Cartographic City: mobile mapping as a contemporary urban practice – Clancy Wilmott

Abstract: As the contemporary city becomes a site of complex negotiations between technology and people, the ubiquity of digital maps is disrupting traditional spatial paradigms. Here, the texts of the urban imagination are becoming increasingly geo-coded, changing constantly on servers updated with information by millions of people and are accessed on multi-functional mobile devices. The future challenge for researchers is to find new methods and theoretical frameworks so that the wider implications of context-dependent digital mobile maps may be understood.


Figure 1 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Sydney

How many maps, in the descriptive or geographical sense, might be needed to deal exhaustively with a given space, to code and decode all its meanings and contents? It is doubtful whether a finite number can ever be given to this sort of question. What we are most likely confronted with here is a sort of instant infinity, a situation reminiscent of a Mondrian painting. It is not only the codes — the map’s legend, the conventional signs of map-making and map-reading — that are liable to change, but also the objects represented, the lens through which they are viewed and the scale used. We are confronted not by one social space but by many indeed, by an unlimited multiplicity or unaccountable set of social spaces.[1]

 I opened Google Maps for Mobile and I searched for ‘Sydney’ (fig.1).


What I got was Sydney, city of foreshores and freeways, traffic routes and train stations. A Sydney so easily presented, just as if one day I happened to be flying over with the seagulls and snapped a picture, and then took it home to scribble over it with highlighters. In this Sydney, the sum of the inner suburbs are ordered with varying font sizes, eliminating Kings Cross and Redfern, Woolloomooloo, Wynyard Chippendale, Camperdown, Strawberry Hills and the Rocks – all geographically in the heart of the city, but not marked. There’s a big red pin dropped down on Town Hall, (co)incidently, marking ‘Sydney’, at its centrepoint (although more (co)incidently, not at Centrepoint). And over in the left-hand corner sits a little blue dot, myself, waiting patiently on the edge of a search result coded to be just wide enough to include both Sydney and I together.

This is a special kind of Sydney – it’s a Sydney that sits in my pocket, that I can look at whenever I want. It’s a Sydney that I can dress up in red and green traffic lines, or satellite images and coloured pins; or dress down into yellow streets and orange highways, and faded outlines of buildings on grey pantone blocks.

I could choose another Sydney. I could choose a Sydney that is covered in eating establishments, view tales of ice-cream and pancakes; or a Sydney full of friends conversing with one another, meeting up and drifting off.

Or, I could build my own Sydney – create my own places and add my own photos, tag my location and leave accounts of my experiences. I could document my street corner, or the chewing gum stuck to the footpath, the shops that have been shut down or my favourite pieces of graffiti. I can make almost infinite snapshots of Sydney through infinite accounts, stories that sit on digital maps carried about on mobile phones by thousands of people, which change information second to second, coordinate to coordinate, app to app.

The minute I switch on my mobile phone, I encounter these many versions of Sydney – and the possibility of many more. These interpretations may be cobbled together over the comforting and familiar backgrounds of traditional maps or hidden within the application’s functionality, entirely contrived by global positioning systems (GPS) and software code: “Facebook for iPhone Would Like To Use Your Current Location” – okay, if you say so.

The Sydney that I find on a mobile phone is a cartographic city. It is so completely dominated by and reliant on geo-coding systems, that it is impossible to avoid maps or to express the city without them. Maps form the architecture of the mobile city: they direct flows, produce spaces and position places. And the people who use them are engaged in everyday mapping practices, mediating their encounters with the city by reading maps and making maps, magnifying their experiences across multiple communities and landscapes.

As such, this paper proposes two things: firstly, that maps have moved beyond a simple textual interface to become dynamic and directive interfaces, capable of intertwining themselves into everyday practices; and secondly, that their influence on everyday practices is building new experiences and images of the city that are firmly grounded in epistemologies and ontologies – cartographic and otherwise.

The applications

Of all the maps and applications that may be used on mobile phones in Sydney, this paper focuses on just three – Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Google Maps for Mobile. Each of these applications has been selected because they perform subtly different functions, and are exemplary of the different ways that mobile maps engage the user, cartographic principles and the urban environment.

