Off the map: The ever-changing map

Just about eight years ago, I started writing this column to focus on the myriad of geopolitical and cultural issues that often yield less attention in the content creation process — most often because their identification and resolution take a different kind of skillset not usually found in the information technology and media spaces. Granted, the same is true of localization professionals, many of whom have wildly diverse backgrounds that often draw upon non-technology focused areas of knowledge, such as linguistics and other social sciences (geography, in my case).

One of the key content areas on which I initially focused here years ago was maps (cartography) as they’re an oft-employed fundamental aspect of visual media. In response to both those specific pieces as well as my consulting work in general, I often hear an inevitable comment from a colleague, something along the lines of “How important can this really be? The world map doesn’t change that quickly.” In respect to that perception, I thought it would be interesting to look back on just the past eight years of this column and point out some ways in which the maps have indeed changed, and the cultural landscape along with them.

Let’s first remind ourselves about this particular content type, the map, as it has its own unique characteristics and methods of care and handling. It may go without saying at this point, but it’s critical to understand that the maps you typically read are the end products of a long process of data collection, compilation and interpretation. This is still true even with today’s technologically-powered systems, which allow for much faster transfer from collection to final representation. Even well-known applications such as Google Maps (which was barely launched when this column started!) require several stages of human intervention based on the available technology, the specific purpose, the intended audience and the organizational context — including political and cultural — in which the creation process takes place. So what may be considered a “correct” map in one country might be seen as a complete fabrication in another, depending on the local geopolitical perspectives and even national laws regarding proper display of maps in that locale. Despite this process being laced with subjectivity, map readers are persistent in their perception that maps are an honest representation of “ground truth.” In other words, they reflect the situation as it really exists on the ground without any bias whatsoever.

So how has the world map actually changed over the past eight years or so? Most significantly, there are two more sovereign nations in our midst: Montenegro and South Sudan. Montenegro had a long history of being a distinct national entity, but it had experienced its share of occupation by various forces and empires. When the former Yugoslavia broke apart in 1992, Montenegro became part of what was then Serbia and Montenegro (and is now just Serbia), but it successfully attained its independence in 2006 — a move not contested by Serbia, unlike its neighbor Kosovo, which is still striving to gain full recognition as a sovereign nation despite having declared its independence and operating mostly autonomously since 2008.

Meanwhile, South Sudan’s emergence in 2011 was the result of a lengthy conflict with its northern counterparts, divided primarily among religious and ethnic lines. Yet despite achieving full independence from Sudan, South Sudan is still dealing with many internal conflicts — not the least of which is the Abyei province, which remains disputed with Sudan over the issue of petroleum resources, since both countries rely heavily on oil for their primary revenue.

Beyond the creation of countries, the map has also changed in more subtle ways, mostly due to the ongoing process of boundary fluctuation, with new disputes arising and old disputes being resolved. A large portion of eastern Tajikistan was ceded to China after a lengthy boundary dispute negotiation; India and China continue to pledge cooperation to resolve their many border disputes; and India and Pakistan have entered a new round of conflict over theirs. In November 2013, the International Court of Justice ruled on the long-standing Thailand-Cambodia dispute around the Preah Vihear temple and awarded the land in favor of Cambodia. Granted, all of these map changes are more subtle compared to the creation of a country but are still no less critical, especially to those local markets most affected.

Naturally, the world has changed beyond the cartographic issues. For example, did you know that 12 national flags have changed in some way over the past eight years? Three of them are straightforward — the flags for the new countries of Montenegro and South Sudan, as well as a whole new design for Lesotho. But others are a wide range of minor and major changes reflecting the local political will. Just to mention a few examples, the Democratic Republic of the Congo decided to readopt its 1966 flag (with a minor color change) while Ethiopia enlarged the central disc and star motif on its flag. Venezuela added an eighth star to account for the disputed Guayana province (essentially half of the country of Guyana) and Paraguay replaced its coat of arms.

Let’s not forget languages as well! In the last eight years, linguists and academic researchers have continued to discover unique languages — something many people assume would be less likely in a world that seems thoroughly explored. A few years ago, researchers in China were able to identify at least 18 new languages related to the Phula cultural groups in Yunnan province. While first believed to be dialects, they discovered that the differences were so stark that villagers even eight kilometers apart were unable to comprehend one another. In the northern part of the contentious region of Kashmir, scientists discovered the Burushaski language spoken by at least 90,000 people, while in the nearby, also-contentious region of Arunachal Pradesh, researchers identified the Koro language, which is only spoken by about 800 people. It’s unlikely that any of these new languages will be of prime consideration for localization in the near future, but their discovery continues to reinforce the ever-dynamic characteristics of culture.

The world in which we perform our culturalization and localization craft is primarily digital in nature, and it would be remiss to overlook the technological changes that have transpired in the past eight years. We have undoubtedly become an extremely socially connected and interactive world; it’s almost hard to imagine that when I started writing this column, LinkedIn was a fledgling website, Facebook was barely getting started and Twitter did not even exist. The notion of “social networking” was then still defined by in-person meetings and conferences. So powerful has the medium become that even monumental sociopolitical changes have been attributed to its existence. The most cited example is probably the Arab Spring movement. Many pundits point to social media as one of the primary catalysts across the Middle East and North Africa that resulted in complete government overthrows in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, in addition to widespread forms of revolt and protest in many other countries in the regions (which sadly continue in some locales at great cost, such as Syria).

Content management tools have changed, distribution methods have radically shifted from hardcopy to digital and we’re now using devices that were barely thought feasible eight years ago, such as the Apple iPhone. Indeed, the world map has changed significantly and will likely continue to do so, but we remind ourselves of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ famous quote: “Nothing endures but change.” Looking forward to the next eight years, we can’t exactly predict the geopolitical, cultural or technological landscape in which we’ll be living and working, but we can certainly be prepared for it by being mindful of the utility of culturalization.