Space, Cyberspace and Interface: The Trouble with Google Maps




google maps, critical, history, cartography,

How to Cite

Strom, T. E. (2011). Space, Cyberspace and Interface: The Trouble with Google Maps. M/C Journal, 14(3).
Vol. 14 No. 3 (2011): trouble
Published 2011-04-27

Pick a printed or manuscript map from the draw almost at random [or visit Google Maps] and what stands out is the unfailing way its text is as much a commentary on the social structure of a particular nation or place as it is on its topography. The map-maker is often as busy recording the contours of feudalism, the shape of a religious hierarchy, or the steps in the tiers of social class, as the topography of the physical and human landscape. (Harley 6)

Maps are cultural artefacts that are deeply implicated in the history of ideas; intrinsically linked to our conceptualisations of space; and inform our political and personal subjectivities (Harley, Wood). Throughout human history the role of maps has changed in a dialectic relationship with developments in science, technology, economics and military concerns, all within a shifting socio-political landscape and its philosophic underpinning. They can be viewed as an interface of the problematic divide between nature and culture.

Drawing from the critical cartography of J.B. Harley, this essay will examine the popular and influential online Geographic Information System (GIS), Google Maps (Gmaps): a powerful, centralised, interactive, online world map and one arm of Google’s digital empire. Gmaps is simultaneously a cultural product and producer that conveys, configures, and communicates space as a mental/materialist construct. This construct is inseparable from cultural concepts of space, place, ideas, loyalties, senses of belonging, imagined communities and globalisation.

Gmaps is thus a curious and troubling topic. It is problematic as there are many historical conventions, unspoken assumptions and commercial agendas inherent in how Gmaps represents reality, compounded by the widespread uncritical acceptance of maps as conveyers of objective truth. This article seeks to briefly critique Gmaps by locating it in the history of cartography and examining what kind of image of the world it presents. In doing so I shall flag a number of points as possible areas for future research projects, for unpacking them fully is beyond the scope of this article. This critique does not wish to suggest that Gmaps is not a useful 'A to B' map, rather I am putting forward a case to study it critically, dismissing the seeming ‘neutrality’ of maps to reveal them as an instrumental means of preserving political power (Harvey). As Turnball argues: 

The power of maps lies not merely in their accuracy or their correspondence with reality. It lies in their having incorporated a set of conventions that make them combinable in one central place, enabling the accumulation of both power and knowledge at that centre (26).

This article maps Gmaps historical influences in order to locate its arbitrary and ethnocentric Prime Meridian or ‘centre of the earth.’ Moving out from the centre, I examine some troublesome elements of the Gmaps image of the world: its use of symbols, scale and commercial orientation, as well as a space of resistance provided by its interactivity.

Shock and Awe and Birth Pangs

Founded in 2001, Keyhole Inc. developed GIS and other technologies that created graphic visualisations of geospatial data. The tiny software company Keyhole received massive publicity during the US led invasion of Iraq, when they provided major US news networks with 3D reproductions of the “shock and awe” campaign over Baghdad. In 2003 Keyhole launched In-Q-Tel, a venture capital project with the CIA, before the company was acquired by Google in 2004. Presumably Google also gained Keyhole's numerous homeland security and defence contracts, although this is difficult to independently confirm. I would like to flag this as the first of several areas of possible future study.

Gmaps went online on 8 February 2005, several months before Google Earth debuted. In 2011 Gmaps is arguably the most popular map of all time. While verifying this claim would require a research piece unto itself, this bold suggestion comes from Gmaps being the world’s most used Internet mapping website. It overtook Mapquest in April, 2009 and has since continued to strengthen its lead (Baker). According to Alexa, Gmaps take 0.98% of all Google's searches. Seemingly unimpressive, this number is actually enormous as Google control up to 70% of the Internet's search engine market, which has recently exceeded 2 billion users.

Below are the ten most popular mapping websites according to Alexa:

  1. Google Maps
  2. MapQuest 
  3. Bing Maps
  4. Yahoo! Maps and Driving Directions
  5. Mappy
  6. Maps of World
  7. OpenStreetMap
  8. Multimap
  9. Google Mars
  10. University of Texas at Austin - Perry-Casteneda Library - Map Collection

Cave Wall Projection

In creating a two-dimensional (2D) representation of our distinctly three-dimensional (3D) Earth, Gmaps, like countless maps before it, uses a projection to create this illusion. A projection is a mathematical method for portraying a 3D body on a 2D plane. The Map Projections website is a useful aid in understanding the concept of projection in regards to world maps. Follow the link, select the tab labelled ‘projection’ and compare, for example, the Marcator and Peters projections with the spherical earth they represent.