By choosing apps, rather than simply maps, this paper is also engaging in an expanded view of what constitutes ‘a map’. Not simply technical, cartographic drawings or prints, maps differ widely across time and culture. The rise of ‘critical cartography’ in the 1990’s saw a move away from assumptions that cartography was a scientific endeavour, which sought objectivity and accuracy as its aims. Instead, a new field of scholarship was produced, whereby critical geographers and cartographers built on the earlier work of theorists such as Michel Foucault[2] by deconstructing the map and arguing that the it, like any text was a deeply ideological social construct.[3]

Within critical cartography, however, discussion wasn’t simply limited to the power of maps: the argument over what constituted ‘a map’ was also important. Geographers such as John Pickles[4] and Mark Monmonier[5] pointed to a hegemonic western ideaology of ‘cartographic reason’ that privileged rhumb lines and politics. The consequences of this, they argued, was that is was forgotten that maps were simply representations of spaces and places, and that thousands of years of map-making practices, from cave drawings to Pacific Island tidal maps to the artworks and posters of the Situationist Internationale, had largely been ignored.

Thus, although two of the three selected applications, are not traditional maps, they have major roles in the contemporary popular representation of spaces and places. They also all operate using cartographic representations, and are based around the familiar framework of the map.

Facebook Places is an application developed from the social networking site Facebook, that utilises GPS technology to enable users to “check-in” at various locations by selecting a particular place from a list provided, specific to the user’s location. Combining location data and user information from Facebook, Facebook Places lists the ‘friends’ who have also checked-in nearby.

Similarly, foursquare can be integrated with Facebook and works in the same fashion as Facebook Places – as a ‘check-in’ style app that uses the phone’s GPS capabilities to provide a list of check-in locations. foursquare also houses a comment thread for each location, and the user with the most check-ins in the location is rewarded with a ‘Mayoralty’ in that location, a title that can bring benefits of discounts or bonuses, badges, and other incentives to continue checking in, in future.  Both apps allow users to record their own, personalised locations (for example, someone’s house), which can then be listed for other users to see and check-in.

Google Maps for Mobile is a more generic mapping application, using information from the Google Maps website optimised for a mobile platform.[6] It also incorporates GPS capabilities not available for its desktop version, that display’s the user’s location on the map via a small blue dot. Google Maps for Mobile’s main functionality is direction-based, with a search function, and information display options (style of map and traffic conditions) and can interacts with Google Latitude, an extended social networking tool that broadcasts the user’s location to a set of approved friends.

Mobile devices and software-texts

Even though these apps may be described as maps and are cartographic in nature, the assumption that ‘the map’ is a static representational object is no longer accurate, and deconstructionist approaches of critical cartography are no longer adequate for understanding digital processes of representation. [7]  A focus only on the semiotics of cartography, the glyphs and symbols that give the graphic map meaning hazards an incorrect underlying assumption that a screen is an easy replacement for paper.

Verhoeff[8] argues that the screens has seen a shift from representative cartography to performative cartography, via practices of navigation. For instance, depending on the device (I have an iPhone), a specific kind of tactility is required – tapping, clicking, pressing, swiping –  all of which eventually form a subconscious part of the process of calling on and adjusting the map. It is no longer as simple as ‘reading’ the map. Instead, the creation and navigation of the map is grounded in technological haptic practices that the user must engage in order to access information. I would go further to argue that haptic practices ingrains the map/cartographic imagination even further into the subconscious as traditional reading practices are subsumed by digital functionality.

Gone are the days when folding large maps down to the specific area required, or following the breadcrumb trail of adjacent pages on street maps, jarred the reader into a conscious act of ‘reading the map’, a specific skill that needed to be learnt. The ‘slippy map’[9], the continuous, boundless map that zooms in and out, and slides around, limited only by the size and resolution of the screen on which it is read. Navigating this map takes a finger and a thumb, moving the graphic field as required without searching for page numbers or following logic processes for the number of folds required.

Map readers do not even have to find themselves on the map anymore – with a tap, the device, in collaboration with the digital map, completes this arguably humbling process of self-location by adeptly and effortlessly offering to use your location and reconfigure the map egocentrically around the user[10]. Even when the device is not being used it is put away easily, where the ever-present possibility of the map sits heavily in the pocket of the user, and may be called upon and put away with comparative disregard.

