A Modern-Day Mercator: Do History’s Racial Biases Live On in Google Earth?

Colleen McDermott


Sept 2021


Introduction: The Evolution of Cartography

For a tool that has shaped modern human history, maps are notoriously inaccurate. This concept is rather easy to grasp further back in our timeline. The Imago Mundi, for example — the first known world map ever created, dating to the 6th century BCE — pictures the region of Babylon surrounded by a circular sea and islands of mythical beasts (“Babylonian Map of the World”). Ptolemy, called the father of geography, did not fare much better with his own world map in 150 AD that limited the universe from the Canary Islands to Korea and connected southern Africa to the Asian mainland (Brotton). Essentially, if a rendering of our planet is found scrawled on a tablet, papyrus, or stained parchment, it is likely to raise the eyebrows of some suspicious customers.

Unfortunately, the modern maps hanging in our class-rooms and diplomatic halls are not free of errors themselves. Any attempt to represent a spherical globe on a flat surface will forego authenticity in some way, and it is up to us to determine what edition we prefer — what sacrifices we are willing to make. For centuries, the Mercator projection has dominated. Originally created to aid sailing navigators, this map stretches continents at the poles and creates the illusion that northern-latitude countries dwarf those of the Global South (if you tend to visualize Greenland as larger than Africa, for example, you are probably familiar with the Mercator projection) (Monmonier xi). Cartographers have long argued over the Mercator’s common use, but recent years have finally seen a shift in spatial thinking. In 2017, the Boston public school system stirred up worldwide headlines with their switch to the more accurate Peters projection (Johnston). Even more popular is the move to digital platforms such as Google Earth, a tool I remember exploring in social studies class as early as seventh grade. Since its inception in 2005, Google Earth has been praised for its precision and real imagery — but to what extent can we truly call this software accurate? Though Google Earth provides a true-to-scale physical representation of the planet, its uneven Street View distribution and discrepancies in user-generated content essentially mirror the historic racial bias of the Mercator projection, shadowing the Global South in favor of Western culture.

In this paper I will uncover the takeaways of the longstanding Mercator-Peters debate and how this conflict has necessitated digital cartographic platforms. Google Earth will be examined with respect to its distinctive features and its role in a larger social context. Finally, I will analyze why exactly the discrepancies of Google Earth represent a troubling issue, implicating what the effects are when we project our worldviews upon a literal “view of the world.”

The Mercator-Peters Debate: A True World War

Distinguished professor of geography Mark Monmonier outlines the history of the Mercator projection and its ensuing controversies in his book Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection. The story began, according to Monmonier, in 1569, when globemaker Gerard Mercator designed a flat map upon which navigators could easily plot a straight-line course across the sea (4). Called rhumb lines, these paths could only be kept consistent by increasing the space between the map’s east-west parallels as they moved further from the equator. Thus, the Mercator projection emerged as a victory for sailors of the sixteenth century and beyond, who had no reason to care about the polar stretching that turned Russia, Greenland, Canada, and Antarctica into behemoth landmasses. The problem with this projection only occurred when it grew roots outside the context of navigation. Rectangular and abound with straight lines, the Mercator map became an ideal choice for classroom walls and schoolbooks, silently disseminating a skewed perception of the world (123). In other instances, however, its distortion has not been so innocent. Because the projection’s polar expansion is technically infinite, the map must be cut off somewhere; the popular choice to eliminate Antarctica entirely centers the image on Western Europe, to which Monmonier adds, “if you’re a humanist well versed in European imperialism’s harsh imprint on the Third World, the traditional Greenwich-anchored world map becomes a clear example of Western cultural hegemony, and all the more so when a Mercator projection inflates the size of western Europe” (139).

In response to this shadowing of equatorial nations, a new projection was pushed in 1973 by Arno Peters (Monmonier 147). Whereas the Mercator projection stretched continents at the poles, the Peters projection slightly altered shapes at high latitudes for the greater cause of representing accurate land area across the board. A valiant and well-meaning effort to uplift the Global South, the Peters projection still came under fire, not necessarily because people were pro-Mercator but because they believed this new map was not the proper replacement. It did not correctly depict distances in all areas, one critic claimed, and, besides, other maps already existed that depicted accurate continent sizes without such distortions (148). In a world that values both tradition and justice, this debate has predictably avoided a resolution.

An early episode of the television show The West Wing illustrates the effect of the conflict perhaps best of all. When a lobbyist points out the grand flaws of the Mercator map and urges C.J. Cregg, the president’s press secretary, to support the Peters projection, their listener is baffled. The lobbyist finishes with, “So, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with social equality,” to which Cregg answers, “No, I’m wondering where France really is.”

