For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in maps. When I was a senior in high school, my father received a housing allowance for the first time, so that we could buy our own house. (A pastor’s kid, I had grown up in parsonages – houses owned by the churches Dad served.) At last I could actually hang things on the wall! I set aside one wall for a mural, and covered the rest of the walls – and part of the ceiling! – with a small portion of my National Geographic map collection. I organized them by region of the world – maps of Asia here, maps of Africa there, maps of Latin America on another wall with maps of the U.S. nearby… I supplemented the maps with photos cut out of magazines – I remember in particular a photo of Benazir Bhutto that I had tacked to the corner of my map of central Asia, but mostly the photos were of landscapes or famous buildings.
I spent a lot of time in my room listening to music and carefully studying my maps, learning not just about the world, but also noticing different projections, and different mapping styles. It was harder to learn about things like this in an instant: the internet was not widely available yet. So I headed down to the map store at the mall and bought a book simply entitled Cartography.
Any news item on mapping still catches my attention, so I had to take a look when my friend Kara Slade (a regular contributor to Profligate Grace and all around brilliant person) posted this article on Facebook, with the comment “This is why cartography is problematic.” Among other things, the article pointed out that a dearth of female developers for OpenStreetMap make it very easy to find sex clubs, and difficult to find women’s health clinics. It’s not that this particular group of nerdy middle class white guys are trying not to map things of interest to lower and middle class women – they just don’t see those things.
Another thing that the article points out briefly is the difference that different projections make in how we see the world. Representing a sphere in two dimensions is itself problematic from the very beginning. But it is sometimes essential to do so. Globes are just not all that portable. And they are expensive and take up a lot of space. Are you going to put a globe on the desk of every student in a fifth grade classroom? And then where are you going to put all those globes during the math lesson? Better just stick to the map in the front cover of their text book. But which projection should we use? The web-comic xkcd offers a handy guide.
Our friend Robert Fischer (software engineer and theologian with an interest in cognitive science – interesting fellow – follow him on Twitter) asked about Kara’s link: “Problematic for whom? What’s the problem?” Cartography is necessary – it is a solution on the face of it, not a problem. But most solutions carry within them the seed of a problem. (Or, to paraphrase my favorite software engineer – my husband, Brian – often the surest way to improve code is by deleting about 80% of it.) The problem with cartography is that it is an interpretation disguised as a factual representation.
Cartographers generally recognize that maps are not real, but a handy gesture towards the real, executed with varying degrees of conscientiousness. But the average map reader who is not a hard core map enthusiast reads the map as not merely accurate but even factual. The map reader learns from the map – and not all they learn is objectively true. This sort of blind trust in our maps can even be dangerous – as when a map fails to note one way streets or seasonal road closures. Now that our maps actively tell us where to go (think GPS), these errors can be even more serious. (Note that this map enthusiast is wary of GPS, like a proper Luddite.)
Maps are fascinating – through maps I have travelled all over the world – gained familiarity with the neighborhoods of Manhattan and the elevations of Everest. But what is most fascinating to me is the decision making behind each map – the decisions that make one map different from every other map of the same general area.
Until we teach our children to read maps with the same critical eye that we cultivate in literature classes, maps will continue to be problematic. Too many people do not generalize the insights of literary criticism: the tools we are given in our literature classes can be applied to any human document – maps, commercials, food packaging… sermons…
Until we read beneath a map, we are missing the most interesting stories that map has to tell.