Figure 2. Google Maps for Mobile 2012: bakery rozelle

The introduction of a divergent haptic engagement is the result of more fundamental changes to the medium of the map: with paper maps, the relationship between the text (i.e. the map) and the object on which it is represented (i.e. the paper) does not change. However, the mobile device that displays a map often also serves multiple other purposes. Depending on the model, it may also be a phone, a calculator, a camera, a music player, a sound recorder, a clock, a calendar, a compass, a notepad and/or any number of personalised applications. Sybilly Lammes[11] has expounded the shift between the static and the dynamic nature of texts and objects using a Latourian concept of the immutable mobile.  An immutable mobile is an object like a postcard or a photo which can be carried about, but whose image and purpose doesn’t change.[12]


Lammes refers back to traditional paper maps as immutable mobiles, and until recently paper maps could only be altered clumsily (with pen, by hand over the print)[13] or over time (with new editions printed every year, for example). Not only is this not true of apps like Facebook Places, foursquare or even Google Maps for Mobile whereby users can use digital interfaces to add information to the map with unprecedented accuracy, each of these particular examples are inherently mutable: the fields of representation, the texts, all change in consideration of the context in which they are viewed.

Because the map is not intrinsically fixed to the object, it needs to be ‘accessed’ or ‘loaded’: called upon by the device to be displayed from the digital server where it is being stored, as the app is opened. For instance, as I open Google Maps for Mobile, the device automatically accesses my GPS coordinates, and adjusts the map to suit my immediate surroundings. As discussed above, it may also adjust so that the map matches the direction that I am facing.  Via this process, the device and the digital map combine to become ‘the map’ which I then use to navigate.

But even then, this conceptual simplification ‘the map’ – is tenuous at best. The existence of ‘the map’ is dependent upon internet access, and a complex negotiation between people, space and technology. Data is flung through space: input on users’ experiences and memories is instantly reduced to one of a variety of programming codes and then transmitted via digital signals between mobile devices, radio towers, satellites and servers; reinterpreted by the devices and converted back into digital text and images to be read by other users, or adjusts to the required display. In doing this, this negotiation crosses multiple spaces: physical spaces of tactility and presence, virtual spaces of information[14] and the Hertzian space[15], the space of signals and bytes. Without every single one of these elements falling into line, the map would fail to exist.

Beyond the screen, the changes to ‘the map’ are even deeper. The map is a constantly updating, searchable digital text, meaning that it no longer manifests like a traditional text, but rather, a software-text whereby the data of the map is being constantly written and rewritten. In this case, the software-text is divided between the front end user interface that has the appearance of a traditional road map and the back end lines of code and scripting which give the map its interactivity.

Thrift and French[16] argue that software is a different kind of text to traditional representational and semiotic forms. Software is a series of coded, suspended instructions hidden behind the interface. It lies below the level of representation, below the familiar graphic of the map. These codes dictate the framework for the mapping application’s interactivity, determining what kind of information is displayed. Taking into account how the user reads the information, the way that it is displayed, and the way that information is entered, and placing it in the broader context of a spatio-temporal software text, it is evident that the software itself is ergodic,[17] subtly engineering practices of representation.

Let’s take as an example the ‘My Location’ circle on Google Maps for Mobile. By pressing a single button on the application, a little blue circle will appear with an approximation of your current location and a map of the surrounding area. This is more obvious when considering the expanded functionality of Google Maps for Mobile as well as Foursquare and Facebook Places. The process of mapping, of tagging information onto certain sites, or deciding a route to take, is so thoroughly overdetermined by the options provided by code that though it may appear organic and natural, it is in fact bounded by how the application works. It is not possible to direct the blue circle to another location, nor, if it’s in the wrong position, correct it, just as it is very difficult to have control over which 3 routes Google Maps provides (for example by excluding toll roads, busy roads, tunnels or major intersections).

Figure 3.1 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Suggested route 1

Figure 3.2 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Suggested route 2

Figure 3.3 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Suggested route 3

Furthermore, Facebook Places and Foursquare depend heavily on pre-existing, user-entered locations, and certain specific sets of information being entered. You cannot enter a period of being ‘en-route’ or in constant movement (though admittedly, it is possible to tag yourself to a moving vehicle e.g. the 431 bus).

Software “…therefore is a space that is constantly in-between, a mass-produced series of instructions that lie in the interstices of everyday life, pocket dictators that are constantly expressing themselves”.[18] While Thrift and French wrote specifically about the role that interfaces like escalators and lifts play in producing space, it isn’t too far-reaching to say that, given the established relationship between maps and space and subsequent development from paper to digital maps, the role that software plays in producing space is reflected in the way that it produces maps (which in turn, produce space). While ‘the map’ may have the (familiar) appearance of being fluid and and malleable, the way that it operates and its limits of interactivity are determined by code which scripts the application.

