Just as “there hasnt” single, standardised world map, our digital maps take various kinds and it matters who is depicting them and how theyre drawn

Imagine if it would have more of an impact for Palestine to be recognised as a sovereign country by Google than by the UN. Its a suggestion thats caught fire a five-month-old online petition demanding Palestine be labeled and bordered in Google Maps has gained more than 250,000 signatures only over the past few days.

The issue is far more nuanced than the instantaneous outrage about Google wiping Palestine from the map would suggest. Google has never actually labeled the country, which isnt officially recognised by the US or much of the west. The swiftness of the backlash, though, is not just about the wish for justice on behalf of an occupied people, but about the notion now punctured that our technology is neutral, that it presents an unbiased, infallible version of the world.

Prior to the sail expeditions that began with the Renaissance, humanity had no map of the world. In 1891 a German geographer called Albrecht Penck proposed and set out to lead an International World Map project, by which all maps would be designed based on a single international standard. According to Jerry Brottons book A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Penck bemoaned a lack of consistency among scales and even styles of extant maps, and dreamed of collaborating with the cartographic the organizations of the world to create a great atlas of 2,500 maps, all where 1 inch would equal 15.78 miles, or one centimetre per kilometre.

Pencks standardised world atlas would never be finished. Although the UNplanned to carry it on in the 20 th century, commitment waned during world war two. Despite the sunk cost, relatively important in its time, just a few hundred maps were created. Still, it remains the closest humanity has ever come to a global mapmaking criterion. Despite the common notion of maps as universal and inarguable, they remain a riot of inconsistent measures, evolving coastlines, and constantly shifting ideas about nations and their sovereignty.

Not even Google can do what Penck could not: create a vision of the globe that is true for all who see it. But in fact it has tried one thing many of us are learning for the first time off the back of the Palestine controversy is that Google Maps sometimes demonstrates disputed perimeters differently depending on where the user is searching from. An ongoing project called Disputed Territories has documented this: for example, it reports, America and much of the west opinions Crimea in the Ukraine as a site of Russian occupation, and it appears on the map as such. However, to map users in Russia, the boundary is solid, an official annexation.

While it might seem imperialistic for Google to decide how the US should find the rest of the world, perhaps it would be equally troubling to see the company wade into global verdicts on the righteousness of every international occupation. That it allows its sketch of the geopolitical climate to reflect the perspective of who is viewing it, rather than impose the prevailing popular opinion in the west, may not be neutral or unbiased, but it is probably the most fair.

Where we wade into difficulty is the absence of transparency that average users have about how these services run. We often presume technology has no preference, but it often does, even something such as hiring by algorithm doesnt inevitably remove human discrimination ,~ ATAGEND as many believe.

During high school, our history and social analyzes teachers had us brought under multiple newspaper clippings of the same news story from both liberal and conservative outlets, and taught us to identify bias in headlines, term selections and selected slants. It was impressed on us how important it was we know that the news was not a single trustworthy monolith, and that we should learn to compare different sources and perspectives as critical readers in order to understand the world. We require similar education for adults as well as young people on the opacity and capriciousness of privately held technology platforms, and how the things we presume to be standardised utilities are staggeringly influenced by biases in the data used to build them.

Until researching this article I didnt know that there had never been a single, standardised world map project but of course it attains sense that the project fell apart during the second world war. And many people dont know that there is more than one standard Google Maps( or Apple Maps, which doesnt indicate Palestine either, or Microsofts Bing Maps, which does) depending on where in the world you are. Or that there are different search results for different people, and that those search results can be biased, even discriminatory.

Our many digital maps must account for multiple views of the world but their existence also must inform us that ours is only one among them. An expanded mapping utility that encouraged users to view the world from many different perspectives, complete with current facts, could be a marvellous educational tool.

But no matter what, we need far more transparency from tech companies about the way biases affect what we see when we use their services – and about how the dependable neutrality of a trusted machine is as impossible as Pencks dream of an international world map.

Read more: www.theguardian.com