- Reviewed by
Many of us are, at a minimum, tangentially familiar with many of the acronyms that have emerged throughout the development of the mapping sciences. William Rankin’s first book explores three such acronyms: IMW, UTM, and GPS. By painting a sophisticated mural depicting the histories surrounding these nine letters, Rankin ensures that readers will never again be at risk of forgetting what they stand for. At the foundation of this project is Rankin’s drive to search for breakages, undulations, and transformations in “geo-epistemology”, a term Rankin engages to describe the search for the “how” surrounding geospatial information (how it is known, how it is used). After attending to the mapping sciences archives with an astounding commitment to even the smallest details (if you don’t believe me, check out the book’s website where Rankin has made all the data, images, and references for the book available for download), Rankin crafts a narrative that allows readers to see how today’s geospatial knowledge is made possible not only through advancements of satellites, computers, and smart technology, but also through a “relatively broad change in attitudes, goals, and practices across the mapping sciences as a whole” (p. 209). Put another way, Rankins visualizes the lines of connection between geo-epistemologies of bounded territory, which rely on the search for “objectivity or truth,” and the geo-epistemologies of unbounded territory, which promote “convenience and efficiency” (p. 206).
Rankin divides the book into three sections, each with two chapters. Chapters are often organized by chronology as it specifically relates to the occurrence of WWI or WWII. Part I attends to the rise and fall of the International Map of the World, or IMW. This project, which was proposed in 1891, set out to “consolidate all existing geographic knowledge” by publishing uniformly symbolized maps at a scale of 1:1,000,000 for every country across the globe (p. 23). Rankin notes how the eventual termination of this project stems, not from lack of effort or vision from the project’s collaborators, but from the emergence of a new geo-epistemology. As the “universal map user” who benefited from a “view from nowhere” (the foundational audience and perspective of the IMW) [End Page 136] gave way to the post WWII map which privileged specialized, focused use cases.
As is presented in Part II, the popularization of specialized maps was exacerbated by the emergence of the Euclidean coordinate system. This system establishes a flat and regional, rather than curved and global, locational reference point. Rankin is particularly interested in outlining the history of the US Army’s influential global grid system, also known as the Universal Transverse Mercator, or UTM. In addition to this history, Rankin questions the role and impact of the military in generating tools and techniques to be used for the advancement of geospatial knowledge. While geographers are already quite familiar with the discipline’s historical and present day entanglement with the military, Rankin manages to keep things interesting by discussing the practical applications of grids-for example, their use for aiming weapons. These applications, Rankin explains, promoted an “embedded geographic subjectivity” (p. 165). In the case of pre-WWII grids, this embeddedness reinforces national boundaries. For post WWII grids, and UTM in particular, such boundaries are dissolved as the gird worked to organize space across international dividers.
Part III charts the development of radio navigation, electronic grid systems, and the well-known Global Positioning System (GPS). In doing so, Rankin exposes the mechanisms behind our current geo-epistemology, one which privileges points over areas. While delineating four different types of universalism accessible both before and after the launch of GPS, it becomes clear that Rankins wants to leave readers with two main points. First, he continues to stress that the boundaries between military, civilian, and commercial applications of geospatial technologies are blurry (p. 210) and second, he urges readers...