Mapping moments: from digital maps to mapping practices

In attempting to study mobile maps given their dynamism and software, a consideration beyond the epistemology or semiotic structure of the map to include the ethnographic and the ontological is necessary. The importance of this inclusion is augmented by the most crucial difference between digital maps and mobile maps: mobility. Mobility means that mapping can now occur immediately in the same space that is being mapped. Each photo that is uploaded onto Facebook Places, or each comment that is left on foursquare is time-stamped, and adjusted relative to time, as well as space. For instance, so and so did such and such 42 minutes ago:

Figure 4 – Facebook Places 2012

This information is not static: it is simply the most recent point in a stream of continual tags, updates and other mapping activities. The map itself changes with new information, and while a screenshot (as used above) or photograph may capture the idea of what a map does in a particular geography, it doesn’t capture the way that it evolves over time. If I were to return to the exact same location where this map was created, it wouldn’t necessarily be the same. Other users may have come and left other tidbits of information, or deleted information, or done such and such only 4 seconds ago. The mobile map more closely reflects the urban landscape – as the café that I was visiting will erode and change over time, so too will the mobile map.

This, of course, makes it incredibly difficult to pin down. Rather than trying to capture a fluid text, perhaps it is more useful to view the creation and erosion of multiple mobile maps as parts of a continual process of situated mobile mapping, which occurs across both time and space. To do this, non-representational theories (such as those proffered by Nigel Thrift) offer a radical methodology that focuses on practices as the ‘stable feature of a world that is continually in meltdown’.[19]

Practices are not perpetual in and of themselves (they don’t last forever in their original form), but endure longer than representational forms (like books, art, or music) by leaving spectres and traces in contemporary habits. By studying mobile mapping practices, and trying to understand how mobile maps and mobile mappers may fit within them, it may be possible to transcend the ‘meltdown’ of the map as it loses its immutability.

Rather than attempting to capture the map as it shifts, I propose that it is far more useful to trace the multiple instances of situated mapping that occur in time and space. These instances may manifest differently, in either an automated or manual fashion. Overtly, applications like Facebook Places and foursquare while changing constanstly, do not do so at a consistent rate. Each piece of new information, each check-in, geo-tag and upload, adds to the map unevenly as users enter the information at varying and unpredicatable intervals, tagging the information onto the position. Differently, in Google Maps for Mobile the blue circle doesn’t just represent the location of the device, but also its movement over the landscape. As the user moves, the blue circle will also move, reflecting the changes in your position. Occasionally the signal is lost and the blue circle gets ‘stuck’ at the last known position, jumping to the correct location when service is restored. More evident in failure than function, although the blue circle may seem like a fluid representation of the users positionality, it ultimately is the product of series of microtemporal instances strung together to build a sense of movement. Thus, in defining the idea of ‘mobile mapping’ it is important to build an understanding of mobile mapping practices as ontological situated encounters imbued with immediacy, experience and affect.

However, it is difficult to demarcate these encounters in ontological terms, without privileging approaches that rely on time being suspended in an abstracted ‘moment’. Thrift suggests an approach stemming from the work of A. N. Whitehead which ‘is not willing to completely jettison the phenomenological (the lived immediacy of actual experience, before any reflection on it) and the consequent neglect of the transitive’.[20] As such, this conceptual moment is not isolated from other moments. Rather, affectual elements, ‘onflows’, flow from past moments through this moment and on into the future, giving a sense of continuum [21]. This increased fluidity of the conceptual moment also provides a more suitable basis for understanding the new dynamism in digital maps. By examining this ‘moment’, light may be cast upon the microcosm of activity and influence that underlies mobile maps, which neatly mirrors the intentions of more traditional maps. Simply put, to map is to take a ‘measure’ of the world.[22]

As such, it is via multiple instances that mobile mapping manifests as a kind of practice, as maps are developed through the evolving relationship between time, spaces, and people. This tripartite relationship becomes evident in examining a mapping ‘moment’; a period of time so brief that it is noted by the person recording it as a single button tap that posts an image, or phrase, but during which enormous amounts of information are transferred, invisible signals are sent and silent conversations between technology and space carried out, as discussed earlier in the section about software texts.

Using a ‘moment’ to isolate and magnify mobile mapping practice, it is clear that due to the sheer number of users engaged, making maps is no longer the sole domain of trained cartographers. The rise of the amateur mapper who can accurately tag and display information (or even make maps from scratch via alternative platforms such as Open Street Map) with relative ease and automation has resulted in a democratisation of cartographic systems[23], rendering them collectively accessible to a range of individual map-makers and a wide audience of map users. Familiarity with programming languages is increasing, and will contribute even more to this process of democratisation.

