Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It had to end...

I've set up post moderation after getting my first blogspam. Please do comment; I love getting feedback and my hope all along is to have something like a dialogue here. But I'll try to keep ads for Worlds of Warcraft out...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reality Schmeality

This is partly in response to Joe's comments from two posts ago. Joe, you're taking the idea of frames a whole lot further than I was headed... but OK, I'll bite.

I think what Joe is saying is that our understanding of the universe is by necessity blinkered. It's how humans deal with the world -- they filter, frame and label it into if not submission, at least comprehensibility. Sometimes something in the world makes us realize those frames, but most of the time we just ride along happily (or unhappily) ignoring them.

Okeydoke, fair enough. It's not a generally accepted definition of "art," but I really like Duane Preble's comment in Artforms that "aesthetic is the opposite of anaesthetic." That was my quote in my senior college yearbook. I think that's what Joe is talking about: A work makes you realize that part of you has been sleeping by waking you up.

One of the main critiques of mainstream cartography by Denis Wood et al has been that by reinforcing conventional ontologies (this is a road, this is an ocean, etc.), it is in part responsible for that blinkering. That by positing propositions as facts, maps close off alternative understandings of the world.

Guilty as charged. I would point out, however, that this is true of all our conventions of communication. If I decide to abandon conventional English language, no-one will yoddle for you as you beezify them. Which limitation does in itself cause us difficulties unless we we step outside our native language (I really enjoyed V.V. Raman's recent appearance on Speaking of Faith on this subject).

As Joe notes, we kind of need to work within this system of frames and blinkers most of the time, if for no other reason than life is too short to reinvent language for every conversation and besides we'd go insane and starve. But, it sure is neat when we can be surprised and woken up even a little.

Can a map do that? I mean a cartographic map? Not a painting of a map (this example is getting hoary), or a picture that depicts the earth but outside the tradition of cartographic graphic conventions? I often come back to Chris Ware's book jacket for Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid in the World (the website for the book includes a teaser that incorporates some of the jacket art: click on the arrow near "It is now possible to proceed..."). Part of what works here, though, is that one of the main thrusts of the book is a sense of isolation in its characters, which placing them in a cartographic context makes seem inevitable. So perhaps it is specific wakings-up/deblinkerings that can be accomplished in a cartographic milieu. Perhaps a topic for another day...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Through the Looking Glass

When I was in college, I had some peculiar ideas. OK, to be honest I was a little nuts...too much time rattling around inside my own head. The summer between sophomore and junior year I spent working in England, and reading some wonderful but pretty intense books: Diana Wynne Jones’ The Homeward Bounders and Keri Hulmes’s The Bone People are the two that come to mind. The former is about Real Places and how they become and stay Real, the latter about center and periphery, home and away, saved self and lost self. I recommend them both (I should re-read Hulme; I don’t think I have in the intervening 20+ years).

At the end of the trip, I spent a memorable week out on Scarp, an island off the northwest end of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. It’s a truly magical landscape, and I was particularly open to that magic. I wasn’t doing any formal meditation or anything, but there I was in a tent with the sheep and a few folks who had holiday houses out there. I mulled over questions of how I could find and be part of a Real Place; one of Jones’s points is that Real Places are made so through people being truly in them and loving them and caring for them; a viewpoint not dissimilar from The Velveteen Rabbit with all the treacly bits excised. An answer came to me there on Scarp: “I am real, I am here, I am myself.” Pretty basic stuff, but it was a good little mantra. Still is sometimes.

I wrote what was almost certainly a mad-sounding letter to Jones about all this, and received (after my return to the States) a kindly “calm down, it is just a novel” reply from her. And that exchange is really the point of this posting.

To approach it another way, I remember a session at the unfortunately now-defunct Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, a gathering of readers and writers in the fantasy genre. This would be in the early 1990’s. There was a session about “fantasy and religion,” and it became clear over the course of the session that there was a major divide in the group. People were being careful enough and polite enough that it never really became a full argument, but came close when one of the audience rose to ask about the relationship between the explicit cosmological content of the authors work, and the author’s personal religious beliefs. Diane Duane gave what I recall as a very well put response, noting that she was a pretty serious practicing Catholic. She does not believe in wizards or magic as practiced by the characters in her books. To paraphrase William Shatner in his famous Saturday Night Live skit, “It’s a show, guys. Get over it!”