Ultimately, the average map user is likely not going to be well-versed in the racial intricacies entwined in cartography’s history. They simply want to know the truth: where are countries supposed to be? How big are the continents, actually? Are Greenland and Africa the same size or not? It was imperative, then, that the rapidly-developing technology of the early 2000’s tackle these questions and produce a solution: a true-to-life globe visible on the flat screen of a computer.

Google Earth: Street View, Social Change, and Cyberscapes

Whether one uses Google Earth to cheekily spy on their neighborhood from space or to enact powerful social change, it is challenging at first glance to discern potential misrepresentations. Only in carefully evaluating the software’s features and interpreting them through the work of scholars can Google Earth’s racial injustices be exposed.

Upon opening Google Earth, users find a depiction of the planet suspended in dark, starry space. Clicking and dragging spins the globe to new locations and orientations, and a toggle on the side allows the user to zoom in as close as the roof of their house, for Google Earth compiles its graphics directly from satellite images. And if the user wishes to venture even closer, Google Earth presents an option to get their feet on the ground in the form of its celebrated Street View feature.

Street View essentially acts as a type of virtual reality; dragging a human icon to a highlighted blue road will present this precise location as one would see it in real life. However, mere minutes of playing with this feature are enough to indicate that there are perhaps limits to local exploration. While Paris, Los Angeles, Moscow, and small-town America can all be traversed with ease, much of Africa and southern Asia lack Street View service entirely, a detail that raises issues given the feature’s intended purposes. In “Google Street View: Capturing the World at Street Level,” actual Google engineers Dragomir Anguelov et al. describe the globetrotting technology their team has created, noting, “For example, Street View is a powerful tool for finding local businesses, getting driving directions, or doing a real estate search” (34). While the rest of Google Earth is practical for large-scale observations, Street View specifically aids users with tasks related to the regions in which it is available. As the Google employees state, it helps someone interested in physically going to the area at a later date, perhaps even to move and settle down there. Thus, when Street View distribution happens to be sorely deficient in the Global South, these countries are posited as lacking opportunities as well, both recreational and commercial. The inlaid suggestion becomes even more extreme when one remembers just how realistic Street View imagery truly is. Across nations of the Northern Hemisphere, one can take to the streets and find cars driving down the road, families gathered outside, children gaping directly at the camera. Therefore, places without Street View can additionally be seen as human dry zones, where individual lives and rich cultures do not exist as they do in front of Google’s cameras.

Though I make a strong claim here, it is important to acknowledge that this observed racial shadowing is likely not intentional on the part of Google. Anguelov et al. underscore this fact in their article when they state, “analysis showed it [Street View] was within reach of an organized effort at an affordable scale, over a period of years — at least in those parts of the world where political systems make it possible” (37). Capturing images of every road on the face of the planet is indeed a massive undertaking, and truthfully, not every country is stable enough to permit the technology just yet. Similarly, Monmonier reminds us that Mercator did not diminish the Global South out of bitter, blatant racism — he stretched the poles for navigation purposes only and, in fact, used equal-area maps in all other areas of his cartographic work (14). Ultimately, Google Earth’s Street View conundrum is yet another example of a statement that has been true since mapmaking’s start: it is simply difficult to represent the world in an accurate and unbiased way, no matter how much our technology improves.

This same sentiment can be applied to specific aspects of Google Earth’s user-generated content — though not all. Google Earth is unique among public map software in that practically anybody can upload their own contributions to the platform, a feature that media professor Catherine Summerhayes sums up nicely in Google Earth: Outreach and Activism when she says, “Google [Earth] provides a new kind of highly sophisticated, innovative social media” (25). The user simply has to click a single button in their “Layers” tab, and picture icons will sprout at locations all across the world, free for anyone to see. Naturally, cities and their highly-populated suburbs appear to contain far more of these icons than do rural areas — not a purposeful disparity but rather one dependent on the amount of people living in and visiting different regions.