This, combined with digital publishing which has provided a low cost way to disseminate personal maps to thousands of people[24], has moderated the power of the professional cartographer by allowing multiple, contradictory, inaccurate and/or superfluous representations of space to be accessible, presenting a more diverse interpretation of spaces. This is conflated with the possibility for multiple users across space and time to work together collectively on the same map. Here, collaboration and crowd-sourcing becomes a key aspect in mapping practices.

For instance, structure of foursquare houses a vast amount of user-inputted information, which contributes to the blurring of the line between mapping practices and lived experiences. When arriving at a café or even a doctor’s surgery, it is possible via foursquare to see comments such as ‘try the couscous’ or ‘don’t get blood taken here, you’ll lose half your arm in missed veins’.  This kind of information works like word of mouth advice, if such advice sat suspended and anchored to the site in review, leaving the user to judge experiences by a combination of their own personal opinions and those of others lingering in the space, via software. As this information changes, it is then possible to trace its development via timestamps on each post.

Figure 5. foursquare 2012

Over time, space and a multitude of different applications, mapping practices become complicit in the everyday experience of the city.

Consider this – you wake up in the morning, and go for a run. An app traces your GPS movement, recording your route, the distance and the time taken. This information is stored, so you can assess this run in comparison to previous runs[25]; build a fitness routine, or log information for a trainer or team.  After your jog, you order your coffee via your phone, on the way to your local cafe[26]. On arrival you tag yourself and perhaps earn a discount or a free coffee for your loyalty, as the app tracks your visits and purchases [27]. You stop at a bus or tram stop to go into town, your phone noting where you are and when the next service should be arriving[28]. As you sit on the bus you pass various triggers that update you with information on the surrounding area[29]. Alternatively, you drive in and pay for your parking via your phone, adding credit throughout the day, when the app beeps to tell you your time is running low[30]. You can watch your movement on a map as you check out the traffic conditions ahead[31]. You can then select any number of applications that display specific information, goods and services within proximity of your GPS position: restaurants, retail stores, transport, events, cultural institutions, meeting points, monuments, tourist attractions. You can check out where your nearest friend may be[32] and meet them at a local cafe. In this everyday space, you can layer any amount of multiple user data, using your mobile device and software applications[33] – photographs taken by other users, minutes or weeks ago; articles detailing the history or significance of a place; recommendations of food venues and people’s experiences with retail or health services – an ever-growing archive of information that individual users have decided to make public, and link to a particular location.

As such, it is not too extreme to suggest that the experiences of the city are becoming heavily mediated through mobile mapping practices, to the point of being ontological. When I use maps in Sydney, the user-inputted data builds upon itself, and the sheer amount of too much information becomes overwhelming, culminating at its extreme in an experiential disorientation that leaves me unsurprised that people blindly follow satellite navigators into rivers, unwilling or unable to choose between their own sensory information and the mediated instructions from the application[34]. The continual disorienting presence of this cartographic information and its inclusion into everyday practices has become so pervasive that in many ways it exemplifies a hyperspace:

… postmodern hyperspace– has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world. It may now be suggested that this alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment… can itself stand as the symbol and analogon of that even sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects. [35]

In this reference above, Frederic Jameson describes the effects of post-modernity, whereby the subject is loses the perspective required to ground itself in the turmoil of media globalization. In the same way that Jameson described the signage foyer of Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as a pithy attempt to provide capitalistic direction (to shops and such) in the turmoil of an overwhelming post-capitalist space, maps too have always attempted to make sense of an overwhelming world. [36]  Drawing borders, routes, places and territories has been the repertoire of map-makers for centuries, and the maps that they have made have been key actors in the building of empires, economies and identities. Benedict Anderson outlines the role of the map (along with the census and the museum) in nation-building, essentially stringing together imagined communities of strangers with little in common except geography and cultural practice.[37]  John Pickles takes this argument further:

The drawing and reading of a line, the historical emergence of cartographic reason, the production and circulation of a map and lived experience are so thoroughly and historically intertwined and over- determined.[38]

Pickles argues that maps are not only responsible for framing identity and community, they are also inextricably linked to the everyday existence of the people who live in mapped spaces. Planning surveys, transport maps, street directories, topographical maps, Global Information Systems, aerial/satellite photographs, weather charts (to name but a few) all contribute to the almost invisible representation systems that inform where roads shall go and buildings will be built, how people shall move from place to place and via what routes, how weather events are managed, when garbage will be collected and where drains exist, which suburb you live in, which language you speak. These maps are typically modern – they are objects drawn by people with the lofty aim of demarcating space so that the future may be navigated.