To me this was kind of a revelation, because as a reader who did not interact with writers, I was working in a vacuum. Especially in literary genres where characters are looking at magic, hidden meanings, lost knowledge, etc., the line between fiction and non-fiction may be deliberately blurred for effect (see The Da Vinci Code, et al for similar effects in another genre). I was half-expecting that the writers of this stuff were themselves secretly, I don’t know, witches or something.

They aren’t. At least not as directly as I hoped or expected.

Writers and other creators of narrative forms have this problem all the time. Call it the Don Quixote effect: the writer urges readers through the narrative to open up their hearts to some transcendent quality: romance, wonder, courage, grace, etc. Readers do open themselves up, and are inspired. Readers then ascribe this opening to the work, and therefore to the authors, who must therefore be very wise indeed. But of course they are well-versed craftspeople, not warlocks/sages/prophets.

What the readers don’t realize is how everyday the process of creating the work feels to the creator. It’s a lot of fun and satisfying, sure, but the transcendent experience of reading the book is seldom reflected by a transcendent experience making it. Writers and other creators do talk about “characters writing themselves,” or about how “I am just a conduit for this stuff.” The religious ones praise their deity for the grace to turn this stuff out, the non-religious ones shrug and smile. But the creators also talk about the Butt-In-the-Chair principle, a corollary to Edison’s prescription that genius is 99% perspiration.

Which brings us back to the idea of frames. The construction of frames, whether literally in the visual arts or metaphorically in narrative arts, is a Butt-in-the-Chair craft and technique sort of process. Some of it is what fantasy writers call “world building,” and historical writers call “research,” learning/developing enough sense of the world within which the story will develop, that the writer feels comfortable having the characters hop around in it. This is important to remember; sometimes it feels to readers like the point of world-building/research is to create that world for their entertainment, but the point is usually to make a workspace for the writer to be able to comfortably work within.

This is why sitcoms are usually framed in such a limited number of spaces: the writers and actors can behave with much less inhibition-from-lack-of-knowledge when they know exactly where Archie Bunker keeps his keys and what time Meathead gets off work. And with this strong sense of “home,” they can feel free to introduce new characters and settings one at a time.
Next up: inspiration.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Imagine three frames, each on a wall, with essentially the same view of a landscape through them. The first is a window in a house, the second is a painting, and the third is a window on a theatrical stage.

In the case of the real window, the world seen through the window is in fact three-dimensional, and one can assume that clues in this window to what lies beyond the line of sight of the person inside will be largely confirmed in fact: a view of downtown New York will not be replaced by a view of rural Vermont if you stick your head out and look off to the left.

In the case of the painting, one can assume there was a model for the painting: what one sees is a fiction based on visual documentation. But even as a work of fiction, the conventions of landscape painting imply that if one could stick one's head through the picture-plane as if it were a window, one would have the same effect as above: the fictional landscape seen in the picture continues past the "window," while the painting itself probably doesn't continue much past the edge of the frame.

In the third case, a scene seen through a window in a stage-set, the set designer is portraying something similar to the first instance, but the portrayal is only as good as it needs to be to fool the audience. Beyond the sightlines of the audience, the backdrop with landscape painted on it is left unpainted, such that an actor looking through the window could clearly see the edge of the artwork, even the edge of the surface the painting was made on. The character that actor plays, however, has fictionally the same experience as the first viewer.

This framing effect, implying a world past what we can see, is basic to "realistic" arts in all their forms. Characters arriving into a scene in a movie or play in mid-conversation imply there actually was a conversation before we heard it. An apartment in a novel or an interior decorator's plan is assumed to be part of a larger building. A person whose mug-shot we see is assumed to actually have a torso.

And territory mapped is assumed to continue past the edge of the map.

The set designer, the landscape painter, and the cartographer are very much aware that their work is creating an illusion of continuity past the picture-frame, while the user does not need to be aware of the falsity of this illusion and in fact needs to ignore it in order to use the picture/set/map as it is intended. I'm thinking this is a major (the major?) divide between creator and user. More on that divide next time.

