Mapping the Road to Nowhere: Google in Iqaluit

Google Street View's Karin Tuxen-Bettman crosses the Arctic tundra in IqaluitYesterday’s Guardian had an interesting story on Google’s mapping of Iqaluit, the capital of Canada’s northern territory of Nunavut. For students of Arctic imaginaries like me (and my co-author Jeremy Tasch, who sent me the link), it’s fascinating how both Google and the Guardian journalist combine two very different imaginaries of the Arctic held by outsiders: The Arctic as an inhospitable, remote place of mysterious paths (Northwest Passages?) and polar bears that can be conquered only through brute determination, and the Arctic as a land of wise local people who know its secrets and whose indigenous knowledge must be respected. At one level, the two imaginaries appear to be diametrically opposed to each other: According to the first, the Arctic is a potential object of conquest, whereas under the second it is a site that outsiders must treat with humility and respect. But the news story, as well as the much longer history of colonial encounters, makes it clear that in fact the second imaginary can be mobilized in support of the former. This point, in turn, connects with a broader body of scholarship on how ‘feminine’ narratives of exoticism and encounters can support ‘masculinist’ ideals of domination, including in the Arctic.

The other fascinating thing about the story is Google’s decision to map in the winter. The article states that this choice was made so as to show some of Iqaluit’s surfaces and paths, before they disappear in the summer. Perhaps, but of course there are also features in the summer that disappear in the winter, so I’m sceptical about this explanation. I can’t help but wonder if the decision was so that Google could produce a more ‘Arcticky’ image for outsiders. In addition, the decision to map in winter made for good PR: Having intrepid Google employees trudging in the snow allows Google to place news stories about, well, intrepid Google employees trudging in the snow. This further burnishes the image of the company as one that knows no limits in its mission to map the earth, and as one that has the technological savvy and the sensitivity to local knowledge to do this right.

Finally, Google’s explicit acknowledgment of the seasonality of mapping constitutes a rare admission by the Western cartographic industry that every map is a representation of time as well as a representation of space. This has always been a problem for StreetView, since it captures some of the aspects of a place that are most variable temporally. However, temporal flux in the Arctic is extreme (both seasonally and due to climate change), making its geographic representation (in both the cartographic and non-cartographic sense of the word) particularly challenging, and this has knock-on effects for the institutions of sovereignty, identity, territory, etc.

Phil S.

6 thoughts on “Mapping the Road to Nowhere: Google in Iqaluit

    • I think the decision to map in winter comes down to mobility. There is a lot more area accessible when winter roads are still frozen in place (i.e. across vast expanses of water and/or swamp). Perhaps they could overcome this and map in summer using boats?

  1. You’re probably right, although in the article you just get a sense of the immobility and inhospitable nature of a frozen environment. I think ultimately this article may say as much about the Guardian journalist (viz. the headline) as it does about Google. Still, it’s interesting that Google switched from summer mapping in Cambridge Bay to winter mapping in Iqaluit. I wonder if locals in Cambridge Bay told them, “You’re crazy trying to do this in the ‘inhospitable’ summer” and Google learned its lesson.

  2. Pingback: The Arctic This Week: 30 March 2013 – 5 Apr 2013 | Alaska News Feed

  3. Pingback: The Arctic This Week: 30 March 2013 – 5 Apr 2013 |

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