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Showing the Way
Some historians and GIS pioneers, however, dismiss this version of GIS history with a mixture of irritation and disdain. Nicholas Chrisman, from Laval University in Quebec City, says the Pentagon produced little, apart from the Global Positioning System, that the commercial world ever found useful. And none of the early developers of GIS software even knew about the physical overlay maps of the New Deal or the Nazi era, he says, while they certainly did know about McHarg’s. ESRI’s Dangermond, for his part, says his company knew little about the military’s work and profited even less from it.

The Pentagon didn’t invent the entire field of GIS, as Clark implies. Yet his search for the dark, hidden ancestors of modern mapmaking illustrates something simple and true: maps – like technological progress itself – are not inherently benevolent.

Even Dangermond, when pressed, concedes the point. “I’m not political about how technology gets used. It gets used,” he says. “My own interest was obviously in the area of environmental things. But it gets used by everybody.”

The consequences of those uses vary. Six months ago, relief workers used digital maps to find their way through areas devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami. The U.S. Air Force relies on such maps in Iraq. Aerial photographs and digital mapmaking tools are allowing the governments of Uruguay and Brazil to survey and sell off vast tracts of land. “Sitting there in Arlington, Virginia, you can buy land in Brazil,” says Christopher Simpson, a professor of communications at American University in Washington, DC, who’s been studying current uses of remote sensing in Latin America. In theory, Brazilian peasants can buy the land they currently till. But in practice, Simpson says, the best properties will be snapped up by “those with the most resources, who are best organized, with the best overview.” In other words, those with access to digital maps of millions of unclaimed acres.

Geographic information systems extend the reach of the human imagination, but in the end, they mainly help people do what they wanted to do in the first place. They’re tools for preserving nature or destroying it, for defending human communities or obliterating them, for empowering or impoverishing. Maps can show us the way, wherever we choose to go.

Daniel Charles reported on technology for National Public Radio and wrote Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare.

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