Friday, November 9, 2007

talk around the block all day and night

1. There's been a good discussion lately on Cartotalk on "bad maps," which touches upon some of the issues here.

2. My younger brother has been in geovisualization as long as I have (actually longer, I think), and we've been talking for a long time about doing a joint blog. We've finally gotten it up and running, I hope. Come on over if you are interested: the more comments the merrier! the address is

[Note 2/17/13: the blog never really went anywhere, so we abandoned it after a while]

Friday, November 2, 2007

Class Acts and Right Maps

[note: sorry to re-edit afterposting, but I just re-read this and parts make no sense even to me. Hence the rewrite —Nat]

I read The Invention of Art by Larry Shiner almost two years ago, and since then it's been at the center of my arguments, at first about maps and art, and more recently about cartography as a tradition. So I went out on the web recently to see what other folks were saying about Shiner and found... precious little. Disappointing. I did run across an interview by Stewart Home with Roger Taylor, who wrote a book almost 30 years ago called Art, an Enemy of the People. The interview is largely taken up with comparisons between Shiner and Taylor's approaches. The book sounded interesting, so I got it from the library.

It's been a slow slog. In spite of his goal of "writing for the people," the style is, well, thick. But it's an interesting read for all that. As the interview alludes to, while Shiner talks about the class-based origins of Fine Arts in the 17th and 18th century and then moves on, Taylor's standpoint remains rooted in questions of class (Shiner moves away from class discussions in discussing Art's alienation).

I don't think about class much as such. As an American, I've learned it's impolite to talk about class. I know class is a larger part of European public consciousness, but... I've never honestly seen it so starkly illustrated as when comparing the American (Shiner) with the Brit (Taylor).

Taylor's history of the rise of Art is a bit more nuanced than Shiners. He puts the initial formulation of Fine Arts somewhere in the sixteenth century. It was (he says) initially a theory grounded in the concept of "Truth": Art is Truth, non-Art is not-Truth. This idea supported the idea of hereditary of nobility. Art is Art because it is essentially truthful, and no context can make it otherwise, just as nobility are noble because they were born that way. The formulation was in defense of the bourgeois idea that quality can be earned,.

As the bourgeoisie burgeoned, and the art market became just that (a market), Art became a matter of "Taste" and then of "Beauty." No longer was art of the aristocracy being defended from bourgeois aspirations; now it was the art of the haute bourgeois being defended from common craft. Taylor's argument is that art is never about "the masses." To the extent that is it is advertised as "good for the masses," it is essentially reinforcing bourgeois values on the proletariat.

I like this guy. (Oddly, he's not a Marxist. Socialist, yes, but not Marxist. Whatever.)

OK, I haven't finished the book yet, so I can't summarize everything he says, but I started thinking ahead to how cartography would fit into this scheme. We are not a proletarian discipline. Not a lot of farm-workers and factory-workers at NACIS. But we also tend to have a relatively "proletarian" attitude towards our work, to wit: "enough with the theory, make the map they've hired you to do."

Which is pretty much the attitude of the colleagues I work with. And it's a lot of what drives Denis Wood and other theorists batty. You're oppressed, dammit! Shake off your chains!

More later.


Which brings me to Stephen Holloway's really wonderful "Right Map Making." Stephen presented it at NACIS this year. I appreciated it at the time, and then went off to listen to the other panels, but it has kept coming back to me. Which was the idea, I guess. It's a broadside in a couple of ways. First, it's a beautiful single sheet printed piece (a broadside).
Second, it neatly sidesteps the whole philosophical/ontological debate/sargasso sea and attacks the problem of ethics and maps and our effect on the world head on, a shot not philosophically across the bow but right into the heart of our day-to-day work, using the Buddhist language of "right practice."

Go read it, it speaks for itself.

Friday, October 19, 2007


For me, the most thought-provoking paper at NACIS was Dalia Varanka's paper "The Emergence of Plain-style Mapping in Early English Atlases, 1606-1729." Which may sound extremely dry and academic, but talks about our "cartographic" style from a perspective that had never occurred to me before.