In contrast, the modern subject, the author, has been all but subsumed to a more fractured subject, who, being deeply susceptible to the ‘endless barrage of immediacy’ imposed by postmodernity, has become lost schizophrenic presentness. What is specific about Jameson’s account is his terminology of a ‘hyperspace’ that is so real and immediate, that there is no bodily or informational intermediary between space and experience. The subject is caught in a persistent and unyielding present Jameson’s postmodern hyperspace is filled with media and stimulations that have superceded the original and authentic.

While the modern subject may once have been the cartographer who authoritatively drew lines over the earth, the post-modern subject has been subsumed by sheer amount of media, such as that captured in large-scale mobile mapping practices. The ubiquity of mobile maps means that the world is inundated with simulations, information and infinite hybridity, and this occurs in a situated experience, like a blast, when you attempt to read all the maps at once. Thus, it is unsurprising that Jameson should turn to cognitive mapping as the answer with which to manage this immediacy.

But mapping is as much the cause of the ‘barrage of immediacy’, as its solution. Maps in hyperspaces generate hyperrealities, in the most Baudriallardian sense of the term. They produce and reproduce representations of space, and when applied to digital mobile maps, replicas of lived spatial experiences.[39] Referring to a story by Jorge Luis Borges of a 1:1 scale map that was made of a land, Baudrillard recounts the disappearence of ‘the real’ to be replaced with simulations (simulacra): “Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other, that constituted the charm of abstraction. Because it is difference that constitutes the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real.[40] Here ‘the imaginary of representation’ the difference between real and representation, between original and fake is lost: “In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.” [41]

While maps that speak about constructing ideology, mobile mapping points to the construction of experience. Facebook Places and foursquare do not exist as separate virtual spaces that users enter, as they once did on desktop computers. Rather, to the users who engage in them, mobile maps/apps are not virtual places burdened by representations but are instead, lived spaces and places where lived events happen. Through mobile mapping, heuristic knowledge, intuition and memory come into contact as I create referents of imagined, ontological and embodied space.

The most common and accessible images of the city, such as the birds-eye view of the thousands of walkers that Michel de Certeau described standing from the top of the World Trade Centre are reflected and simplified in the transmission of information from thousands of mobile mappers.[42] With the same ambition in Sydney, now, I would not have to climb to the top of the Centerpoint Tower to view the everyday acts of passing-by made by the city’s inhabitants. These acts are mirrored by the GPS signals emitting constantly from their phones. All I would require is an application like Google Latitude to trace these signals (as mobile phone providers already do) and present them on a map and a similar picture would be made from the ground.

So, instead, by understanding practices of mapping rather than maps, we can come to understand how the cartographic imagination becomes embedded in everyday ontologies and practices. Here the original point of the map, navigation, returns to the forefront as the user returns to the comfort of authoritative direction. As was mentioned earlier, it is unsurprising that Jameson should posit that cognitive mapping may ground the postmodern subject. Ironically, this is what mobile mapping is already attempting to do. As the user is inundated with an almost unmanageable level of other people’s mapped information, as they are caught in a whirlwind of mapping practices, moving people and multiple contradictory recounts of experience, they turn on app, “What is the best place to eat in Sydney?”, and the mobile map steps in to helpfully present a solution to a problem that is at least, in part, of their own making.

The cartographic city

As a graphic register of correspondence between two spaces, whose explicit outcome is a space of representation, mapping is a deceptively simple activity.[43] Maps are no longer static texts. Rather than immutable representations of space, they display ever-changing information dependent on time and location and, thus, are deeply ontological, as well as epistemological. Mobile maps are concerned with the specific context of each user, and influencing that user’s conceptualisation of themselves and their world by placing them at the centre of the map, and the map as the centre of their knowledge of the world around them. But it is not enough to say that the map has changed: the culmination of the transformations to the fundamental manner in which a map is conceived, communicated and read suggests a different kind of cartographic activity that is more casual, more subconscious and more performative.

In mobile maps, we may find the tales of the city, the stories of the places that certain groups occupy. In mobile mapping, we find the experiences of the city, the way that people operate and move, their daily routines and haunts. This is evident in the way that maps have been transformed into far more complex systems of representation that rely on technology, space and users to ‘come into being’, and the fact that these new interfaces have been disseminated to everyday users. It is also evident in the way that mobile mapping does more than build imagined communities and bounded spaces: mobile mapping builds ontologies, ways of being and seeing and communicating, and provides another terrain on which urban practices may be marked.