The trouble is that all these methods necessarily create distortions, which may or may not be deemed acceptable depending on the purpose of the map. Many of the ways humans represent, discuss, and conceptualise the Earth are arbitrary, culturally constructed and linked to the maintenance of political power. The Earth is a sphere, so it would seem self-evident that the only accurate and distortion free way to map the world is via a globe, like Google Earth, and the open-source World Wind. Why then have map makers continually attempted to flatten the Earth? “This question goes to the heart of the history of the world map: the desire to see an image of the entire world focused before us, clear, self-contained, comprehensible and masterable” (Whitfield 2).

Gmaps uses a version of the famous Mercator projection, which was invented in 1569 by a Flemish geographer from whom the map takes its name. His original intent is apparent in his map’s title: New and More Complete Representations of the Terrestrial Globe Properly Adapted for Use in Navigation. This ingenious projection turns the earth into a parabola curving up from the equator toward the poles. These poles cannot actually be depicted as they lie at infinity. While this radically distorts the Earth near the poles, it was created as a navigational tool that allowed sailors to easily navigate between two points. A full explanation can be found in Rhumb Lines and Map Wars (Monmonier 1-15).

Suffice to say, the Mercator projection was a significant aid to navigation, and this technology facilitated the European age of exploration, colonisation and empire. Indeed, this map was one of the many factors embroiled in the emergence of the globalisation process. As the European empires became global hegemonic forces, the map that aided their naval navigation became, and remains, the dominant image of the world. According to Edney, “the empire exists because it can be mapped, the meaning of empire is inscribed into each map” (2).

The distortions inherent in Mercator’s projection have long been subject to criticism, both from within cartography and outside the discipline, particularly in the 1970s when Aron Peters led a dubious movement to replace it with a ‘fairer’ projection. The below table shows a comparison between the actual surface area of Earth and the surface area as depicted by Gmaps:


Earth Surface (km²)

Actual Earth Surface%

Google Maps’ number of pixels

Google Maps %






South America

























Table 1 - The surface area of the Earth compared with its depiction in Gmaps.

This table highlights the distortions implicit in Gmaps use of the Mercator projection. Notice the difference between the actual and represented size of the Global North and the often Tropical Global South. These distortions are worth reconsidering in light of Gmaps unique position of influence in shaping people’s image of the world.

Prime Lines and Holy Centres

The real centre of the Earth is approximately 6,371km below the surface. However, this is irrelevant when considering a 2D world map, whose makers are privileged to choose its centre. Like with map projection, there is no ‘right answer’ as to where a map should be centred, rather it is informed by a cultural-political web of power relations. Historically, ‘Holy Lands’ be them religious or ideological, have often been centred on maps and cosmographies, frequently conforming to the rule of ethnocentricity (Tuan 30).

The building blocks of contemporary geography/cartography were laid down thousands of years ago by ancient Greek philosopher Ptolemy. In the 15th century, after the Dark Ages, his text Geographica resurfaced in Europe and revolutionised spatial perceptions: a shift that was to have far reaching ramifications around the world. Ptolemy divided the Earth in a grid system - a lattice of latitude and longitude measured in degrees. Latitude refers to the horizontal lines on maps that circle the Earth (e.g. the Equator). Longitude refers to the vertical lines of the grid that flow between the poles on world maps (e.g. the Prime Meridian). Ptolemy oriented his map to the North, as opposed to the east, which was previously the norm in Europe, reasoning that Jerusalem lay to the East and was therefore closer to God. In fact, the term “orient” is derived from the Latin for 'east' or “rise” as it is from this direction that the Sun rose. Ptolemy's system of mapping made all points commensurable: distance and direction, extending even to unknown places which could be given co-ordinates (Turnbull 25). This had a profound effect on European psychology, and played a role in setting the foundations for the coming age of empires (Edney 2).