I've always thought of the clean lines, stripped-down graphics and so forth of modern map style as coming out of a Modernist sensibility, and Varanka does tie it to Enlightenment-era scientism and "plain style" prose. But the timing of the stripping down of ornamentation on maps which she demonstrated suggests something else going on.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a Quaker. Most of us don't "dress Amish" anymore, but there is a long tradition of plain dress, which comes out of the Simplicity Testimony. This in turn reflects a religious/cultural trend in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: John Calvin and his followers, the Puritans, and a whole lot of Anabaptists of various stripes all had a habit of sober dress.

It makes me wonder about the received idea of scientific style as "streamlined" and "simple." There are certainly aspects of science that head this way: the Euclidean "first principles" way of thinking, in which the simplest explanation is preferred. And "elegance," as in a mathematical formula, is perhaps the dominant aesthetic of theoretical sciences.

[11/3/07: a couple weeks later I find out this connection between Puritanism and science is essentially the Merton Thesis, a central bone of contention in the sociology of science. Shoulda known this was nothing new...]

But there is also a Baroque quality to some science, especially to those sciences which come out of what used to be called Natural History. The infinite variety of life and so forth. So why has the ascetic aesthetic become so dominant? And why is it de rigeur in cartograpy?

Are we all a bunch of neo-Calvinists? (Then again, as my wife commented, if it ain't baroque, why fix it?)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

NACIS 2007

My favorite convention. Well, OK, my only real convention most years. I should get out more...

NACIS was great. Lots of good talks (and conversations), lots of food for thought, and of course lots of new cool maps and map software.

The paper went well, I got all sorts of kind words from it and even the critical words were pretty reasonable. A few folks even came up and said they enjoyed the blog, which got me back thinking of pieces for it. Prepare for a little flurry.

A few people asked for copies of the paper, and I said I'd post it here, so... here it is. I'm still not totally happy, especially with the last couple pages. Any thoughts are welcome...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Interstate rivalry?

So here's the story. Back in February, someone on CartoTalk pointed out the wonderful Strange Maps blog. The blog had come up recently on Maps-L, in particular pointing out Chris Yates' rendition of the Interstate Highway system.

Interesting piece of work. The road geeks and cartographer types jumped all over the obvious inaccuracies (like Wisconsin is missing), but certainly no-one had seen the US portrayed like this before. Why not? Part of the problem is that the system is huge. Doing a tube-map style simplification, where routes are separately colored lines and exits are dots or tick-marks, works in a relatively small system like Britain's motorways or the Dutch system, but there's thousands of exits in the US system... not to mention all the 3-digit spurs and bypasses. So Yates' solution—just focus on the 2-digits, and make junctions of highways the only "exits" is a good, manageable way to do it.

Well, says I, I could do better. And that to me is where it gets interesting, because "better" is a pretty fuzzy term, and what I ended up doing and how Mr Yates reacted I think speaks volumes about the divide between art/graphics folk and geography/carto folk.

The divide: lots of people like maps. Lots of art folks like maps. Art folks make a map, but it isn't complete enough, it isn't accurate enough, and map folks hold their nose. Map folks make a map, and there are things that are obvious to a designer that make the map, well, ugly.

This is our professional life practically every day. I'm sure I drive our designerly clients up the wall... but as a cartographer, as a practictioner in the cartographic tradition, I'm working in the mode we all work in: it's got to be accurate and complete, and it's got to look good. Trying to jiggle those two requirements together is what makes the job challenging.

So back to the story. I realized that to do some sort of diagram of the system, I'd have to first abstract it out, untangle it and get a feel for densities and problem areas. So I started graphing it out by number on graph paper. The Interstate Highway system has an ordered system of numbering. North-south roads are odd-numbered, starting at number 5 on the west coast and going to number 95 on the east coast. East-west roads do a similar thing, starting at number 8 in the southwest (or 10 all along the southern tier), and ending up with 96 in Michigan (or 90 all the way across from Seattle to Boston). So you could in theory start with a piece of graph paper and lay out 1-99 in one direction and 2-100 in the other direction and just start plotting.