The hierarchies that exist in the city – the power that map-makers, urban designers, planners and other professionals exert to subtly orchestrate the experience of the city – is slowly dissipating, being undermined by amateurs with a few coding skills and the desire to have a conversation about what spaces and places, and, more specifically, home, means to them. For some, this results in an inundation – how can researchers ever hope to capture the volume of maps and mapping instances and explore their significance? But, for the cartographic city this multiplicity is important. While for now, it may be that users fall back on traditional representations of the landscape, fall back of maps to guide them it may also mean that via mobile mapping, new meanings are explored and new ontologies formed. Though this is partially because the hierarchies inherent in maps are also being broken down by the inclusion of infinite variations of information, it is the new mappers and new practices that ultimately form the basis of this transformation. The silences that left out people and places on traditional maps; the gaps that exist in between mapped locations, the absences of personal mobility or temporality, are slowly being filled in by the people that were forgotten.

To return to Sydney, a contested city that was built on the projection of a colonial empire, the everyday experience of spaces and places is slowly being transformed by cartographic practices. In the age of reason and rationalism, the maps that were made of Sydney reflected a particular way of thinking about the world that considered itself as being far removed from the subjective. Though traces of other people can be found at Bennelong and Barangaroo, the early maps were dominated by a powerful few who drew their names over streets, and named suburbs like Glebe after their churches and Ultimo after their avarice.

Such domination is not easily undone, but the potential of a Sydney that can fit in your pocket is to present a multiplicity of experiences and meanings, which are only just beginning to be examined. In a contemporary context, it is the practice of mapping Sydney that holds the real key to understanding what Sydney means. The act of stopping to tap a piece of information into a phone, to document your day to day experiences, to write paths on landscapes that stray off main routes, may tell a story of a different city than that shown by maps in previous eras: this Sydney may be filled with pedestrians or cyclists, street musicians, bands of roving party-goers, small bars, cheap eats or anything else that mappers desire. Perhaps, in time, our maps of Sydney will be filled with millions of tracings of people, their paths through the streets and their experiences of places. They may come to include not just the roads and the suburbs that were marked out in the original intent of empirical mapping, but may also accommodate new cartographies and reclaimed cartographies, with new lines, spaces, and boundaries. Our mappings of Sydney may show how spatial practices are written on the landscape, where, in turn, they may be rewritten across new landscapes. This Sydney must be understood as a city being mapped continuously and pervasively, a city bound by a new kind of cartography that is an experiment in everyday practice.



Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, (1991).

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994

Black, Jeremy. Maps and politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

de Certeau, Michel. The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984

Cosgrove, Denis. Mappings. London: Reaktion, 1999.

Crampton, Jeremy. “Maps as social constructions: power, communication and visualization.” Progress in Human Geography no. 2 (2001): 235-254.

Dodge, Martin, Kitchin, Rob and Perkins, Chris. Rethinking maps : new frontiers in cartographic theory. Abingdon: New York, Routledge, 2009.

Dolan, Andy. “£96,000 Merc written off as satnav leads woman astray,” Daily Mail Online, 16 March 2007,,

Dunne, Anthony. Hertzian tales: electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 1999

Harley, John Brian. Deconstructing the Map in Writing worlds : discourse, text, and metaphor in the representation of landscape, edited by Trevor Barnes and James Duncan. London: New York, Routledge, 1992.

Ingold, Tim. Lines: A brief history. London: Routledge, 2007.

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham, Duke University Press, 1991.

Lammes, Sybille. “The Map as Playground: Location-based Games as Cartographical Practices” in Think, Design, Play. Hilversum, 2011.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1991

Monmonier, Mark. Rhumb lines and map wars: a social history of the Mercator projection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

Peterson, Michael. ‘Elements of Multimedia cartography’ in Multimedia cartography edited by William Cartwright, Michael Peterson and Georg Gartner. Berlin: New York, Springer, 2007.

Pickles, John. A history of spaces: cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Rød, Jan Ketil, Orneling, Ferjan et al. “An agenda for democratising cartographic visualisation.” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift. no. 1, 2001.

Thrift, Nigel and French, Shaun. “The automatic production of space.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers no. 3, 2002.

Thrift, Nigel. Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect. London: Routledge, 2008.