Latitude proved relatively simple to calculate as a measure of a position between the equator and the relevant pole. While these parallels are cultural constructs, they bear some direct correlation with phenomena concerning the geometric relationship between the Earth and the Sun. For example, the Equator circles the centre of the Earth half way between the North and South Pole, the Tropic of Capricorn marks the most southern latitude where the Sun can appear directly overhead during the December solstice, and the Antarctic Circle marks the northernmost latitude at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours.

Determining the longitude proved to be far more difficult – especially in the unstable theatre of the high seas. Many competing European imperial powers devoted huge resources and generations of scientific minds in an attempt to solve this enigma. It was considered a pertinent scientific concern as any empire that held this navigational secret would gain strategic advantage (Eco 188-192). While attempting to unravel this mystery, the rival nations created their own geographically arbitrary Prime Meridians that usually ran through their respective capital cities.

Having multiple map-making systems was problematic in the 19th century world of global empires and markets. In Washington D.C. in 1884 an international conference (von Schaeffer 200) was held to choose a Prime Meridian “once and for all.” Unsurprisingly, the world’s then most powerful imperial capital London, specifically Greenwich, was selected. This decision has since been solidified by 127 years of huge scientific and technological advancement which have left this arbitrary, yet politically loaded decision virtually unquestioned; except for a brief and equally arbitrary attempt to switch to Mecca time in 2008.

This decision had the unintentional effect of creating a place even more ‘central’ than Greenwich: the place where the 0° Prime Meridian meets the 0° Equator. This ‘Prime Point’ incidentally falls several hundred kilometres from land in the Gulf of Guinea off Africa’s west coast. In this context, it is significant to locate the ‘Holy Centre’ of Gmaps.

The Prime Point of Google Maps

When first loading Gmaps what a user will see depends upon how much personal information Google has accumulated about them. This could be information that the user has ‘volunteered’ by filling out contact details in a Google account, server location or from information pulled from any Google search term that they have had recorded for advertising profiling via a globally unique identification cookie. A Foucault style analysis of Gmaps in terms of power and surveillance would prove revealing.

If Google has enough geospatial data about a user, then Gmaps will load centred over whichever country they inhabit, hence creating a national, rather than global, prime point. To circumvent this and find the “true,” global prime point, I first deleted all of Google’s cookies and thus any personal information Google had accumulated about me, and then loaded Gmaps. The interface displayed a map centred over North America. From the default starting position, I then zoomed in 15 times to get a close up view of the “prime point.” It fell in an empty field just outside the golf courses of Coffeyville Country Club, Kansas, which also happened to be a Gmaps advertiser.

Ethnocentric and ironic parallels can be seen between the Gulf of Guinea and “Golf of Kansas” Prime Points. Both are created by empires seeking to locate themselves at the centre of the world, only to find that geographic realities create these less-than-monumental centres. Nevertheless, this default centring adds geopolitical force and meanings to all that Gmaps represents (Harley 6).

Scaling Symbols

Utilising its digital format, Gmaps can seamlessly jump through a number of scales, and its ability to zoom in and out is one of the websites most useful, though not unique, features. Gmaps allows users to search their maps on 20 different levels of scale that range from being measured in 20m increments at zoom +15, to a mighty 10,000kms (at the Equator) at zoom -4. Other popular GIS use similar systems.

Gmaps displays a different set of selections, omissions, classifications and simplification on each level of scale. There is also a hierarchy of symbols woven through the levels of scale. For instance, Coffeyville Country Club is labelled between +15 and +8 and Kansas is labelled between +3 and -1. While symbols are central to a map's ability to communicate with their audience, we must be aware that the process of manufacturing them is inherently rhetorical, and thus users should read them critically.

Gmaps use of symbols is particularly troubling as it is missing a pivotal map reading tool: a key or legend. This further distances users from the symbolic meaning, and perhaps increases the chance of misinterpretation. For example, in Coffeyville, several kilometres south-east of the Prime Point, restaurants are represented with a stylised knife and fork symbol, Wal-Mart with an icon that resembling a handbag and investment firms with a bar chart and a rising arrow, presumably to indicate unlimited growth/profit.

I argue that these symbols are culturally loaded as they are standardised globally, although there are some examples of local exceptions. For instance, in China, a knife-fork symbol is used for restaurant regardless of whether knives and forks are actually used there. In this way, Gmaps use of symbols serves to reinforce the western-oriented status quo (Harley 14). These images carry a latent symbolic function that disseminates the corporations' view of reality, and creates a cartographic cognitive schema that legitimises and preserves political power (Harvey 221).

