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American cartographic transformations during the Cold War

January 22, 2009

via iDC – mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity

by John Cloud
Cornell University


A great convergence of cartography, secrecy, and power occurred during the Cold War. In the American case, a complex series of interactions between secret and classified programs and institutions and their publicly accessible counterparts accomplished both traditional and novel objectives of military geographic intelligence. This process also yielded the World Geodetic System, a masscentered “figure of the earth” at accuracies adequate for warfare with intercontinental ballistic missiles. A structural and institutional separation developed between enterprises charged with overhead data acquisition systems, which were classified at increasingly high levels of secrecy, and those responsible for data reduction, analysis, and mapping systems, which remained largely unclassified and publicly accessible, in part to conceal the classified data acquisition systems. This structural separation destabilized photogrammetric mapping by displacing systems that privileged dimensional stability with systems that privileged novel sensor types more appropriate to Cold War geo-political objectives and constraints. Eventually, photogrammetric mapping systems were re-stabilized by successfully implementing analytical solutions imposed in digital mapping and data management systems. This achievement re-privileged dimensional stability, now redefined to the new media of geo-referenced digital data. In the early 1970s these developments culminated in advanced research projects of Military Geographic Intelligence Systems (MGIS). Their deployment in the Vietnam War was both their apex and their undoing. In the aftermath, classified mapping and database systems diverged from civilian versions of MGIS, which became known as Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

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