power of maps, strategic foresight and warning, scenarios, uncertainties, forward looking statement

The Power of Maps

Maps are both necessary tools for analysis and crucial delivery visuals for foresight and warning products. They constitute a very powerful type of delivery form, as they change both the world and the mind.

The pivotal importance of maps and of the process of mapping has notably been shown, in the case of the birth of nations and of nationalism, by two remarkable books: Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson and Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation by Winichakul Thongchai. Building upon the findings of those master-works, as well as on my own (PhD) research, this post explains the power of maps and then outlines contemporary evolutions, examples and possibilities.

Why are maps special instruments of power?

As maps influence our way to perceive the world, they also allow for the creation of new political actions, and make possible what hitherto had been unthinkable of.

Try to imagine the world, the space around you, before one could calculate latitude and then longitude (the measurement of longitude, notably, remained unsolved and impossible until the eighteenth century), and thus before maps could be created.

What you would get is something like this, where only the most salient geographical features that allow for bearings are marked:

Helene Lavoix, thesis, Appendix 6, 1899 Province Kong Pissey

However, with latitude and longitude, with the work and skills of geographers, as exemplified by Alistair Leak, “Book review: The map that changed the world,” and most of the time with a host of interactions between various powers (Thongchai 1994, Lavoix 2005), maps very similar to those we know today were born. The process of mapping itself is never innocuous and changes, forever, awareness, perception, worldview and how we inhabit the world. It also makes for fascinating stories. What we could obtain was very different from pre-longitude maps and could look like this:

Helene Lavoix, Map 1, Thesis – Convention conclue entre la France et le Cambodge pour régler les rapports respectifs des deux pays – Gouverneur de la Cochinchine 1884

Such maps, are much more useful in terms of international relations, as, notably, they allow for the accurate drawing of boundaries. They are crucial for wars, as they improve strategy and tactics: they are precise, allow for measurement of time in terms of movement, including logistics, for specific positioning of troops, logistics or artillery, etc. They are indispensable to govern, as they allow for a better – and stronger – administrative rule, which, in turn, leads to more security for citizens, however with some loss of freedom. Meanwhile, as land is mapped, as borders are created, our representation thus our perception of the world changes. With maps, the Earth became a globe subdivided into countries, territorial, independent and sovereign nation-states.

Maps are thus instruments and vectors of power, which, above all, construct mental perceptions, indeed cognitive maps.

Creating a new world? Satellite, crowd-sourcing and ocean floor maps

Kong-Pissey, Srok, Cambodia – Administrative Region – Google maps
Kong-Pissey, Srok, Cambodia – Administrative Region – Google maps
Kong-Pissey, Srok, Cambodia – Administrative Region – Google maps

Nowadays, with satellite and more recently crowd-sourcing (see, for example OpenStreetMap), we obtain incredibly accurate and up-to-date maps. If we take the example of our first map, the region of Kong Pissey in Cambodia, today, we can get the three maps on the right hand side, with a click of the mouse, instantaneously.

The power that is given to anyone is incredible, compared with what was available only three centuries or even fifty years ago, even if, most of the time, we are not aware of it and take it for granted.

Indeed, for example, the announcement by Google that it would not only map the ocean floor within five years but also track any ship and make this knowledge available to anyone (Daily Mail, May 2012) is a major revision of the current various balances of power. The consequences are not only enormous in terms of maritime security, strategy and tactics, but also could touch the exploitation of maritime resources, notably deep-sea mining of polymetallic nodules (e.g. Ifremer campaign, may 2012), and generate new tensions for zones where maritime boundaries are ill-defined or disputed.

If the mapping of the ocean floor was achieved and included with corresponding resources, in maps displaying maritime boundaries, our cognitive map of geopolitics and power could well be substantially redefined. (Nota: An interesting map “Global distribution of marine mineral resources known at this early stage of ocean exploration” by P. Rona (2003) can be found on the web but is restricted to personal usage; it thus cannot be reproduced here nor hyperlinked for copyrights reason, which underlines again, for other reasons, the revolutionary quality of Google’s project).

Maps and cartograms

Maps can also, evidently, be combined with many data when dealing with specific issues, as, for example, in the case of water security.

Global Water Insecurity Map – Global Water Insecurity remapped: A population-centric view, September 30, 2010 – This work has been created by Benjamin Hennig and is property of the SASI Research Group (University of Sheffield). CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Even more interesting in terms changing cognitive maps, latest mapping techniques allow us to transform a map in a cartogram, i.e. according to those specific data, as done by World Mapper. For example, on the website Show(R)World you can create your own maps according to data provided by various international organisations. The maps can then be downloaded or embedded. As another example, Benjamin D. Hennig based at the University of Sheffield, creates extraordinary maps, as displayed above, and publishes them on his blog, Views of the World (under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

With such power, maps are privileged visual tools we must use when we deliver foresight and warning products as they will actively contribute to redraw the cognitive map of our clients, and thus help them hear and pay heed to warnings.

Featured image: General map of the distances and the historic capitals (chinese: Hunyi jiangli lidai guodu zhi tu; japanese: Kon’itsu kyoori rekidai kokuto no zu), Korea, roughly 1402. Ink and paint on paper. By Kim Sahyung, Lee Moo, Lee Hui [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin And Spread of Nationalism, (New York: Verso, 1983, 1991,2006).

Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs, United Nations, Maritime Space: Maritime Zones and Maritime Delimitation.

Hennig, Benjamin, “Global Water Insecurity remapped: A population-centric view,” Views of the World, September 30, 2010.

Hoffert, Michel, “The polymetallic nodules, An extraordinary mining and scientific submarine adventure,” Ifremer, 2008.

Lavoix, Helene, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘genocide’ : the construction of nation-ness, authority, and opposition – the case of Cambodia (1861-1979) – PhD Thesis – School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), 2005.

Leak, Alistair, “Book review: The map that changed the world,” Cartopedia, March 19, 2012.

Marine et Oceans,”L’Ifremer étudie les champs de nodules polymétalliques,” 23 Mai 2012.

Rona, Peter A. “The changing vision of marine minerals,” Ore Geology Reviews 33 (2008) 618–666.

Rona, Peter A., “Resources of the Sea Floor,” Science 299, 673 (2003); DOI: 10.1126/science.1080679.

Thongchai, Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1994).

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