Summerhayes further illustrates how content can be added in a far more impartial manner and even for a good cause. In 2007, she tells us, Google Earth appeared to take on a more humanitarian role with the creation of its “Awareness Layers” and the “Crisis in Darfur” project (Summerhayes 106). At this time, the violent uprisings were ravaging the Darfur region of western Sudan. Rebel militia groups clashed with the government, resulting in a conflict that left hundreds of villages destroyed, many of their inhabitants dead or displaced, and much of the rest of the world ignorant to the genocide’s existence. Thus, Crisis in Darfur was created through a partnership between Google and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an interactive layer on Google Earth that raised awareness of the violence through images, personal accounts, and flame icons symbolizing the hundreds of burned villages (Summerhayes 109). Of this initiative and its effects, Summerhayes held a positive opinion, saying, “does the way we can interact with Google Earth offer a new pathway for compassion? I suggest that the Google Earth layer Crisis in Darfur… offers an opportunity to appraise a new conjunction between those who see and those who are seen” (18). I do agree with Summerhayes that the Crisis in Darfur effort has been essential in fostering awareness of Sudan’s genocide and sympathy for its people’s experiences. However, I also feel we must be wary of her optimistic view of Google Earth’s “seers” and “seen.” As I have discussed previously, “visibility” does not mean the same thing across the board when it comes to Google Earth. To some regions, it means Street View cameras capturing human activities and idyllic lifestyles. To others, like Darfur, it means flame icons and stories of suffering and nothing else, for Sudan is among several African countries lacking any Street View coverage whatsoever. In this way, well-meaning efforts like the Crisis in Darfur project can raise awareness but perhaps not necessarily comprehensive understandings, as it prompts a victim narrative to reign supreme in the minds of users rather than the idea that developing countries are places of rich culture and lifestyles.

Crisis in Darfur, however, represents only one example of the grim, deadly events that find a place on Google Earth. Hurricane Katrina’s arrival on the Gulf Coast represents perhaps an even more harrowing model of Google Earth’s configuration to obscure minority groups in the wake of disaster. As Michael Crutcher and Matthew Zook observe in their article “Placemarks and waterlines: Racialized cyberscapes in post-Katrina Google Earth,” Google Earth had only existed for a few months by the time of the storm’s landfall, but already its social impact could be seen. Crutcher and Zook focus in particular on the New Orleans “cyberscape” — a term they give to the links between physical space and cyberspace — with regards to user-generated placemarks. Directly prior to Katrina, New Orleans was, like many other cities, unofficially racially segregated, with white people generally concentrated in the historic neighborhoods along the Mississippi River and black people living in “backswamp ghettos” downstream of the river’s protective levy (Crutcher and Zook 527). Interestingly enough, the placemarks users added to the city (clickable signposts offering information and images of houses, restaurants, attractions, and so on) arranged themselves by the same boundaries: plenty in the popular Garden District, virtually none in the largely African American Ninth Ward. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, the troubling notions of this discrepancy were reflected onto an even more severe scale. Here, users uploaded specialized placemarks to Google Earth through the website Sciponius.com that relayed up-to-date information about the storm’s effects, such as how many inches of flooding a certain neighborhood was seeing or sites of significant damage (Crutcher and Zook 530). Upon conducting a spatial analysis of this data, Crutcher and Zook concluded they found “a clear relationship between the racial makeup of an area and its post-Katrina cyberscape of Google Earth placemarks. Neighborhoods with high percentages of African Americans were significantly less likely to have informational comments about them posted at the Sciponius website” (532). This discovery ultimately speaks volumes to the dangers racial minorities have faced (and still do) when natural disasters arrive. Whereas the pre-Katrina discrepancy demonstrated a disregard for black neighborhoods’ restaurants and sites, the post-Katrina discrepancy demonstrated a disregard for these people’s own safety. It is a historic and unfortunate story Google Earth’s placemarks engage in, that which has neglected both minorities’ ways of life and their lives themselves for centuries.

What factors, then, actually account for this placemark trend? Crutcher and Zook acknowledge the “digital lag” as a major element, the ongoing process of low-income groups and minorities procuring access to new technologies after wealthier white groups (527). Naturally, as Google Earth was in its infancy at the time of Katrina’s landfall, the digital lag postulates that the mapping software would have not yet been pervasive in New Orleans’ African American neighborhoods. When viewed in its full complex, the implications of this issue are striking — during one of the United States’ most deadly natural disasters, systemic marginalization meant a large fraction of the population lacked access to a potentially lifesaving tool.