So that's what I did. It was a godawful mess, and it took a while to wrap up, and I ended up with this. It took a fair amount of comapny time, but they all thought it was pretty cool too. We got some copies and sold them at Art-a-Whirl (our local annual art-crawl) in May. Then I let it sit around, though I figured I would eventually want to let the road-geek community et al know about it. Finally in August I noted it on Carto-talk and sent an email to Chris Yates.

I was surprised to get an irate email from someone accusing me of copying Yates' map, and I replied that no, I hadn't violated copyright (or trade dress or patent or any other legal intellectual property). Thinking about the letter I went back to Yates' site to find the original postings about his map's incompleteness, and came across, well, myself being pretty thoroughly flamed (and the first email accusation explained)

Yates did eventually did write me directly, much more politely than in the forum, and I wrote back. Radio silence since, which is fine, though as I said, I'm happy to discuss any of this.

So this is what gets me: to him I am clearly a rip-off artist, and to me, I am just working in the usual way we cartographers all work—we see a visual idea we like, and we take it, adapt it, and run. On the other hand, to me and the map-heads out there, how dare he release an incomplete map, and to him, for chrissakes it's a poster, lighten up.

There's a paper at the 07 NACIS conference by Mark Denil, "The Myth and Mythology of Map-Art." I suspect (not sure, but I suspect) that this is kind of what it's about.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Drawing the walk

Following on from my last post, one of the basic similarities among certain non-western drawing traditions, children's drawings, and cartographic mapping, is the idea of contour. Instead of drawing what the subject looks like, the drawer traces an outline of the subject. This can be the cast shadow of a silhouette, the decorated outline of a dream animal in aboriginal bark painting, the most basic outline of a child's drawing, or the bounding of a political or other territory.

The biggest difference between this mode of drawing and "visual drawing" whether that be from a Chinese, European, or other tradition, is that the drawer is not drawing what he or she sees, but is interpreting from that view-field picking out discrete objects, recognizing and repeating their tactile contour. Certainly there are visual clues of overlap and especially of stereoscopic perspective, but the visual field itself is all about light and shadow, saturation, hue, and so forth. This other kind of drawing is about the tactile reality of the thing itself.

A map of a territory, then, is not a drawing of what we see, it is a record of a measurement. As a silhouette traces the profile of a face, as the chalk mark at a crime scene traces the contour of a body, so a drawn boundary is at root record of the land as it is walked across. A map is a drawing not of the seen, but of the traversed.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Of Mermaids and Maps

I was walking down the street on a fine spring afternoon a couple days ago when I walked across a drawing a neighborhood kid had drawn. A few drawings actually, of mermaids. Not bad drawings, but there was something about them made me stop and think.

There is something fundamental and universal about unschooled drawings, whether from cultures without a strong master-apprentice heritage in the visual arts, or from children in our culture who haven't gotten totally caught up in "making it look real." The commonalities look to me like:

• Strong sense of contour. what you draw is the outline of what you are drawing, then fill in identifying features within it.
• Color tends to be used not for representation of optical color but to differentiate parts (if it is used at all).
• Iconic repetition: people draw not what is in front of them, but images of important characters and action items in their story.

I think I'm especially turned on to this because my four-year-old is just getting into drawing recognizable pictures: he draws firefighters with hoses putting out a fire, he draws daddy and him at a concert. What is shown is pretty fundamental, and while the narratives are of course not comparable in complexity to the mythic depth of American Indian or Australian Aboriginal "cartographic" artwork, they have something in common that more "normal" artwork doesn't.

And I think that something is also present in cartographic mapping: the way those firefighters and mermaids are drawn, the way dream animals are drawn... there is something fundamentally in common with cartography, only in cartography it is tied not to individual mythic sensibility but to decidedly un-individual physicality.

Saturday, March 31, 2007


I posted this in CartoTalk, but I thought it appropriate to post here too. It's a response to a posting in Speak Up:

It's funny, because I've been wondering lately about the limitations of our company calling itself a "map company", let alone calling myself a "cartographer.” It's certainly a name with a certain amount of cachet in the right circles, but it does mean often that my work (and the work my company is hired to do) stops at the neatline (actually my business card has always said "Head of Production").