The table below describes some of what is visible and/or labelled when zooming out from the Gmaps Prime Point. The wording is sometimes purposefully vague in an attempt to 'make strange' the map and draw attention to the assumptions needed to decode the content.

Zoom level

Description of some features and symbols used at different zoom levels on map setting.


Maximum zoom in. The map is featureless white apart from a Google-Place marked for one 'Scholar Craft Production'. This factory clearly, according to the satellite image, does not exist in this location.


A strip of green shading crosses the bottom of the screen. This presumably represents the golf courses of 'Coffeyville Country Club'.


A labelled road also bisects the map. Also, several blue blobs appear, presumably representing bodies of water.


More labelled roads and blue blobs entre.


Two thin blue lines meander through the white background, probably representing unlabelled creeks. 'Coffeyville Country Club' is now labelled.


Three labelled cemeteries appear in grey shaded rectangles, as does another golf course. The village of Dearing appears, with one advertiser there visible at this scale: 'Kings Coffee'.


Coffeyville is labelled in its entirety, not as a collection of streets and shops. A thick yellow line labelled 'Route 166' appears. I assume it to be a highway.


An aeroplane symbol over a grey square appears to represent Coffeyville Municipal Airport, as does the boarder to Oklahoma.


A second airport enters, as do several small nearby towns.


More small towns appear. The thin grey grid-like lines, presumably representing boundaries to private property, are no longer visible. Hulah Lake State Game Management Area is represented with a green form.


A third State appears to the east but is yet to be labelled. A red and blue shield symbol appears over a dark orange line. I assume it to be a major highway.


Another State appears along with some more regional centres, Wichita and Springfield.


States are now labelled, the 3rd being Missouri and the 4th Arkansas. Green polygons encloses  Mark Twain National Forest.


States multiply rapidly on this scale, many cities from Las Vegas and Nashville are labelled.


A blue/white interface which I recognise as being the iconic coastline of North America is visible. The Pacific, Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes - along with a chunk of Canada and Mexico, are also visible.


This is the default starting zoom level of Gmaps. Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico are labelled, but not Canada. Roads are no longer visible at this level of zoom.


Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America are visible, but only partially labelled. All states in the USA are labelled as acronyms, but only 3 of Central America’s 8 nations are labelled. The Equator is represented with a dotted line.


All continents at least partially visible (except Antarctica), select countries are labelled. The United States is labelled as such.  Only four countries have their state boarder included: Australia, Brazil, Canada, USA.


National boarders no longer feature, only the continents and oceans are labelled.


Maximum zoom out. The blue and white Mercator world map loops above an ambient grey background. Nothing is labelled.

Table 2 - Scaling from Gmaps Prime Point.

By the rhetorical choice of what to represent with a label/symbol, and the hierarchy with which they are woven through the scales, Gmaps is a cultural product and producer. Notice the extreme lack of data concerning nature, in contrast to the volume of information concerning political boundaries and commercial entities.

Commercial Contours

Keyhole Inc. founder and director of Gmaps, John Hanke, said that Google views "location-targeted ads as a very large business opportunity … [that] will have a broad, uplifting affect on this industry, and you're going to see aggressive investments in the base maps themselves" (cited in Rosmarin).

As a free service (that can be upgraded for a price), Gmaps allows businesses to list a “Google-Place”; this consists of a small symbol appearing on their point of the map and a search index listing. Every searchable commercial entity one can find on Gmaps has done this. Also for a price, advertisers can now upgrade from a generic symbol to their company's brand. A study of the corporate power and the branding of culture, similar to No Logo, would have much to say about Gmaps.

The hierarchy that Gmaps employs to prioritise its advertisers across the different scales is not clear. The reader is invited to partake in the following experiment: choose any metropolitan area in any country and zoom to +15 in a central commercial area. Then slowly zoom out taking note of inconsistencies in how labels and symbols disappear from the map at different scales. For example, in Coffeyville, Pizza Hut visible on at zoom +11 and Subway visible only from +12 onwards.

