Review of Rethinking the Power of Maps

Review of Rethinking the Power of Maps

By Denis Wood, with John Fels and John Krygier. New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2010. 335 pages, maps, figures, notes, index. $30.00, Paperback. ISBN 978-1-59385-366-2.

Review by Russell S. Kirby, University of South Florida

Rethinking the Power of Maps


Rethinking the Power of Maps is a substantially updated follow-up to Denis Wood’s The Power of Maps, published in 1992 to accompany an exhibit of the same name which he curated at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, and which was later remounted at the Smithsonian Institution. The present volume is intended for a mass audience, yet readers with some knowledge of the history of academic geography and cartography will find several chapters of considerably greater interest than will the general readership.

The book begins with a brief introduction, followed by eight chapters grouped into two parts titled “Mapping” and “Counter-Mapping.” Wood defines these terms in the introduction: “mapping” is used to describe the ways that maps serve the interests of the state or polity, and “counter- mapping” focuses on uses of maps to resist the power of the state (7). A number of philosophical and historical topics of greater and lesser interest are covered in the first section, including the emergence of mapping as primarily a post-15th Century phenomenon, the uses of maps to create and maintain order on the ground and within society, map elements as ”signs,” and maps as aspects of culture.

The section on “Counter-Mapping” begins with a critical appraisal of the field of cartography, in which the author argues that the notion (propounded by Arthur Robinson and others in the 1940s and beyond) that cartography is, or was, a scientific discipline in its own right, never had a basis in theory or practice. The emergence of Geographic Information Systems and GIScience, Wood suggests, have sounded the death-knell for the discipline of cartography. Wood would not argue that there are no professionals who focus on cartography, but, rather, that new tools, techniques and methods of map dissemination make the process of map creation open to all. However, in the chapter on public participation GIS (PPGIS), Wood argues that most of what passes for PPGIS is a sham. The public has little say as to how a PPGIS is created, what its contents will be, or how it will be used. Furthermore, the role for “participation” is so circumscribed that the true potential of what might be achieved through public engagement can never be realized. While Wood makes this argument rather stridently, I found myself largely in agreement with the general proposition.

The book concludes with two chapters on the topic of map art. Here the discussion delves into the interface between contemporary art and methods of human expression and some artists’ use of mapping in a variety of innovative and occasionally disturbing ways.

The section on counter-mapping was more intriguing to me than was the first section, as it points the way to the potential for future methods of expression using maps that extend beyond our current comprehension. As technology evolves, opportunities for counter-mapping will grow at an ever increasing rate—consider, for example, that at the time Denis Wood completed this book, the now iconic iPad was only an idea, but since then, that device has transformed the way many access, use, and create information in all forms, including spatial data.

As one might expect from a geographer who teaches theory and principles of design, Rethinking the Power of Maps is illustrated with well-selected diagrams and maps that complement the arguments made in the text. The book is well-edited, the arguments are engaging, and the text is referenced in detail (the notes at the end of the volume take up 71 pages). At times the prose is more conversational than is typical of an academic discussion, but the occasional repetition that occurs is not too annoying.

Without question, this a book that professional cartographers will find of interest. Geography and map libraries should invest in hard-cover library editions, as this book will receive wide circulation. Many will undoubtedly read it in electronic book form, perhaps using iPads or other tablet devices. Personally, I would not recommend the book to someone just beginning to think about cartography and map representation, but those with some experience in mapping will definitely benefit from reading Rethinking the Power of Maps.


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