in his work Seeing Like a State.

The history of the United States shows this last point clearly. One of the first things undertaken by the government of the newly established republic in 1785 was a cadastral survey of the Northwest territories, which was subsequently expanded to all of the territory of the United States apart from the original colonies. This was the Public Lands Survey System, which has become a model for similar systems in many parts of the world. The initial idea was to use this capacity to create a society of independent freeholders. However, it has been used both consciously and unintentionally to very different ends.

The very act of capturing information in this way and the power it gave to rulers to direct and control the use of the land by private individuals and corporations meant that decisions made by the political class now had a huge influence on the course of settlement and development. All kinds of possibilities were excluded while others could be encouraged or directed. Thus the decision to divide the land surveyed into regular rectangular blocks produced a particular kind of urban settlement and development that would not have occurred had the dispersed local knowledge worked through informal institutions and private agreement. A whole range of government functions, in particular the control and regulation of much economic activity, is only possible because of the information captured in the maps and surveys.

Scott indicates that maps of this kind, by capturing a simplified version of the tacit knowledge of the local population, enable remote outsiders to have at least some knowledge of what the situation is on the ground (literally). This opens up a range of otherwise unavailable options for them. For example, it makes possible large-scale urban planning and redevelopment of the kind that became common in the United States after World War II. Instead of the spontaneous urban development described by Jane Jacobs, we have had the large-scale planned reconstruction advocated by her arch-nemesis Robert Moses. As Scott points out, this technique has also made possible catastrophic social “experiments” such as Soviet collectivization of agriculture and the Tanzanian “Ujaama” system of land reform.

Maps and surveys of this kind are not the only techniques that have aided the transformation of government, of course. Another, equally important, is the kind of accurate decennial census established in 1790 in the United States. Census-taking has a long history (as most of us will gather from reading the Gospels), but again it became much more systematic, extensive, and important from the early modern period on. Today a lot of what government does depends on the accuracy and completeness of the census, which is why taking part in it is enforced by such stringent penalties.

Limits of Knowledge

However, this also shows the ultimate limits of such techniques and the modern State that is based on them. Governments around the world today face increasing problems of noncompliance with and resistance to the census. Even if these difficulties can be overcome, there is an even more basic problem that affects maps and surveys even more. Although a cadastral survey is a powerful way of capturing and distilling tacit knowledge, it is inevitably imperfect. Much of the local, dispersed knowledge is never captured. What is captured is radically simplified and much of the subtlety and nuance are lost. This does not matter so much if the government activity is relatively simple. However, complex activities will simply not work.

In other words, although modern techniques give rulers and elites enormous powers that their predecessors did not have, they are still limited in what they can do effectively by the nature of knowledge and the limits of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Today large organizations—private ones, too, but above all government—are operating at or beyond the limits of their capacity in terms of what their foundational techniques will allow them to do effectively. This is one of the main reasons many programs and agencies are seen to be simply not working, and it is also why so many politicians and officials experience not power but frustration. Time to simplify and take a more modest view of what things like maps make possible in the modern world.

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