Perhaps the term 'any country' is an overstatement. While true for most of the world, there are exceptions. According to Gmaps the Al Rasheed Hotel is the only business in Baghdad, and North Korea is utterly featureless on the map setting. Although if one switches to ‘satellite’ mode, detailed aerial photographs of North Korea are available, and in much higher quality than most of rural Australia, a fact that the regime may interpret as threatening. Interestingly, Israel—and the other occupied territories—have the reverse issue with the US Congress passing an amendment titled 'Prohibition on collection and release of detailed satellite imagery relating to Israel' which limits the possible resolution of aerial images that Gmaps can release.

Despite these inconsistencies, the majority of the world presented in Gmaps is filled with specific business listings, which begs the question: why are some advertiser’s symbols visible at a larger scale than their competition? Do they pay for the privilege? From an advertiser’s perspective surely it is advantageous to have their business listed on the largest scale possible. It would appear that the symbol-scale hierarchy may be linked to: the distance of the business from the centre of the city; the quality of reviews posted by users; and the number of citations available. Yet this is speculative at best; Gmaps and Google-Places offer no explanations, customer service or enquiry points for users.

A Cyberspace of Resistance

Unlike traditional paper maps, Gmaps is interactive, a fact that brings with it a whole new level of complexity and order. From this has emerged, to use Foucault's term, a space for resistance, for people to produce and distribute “counter-maps” with “counter knowledge.”

While Google has added many useful/interesting facets to Gmaps (traffic conditions) and through their 'technology driven philanthropy' arm (for example, the H1N1 Flu shot finder), the most interesting use of this GIS are third party mashups. The Encyclopaedia of GIS defines a mashup as: “an online application or website that seamlessly combines content from several sources. GIS mashups typically combine spatial data and maps from several web sources to produce composite thematic maps” (Shekar 408).

For example, Wikipediavision feeds Wikipedia’s recent changes into the Gmaps interface so allowing users to see a real-time representation of where anonymous edits geospatially originate. There is a huge array of websites that include Gmaps mashups, including mapping corporate campaign donations in US elections; superimposing historic maps over modern territories; mapping UFO sightings; and even simulating a nuclear bomb blast.

At present Google allows users to create mashups free of charge, although in the future they may be used for commercial advantage as part of Google’s “aggressive investment” because the company ultimately controls the information presented in mashups via an end-user licensing agreement (Crampton 93), unlike other open source GIS. Mashup maps are a fascinating development in cartography, as they allow for complex, non-liner spatial data to be analysed and presented (Shekar, 408); and are a fertile area for future research.  

I suggest that many of the aforementioned issues with Gmaps could be eliminated if it was not the product of a profit-driven corporation. A non-commercial, open source GIS that utilises wiki and crowd-sourcing techniques could be created as a dialogue with the stake-holding public. Of the existing popular GIS website, most closely resembles this.

What Image of the World?

To get intelligible spatial information from Gmaps one needs access to a suitably powerful computer and an Internet connection of reasonable speed: two preconditions that unfortunately exclude a significant portion of Earth’s population. Once connected, one is required to have a sufficient level of computer skills to operate the websites’ interface. Then there is the veil of symbolic knowledge, cartographic techniques and cultural conventions that are necessary to decode the map, a task made more troubling by the absence of a map legend and Google’s lack of transparency, particularly concerning their commercial interests. Should one fulfil the above requirements: what sort of image of the world does Gmaps portray?

If maps are interpreted as a nature/culture interface then Gmaps depicts a stunning lack of information on the nature side of the equation. Gmaps depicts an anthropocentric world of advertisements and automobiles. Although, through its interactivity and mashups, there is a dynamic space for resistance against what Foucault may have described as the self-surveilling “Google panopticon.”

Farman's question about Google Earth could also apply to Gmaps: if its “ancestry is founded in colonial cartography and its tools, aerial and satellite photography, are rooted in militaristic practices; then what is the empire it maps?” (876).  

I argue that it maps Google's corporate digital-empire: it is their vision of globalisation. This world-image, which is as much an image of social order as it is a representation of the physical Earth, is presented to an audience of unprecedented size where it serves to increases Google’s corporate-political power.


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Author Biography

Timothy Erik Strom, Southern Cross University

Born in 1985 Timothy Strom was raised in Coffs Harbour where he lived until attending Southern Cross University in Lismore and studied Cultural Studies and Multimedia. He finished his degree at Universitat de Barcelona before returning to SCU to do a creative/critical honours thesis looking at the privatisation of water. After graduating he moved to South Korea, where he lived and worked for 18 months. He is currently in Australia, travelling, writing and working on an array of different projects.