So I am to some extent in line with what the article laments. Here's what I think is a crucial mistake he makes: he looks at renaming as solely an effort to sound like everyone else. I think the object is to point out what you can do better, and to redefine your way out of obsolescence.

An example from a hoary metaphor: livery manufacturers after World War I. Those who persisted in specializing in harnesses and bridlewhips were mostly out of business by the crash of 1929. However, I'l wager good money that some of them got into the fittings and construction business for the auto indutry. Instead of "livery" makers they became "manufacturers of leather fittings." Or something similar.

Professional writers didn't disappear after people started learning how to write their own letters. But "scribes" became "secretaries" or "authors." There are still professional photographers, but the bulk of them work for the media, while portrait photographers, where the real money was 120 years ago, got in large part replaced by amateurs and by big-box operations.

My point is, some of the things that set cartographers and graphic designers apart in the old days (you know how to do the process, you know how to use the arcane tools) have not become irrelevant, but they're heading away from (I'll be blunt) the real money.

When I started, we could think about drawing a street map from scratch, because that was how you got consistent linework without jaggies. And we field-checked everything because the base data was so unreliable. Now I look at GoogleMaps and 95% of the time I say, well, my work here is done. Or irrelevant. Or it will be eventually.

So the challenge is to look at what we do well (without using the word map—try it, it’s an interesting exercise), and find a way to frame that that doesn’t restrict us into livery-makers.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Maps and Quakers

So, I’m a Quaker (Society of Friends). Not that that should have anything to do with maps, but, well, I’m coming to the conclusion that it does color my view of things.

Quakers believe... well, a Quaker believes a whole lot of things, many of them different from what other Quakers believe. For a group based on the ides of consensus, we are a pretty contentious bunch.

But one cornerstone of our sect is the sense of the availability of the divine to everyone (just don’t ask us for a strict definition of “divine”). A fair number of protestant churches have this sense, but the Quakers took some unusual steps: we have no clergy (or as I like to say, we have no laity), no baptism (or no outward baptism, as some sticklers like to say), no creed. We tend to take seriously the idea that our structure and actions should conform to our belief.

What I see in Quakerism is an expression of the egalitarian ideal, whose philosophical opposite is the idea of ordainment, that some people (and peoples) are “chosen” or ordained by God. These two basic modes of thinking have been slowly battling it out over the theater of first Western (and now world) thought, for centuries.

Maps (ah, the readers say, he finally gets to the point) tend to side with the egalitarian point of view. I can hear howls of protest now form maps-as-wielding-of-power folks, but bear with me. Cartographic maps include as their basic rules some radically democratic ways of thinking visually:

- There is no single point of view. Cartographic maps are drawn planimetrically, such that the viewer is looking straight down on the landscape everywhere.

- Map information is ideally complete within classes. There are “citizen” map-points and there are “non-citizen”, but you don’t leave out a town because it’s not the right sort of town. Or if you do (if you have to pay to be on the map), then you acknowledge this in your key. If not, you have made a bad map.

- Maps are not privileged to a class of users. OK, yes, I know some people are map-illiterate, but the idea is that geographic information is meant to be shared. You don’t have to pass the 32nd degree of masonry to understand that the blue liens are rivers and the green patches are parks. In this, interestingly, there is a conflict between traditional geographic knowledge, which may in fact be privileged information, and modern geographic knowledge.

So why on earth bring in the Quakers? Because I think this egalitarian way of thinking and believing is a powerful one, and maps and Friends are the two major outcroppings of that mode in my life. I suppose if I were more involved in politics, then grassroots organizing would be a third. But I’m not, so there you are.

As a supposed science, cartography and cartographers have been pretty passionate about neutrality. Neutrality is different from egalitarianism. Much recent cartocriticism has been focused on shaking loose that neutrality, largely by pointing out its smug, hypocritical aspects (i.e. in most matters of life, neutrality is a position of comfort and denial, not a commitment to true non-involvement). But in hurling that bathwater out the window, it has also thrown out some of what seems to me an invaluable baby.

One of the challenges to Quakers (and other liberal religious types) is how to behave religiously without ordination. The reason I like the idea that the Quakers abolished not the clergy but the laity, is that it challenges all of us to rise to an occasion, instead of telling us all to sit down and shut up and no-one will see us now. But the first time I heard the phrase, it was from a Friend who then proceeded to “set an example” for us and preached for 20 minutes. He only knew how to “be a minister” by using a mode of ministering that assumes there is a laity.