The digital lag maintains an ugly presence across the world today — its effects just as dramatic as Hurricane Katrina’s when taken in a long-term consideration. In their 2018 study “Google Earth Engine Applications Since Inception: Usage, Trends, and Potential,” Lalit Kumar and Onisimo Mutanga examined 1,447 auth-ors that used Google Earth in their research articles. Their analysis found that 41% of all the authors came from the United States, while a practically negligible amount hailed from developing countries. This concept of the digital lag was the most plausible cause, as Kumar and Mutanga cited accessibility issues and remarked that “Of a few universities rapidly surveyed in South Africa… very few apply GEE [Google Earth Engine] in teaching at undergraduate and post-graduate levels, and [at] neither is there widespread knowledge of its existence.” Thus, it is clear that the underrepresentation of minority groups with regards to Google Earth extends beyond the screen and into the real world. The discrepancies in Street View availability and its effects with regards to the Crisis in Darfur project are dangerous on their own, shadowing developing countries and subsequently fostering misleading perceptions. However, the issue of the digital lag demonstrated by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina introduces a problem the Mercator projection never quite did. With the beneficial and even heroic components of Google Earth becoming more and more evident, it is imperative we expand its accessibility to all populations, and quickly — when the next disaster strikes, lives might depend on it.

Conclusion: The Justice at Stake

When there was no end in sight for the longstanding Mercator-Peters debate, Google Earth arose as a seemingly perfect solution. Shaped like an actual globe, pieced together through real satellite imagery, depicting correct continent sizes and shapes — the software appeared to have it all. However, emerging evidence has indicated that while Google Earth does not physically emphasize northern countries as did the Mercator projection, several of its features nevertheless sustain this 16th-century map’s racialized disparities. Unequal Street View distributions shroud the lifestyles of the developing world in secrecy, an unfortunate circumstance when the only things to fill this vacuum are humanitarian projects highlighting stories of suffering. Similarly, content added to the platform by users themselves has been shown to follow this segregated trend as a result of the ongoing digital lag, demonstrated by the boundaries between placemarks in 2005 New Orleans. With the issue of racial bias in Google Earth identified, we must now turn to an even more important question: why does it matter? Why should we care?

Monmonier would likely argue there is no reason to worry. He critiques the emphasis people often place on maps’ effects with the reasoning, “Did Europe’s rulers and merchants need wall maps or world atlases to justify their actions? Did maps that inflated the size of the British Empire stifle whatever remorse nineteenth-century Britons might have had about racism and economic slavery in Africa or India?” (Monmonier 174). Unfortunately, the argument that maps do not realistically alter our mindsets cannot be applied to the current example, a map with a colossus corporation pulling strings behind the scenes. Following Google Earth’s creation, outrage was sparked across the globe, according to Sangeet Kumar in “Google Earth and the nation state: Sovereignty in the age of new media.” Countries like Australia, the Netherlands, Thailand, South Korea, and more almost immediately raised concerns about the security threats Google Earth posed with their high-resolution imagery, and India pointed out that the platform’s borders in areas such as its contested Kashmir region were different from those officially recognized by the Indian government (Kumar 161-163). However, Google had no legal obligation to respond to matters raised by any country besides the United States where its headquarters are located (Kumar 169).

The implications raised here are troubling. Beyond Google Earth is Google itself, an entity that appears to be taking on an even larger role as a global player, holding power over entire countries with worryingly low levels of regulation. And while perhaps social impact of the Mercator projection was minimal, as Monmonier believes, we are dealing with a much more prominent institution. With the problem of Google Earth’s racial biases established, we must now work towards facing the issue head-on, open space for discussion on how to point Google towards using their power for good.

C.J. Cregg made it clear in The West Wing: when it comes to maps, people want accuracy. They want the truth. And if our 2,600-year-long cartography history is any indication, we have a long road ahead of us still.

Works Cited

Anguelov, Dragomir, et al. “Google Street View: Capturing the World at Street Level.” Computer, 43:6. 2010. 32-38.

“Babylonian Map of the World.” World History Encyclopedia. 26 Apr. 2012.

Brotton, Jerry. “A History of the World in Twelve Maps.” Time. 15 Nov. 2013.

Crutcher, Michael and Matthew Zook. “Placemarks and waterlines: Racialized cyberscapes in post-Katrina Google Earth.” Geoforum, 40:4. 2009. 523-534.

Johnston, Ian. “US schools to get a new world map after 500 years of ‘colonial’ distortion.” The Independent. 20 Mar. 2017.

Kumar, Lalit and Onisimo Mutanga. “Google Earth Engine Applications Since Inception: Usage, Trends, and Potential.” Remote Sensing, 10:10. 2018.

Kumar, Sangeet. “Google Earth and the nation state: Sovereignty in the age of new media.” Global Media and Communication, 6:10. 2010. 154-176.

Monmonier, Mark. Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection. University of Chicago Press. 2004.

Summerhayes, Catherine. Google Earth: Outreach and Activism. Bloomsbury. 2015.

Colleen McDermott is from Collegeville, Pennsylvania and studies in the College of Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

researchLeslie LiuIssue 2