Verhoeff, Nanna. Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012.


[1] Henri Lefebvre. The Production of Space. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1991.

[2] Foucault’s work was accompanied by a host of other philosophers and sociologists who used maps as exemplars of social, cultural, economic and political tools. For instance, Michel Certeau (1984) in The Practice of Everyday Life also wrote about the role that maps played during the medieval era in constructing the principles of modernity and Benedict Anderson (1991) in Imagined Communities wrote about the map as a tool that reinforced nationalism, and solidified the imagined national community.

[3] John Harley. Deconstructing the Map in Writing worlds : discourse, text, and metaphor in the representation of landscape edited by Trevor Barnes and James. Duncan. London ; New York, Routledge, 1992. Jeremy Black, Maps and politics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997; Jeremy Crampton “Maps as social constructions: power, communication and visualization.” Progress in Human Geography 25(2): 235-254, 2001; Mark Monmonier, Rhumb lines and map wars: a social history of the Mercator projection. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004

[4] John Pickles, A history of spaces : cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world. New York, Routledge, 2004, p.5

[5] Mark Monmonier. Rhumb lines and map wars: a social history of the Mercator projection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

[6] Mobile platforms include mobile phones, as well as tablets. That said, optimisation is still heavily dependent on operating systems.

[7] Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin and Chris Perkins, Rethinking maps: new frontiers in cartographic theory, New York, Routledge, 2009

[8] Nanna Verhoeff, Mobile Screens, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012

[9] The term ‘slippy map’ was coined by the Open Street Map community. See for further information.

[10] See this YouTube clip for a full explanation of the how the blue circle works:

[11] Sybille Lammes. “The Map as Playground: Location-based Games as Cartographical Practices” in Think, Design, Play. Hilversum, 2011.

[12] c.f. Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin and Chris Perkins, 2009.

[13] c.f. Tim Ingold, ‘Lines’ London: Routledge p.85-86, 2007

[14] To take the approach of Manuel Castells in the Rise of the Network Society (1996) in distinguishing the physical space, or the space of places, and virtual/informational spaces, or the space of flows.

[15] The term ‘Hertzian space’ was coined by Anthony Dunne in his book Hertzian Tales. The term was used to describe the aesthetic quality of the invisible ‘sea-like’ landscape of Hertzian signals that penetrates the physical landscape

[16] Nigel Thrift and Shaun French, ‘The automatic production of space.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, no. 3, 2002.

[17] Espen Aarseth. Cybertext : perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore, M: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

[18] Nigel Thrift & Shaun French 311

[19] Nigel Thrift, Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect, London, Routledge, 2008, p. 8

[20] Nigel Thrift 2008, p. 6.

[21] ibid

[22] Denis Cosgrove. Mappings. London: Reaktion, 1999.

[23] Jan Ketil Rød, Ferjan Orneling et al. “An agenda for democratising cartographic visualisation.” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift no 1. 2001, p.38-41.

[24] Michael Peterson 2007, ‘Elements of Multimedia cartography’, in Multimedia cartography edited by William Cartwright, Michael Peterson and Georg Gartner. Berlin: New York, Springer, 2007.

[25] MapMyFITNESS, ‘MapMyRUN’, computer software, 2007, last update 2012

[26] BeatTheQ Pty Ltd, BeatTheQ, computer software, 2011,

[27] foursquare, foursquare, computer software, 2009,

[28] Public Transport Victoria, Public Transport Victoria iPhone App, computer software, 2011,

[29] University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Tram Trail, computer software, 2011,

[30] Parkmobile International, Parkmobile, computer software, 2008,

[31] Google, Google Maps for Mobile, computer software, 2006,

[32] Google, Google Latitude, computer software, 2009,

[33] Layar, Across Air

[34] c.f. Andy Dolan,  “£96,000 Merc written off as satnav leads woman astray,” Daily Mail Online, 16 March 2007,,

[35] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1991, p. 44

[36] Frederic Jameson 1991

[37] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1991.

[38] John Pickles, A history of spaces : cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world. New York, Routledge, 2004, p.5

[39] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and simulation, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994

[40] Jean Baudrillard, 2

[41] ibid

[42] Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984

[43] Denis Cosgrove, Mappings. London, Reaktion, 1999.


Clancy Wilmott is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Manchester, researching mapping, mobile phones and urban environments. As part of this project, she will be examining the impact of digital mobile mapping practices on place-making, wayfinding and the spatial imagination in post-colonial cities.