Thinking with and through Mapping Interfaces

Alex Gekker

Mapping Interfaces, like Google Maps, or SatNavs, occupy a special place in complex technological assemblages, due to the dual propositions of (1) the enhanced entanglement between the interface and the content compared to other types of interfaces; and (2) the unique position of the map’s interface as a supposed digital membrane between two physical entities: the user and the world. To paraphrase, the interface of a digital map in daily conduct is a sign-thing (Lammes 2011) that is created with certain intents (which can be circumvented): affording users to perform specific tasks in the physical world, while minimizing their cognitive load. Like any good technology, it relies on its ability to black-box itself from external scrutiny as “the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become” (Latour 1999, 304). Unlike other technologies, digital mapping, especially as a mobile application, positions itself as a first stage of a complex move of a double referent, twice removed from the world. The (paper) interface of the map has always been a stand-in for the physical and social features it represented. A convenient stand-in, easily mistaken for the signified, framed by images of techno-objectivity, from which Alfred Korybski famously warns us in his, albeit non-cartographic, maxim “the map is not the territory” (Korzybski 1933). A digital map complicates this move by being displayed on a screen which in itself built on computational metaphors fostered by computer scientists, HCI researchers and designers alike (Bolter and Gromala 2005; Drucker 2011). The digital map is thus in the same time a reference to a ‘real’ space which interests the user, and a referent of the screen that constructs it as an achievable action within the framework of current computational regime (Galloway 2012; Berry 2014).


Alex Gekker is a PhD candidate at the Utrecht University Media and Culture department on the ERC research project Charting the Digital:Digital Mapping Practices as New Media Cultures. In this project, he examines digital map interfaces from perspective of casual engagement, playfulness and power. He is also a founding member of Games for Health Europe team, and participate in various serious games related activities.