Similarly, the early examples of “democratic mapping” via Google hacks, etc., all still use the language of our long tradition of mapping for authority. Real democratic/egalitarian mapping will not look like this. Not sure what it will look like, but I look forward to seeing it.

Thank you for listening. Friends are free to rise.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Imagining the World

Thinking of world maps as exercises in imagination is like placing yourself in a universe before Galileo and Copernicus, where the sun went around the earth. The world today is surveyed, measured, imaged, and the picture of the “Blue Marble” is a staple image in every child’s visual vocabulary. We know what the world looks like from above, so why do our world maps not look like that world?

The history of humans actually seeing the world from above is very recent. Balloon photography began in the 1860’s (a grainy photograph of Boston from 1860 is the oldest surviving aerial photo), and airplane photography really hit its stride during World War I. The first photos of earth from space emerged in the 1960s (it is interesting to note that images that do look a lot like earth from space began to emerge before the real images; see Richard Harrison Edes’ World War II-era views created for Fortune Magazine). So most of the world map styles we are familiar with are based not on how the earth actually looks form above, but on the imaginations of the map-makers in what “the world” would look like.

I put “the world” in quotes, because most world maps are not imagined optical views of the Earth (as historic bird’s eye views are imagined optical views of locations), but are more like religious or cosmographic views, with characteristics that reflect optical characteristics and other elements that reflect abstract, non-optical visualization. Does that make sense? A world map from 300 years ago shows coastlines that should more-or-less conform to those coastlines viewed form above, and hill-picture representation of mountain ranges as viewed from the side. On the other hand, it will represent the equator and national boundaries, neither of which are visible from above.

Such a mixture seems problematic for us in part because we think of abstract and representational as separate schools of picture-making. But consider Christian religious art of the Renaissance and before, and how it often mixes portraiture of patrons with pictures of the Virgin Mary and/or saints. The pictures are not suggesting that the patrons actually were in the physical presence of the Madonna who looked like that and sat in a throne of this type. The role of life-likeness was different in the era before science, evidence and fact dominated the intellectual world. As I said, it’s a hard mind-set to get ourselves into...

The reason I think it is useful for us to get our head into this space (or into equaivalent spaces from any number of other cultures), is that it repositions “accuracy.” We are used in our culture to thinking of accuracy as being the same as semblance, and it isn’t. Spatial accuracy is essential for good cartography, but visual semblance is not; this is one of the main distinguishing characteristics of cartographic maps as a visual form.

When we think about maps as pictures then, instead of reflexively turning to landscape painting or aerial views, we should look at pictures which also have this quality of accuracy without semblance. In Western culture, this is probably most visible in information graphics (graphs, diagrams, charts, and so forth), a field map-makers already feel a lot of sympathy with.

But we also should be looking at non-western traditions, in particular illustrations of religious or cosomological structure. These can be painstakingly precise (see Tibetan sand mandalas and Navajo sand painting), but are not measured against semblance of another visual object. They are also built to describe abstract symmetries and alignments, and as such can be seen as models of the sorts of visual description we have to create every day... maps with pie-charts, cartograms, transit route maps, and even the super-simplified national or world maps we base so much of our small-scale work upon.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Graphic designers and cartographers are grinding their teeth

jbkrygier’s comment got me thinking about the gap between map perception and creation. It’s not a problem maps alone have — remember the classic Saturday Night Live William Shatner skit about Trekkies? In general, creators of images, texts, expressions of all kinds have to deal with people taking their creations and (in the creators' minds) misusing them. Or in any case blowing some aspects of them out of proportion.

I actually rather like that "aura of authority" a map can have. It's one of the things that drew me to cartography. But when I look at other cartographers (and at myself, though that is never a trustworthy exercise), I don't see power-mongering. I see if anything bafflement at the power-based critiques of modern carto-critics. I think a lot of us see ourselves as like librarians, or scriptorium workers. Our first job is not to create power for ourselves (or for our Fearless Leader, whomever that may be), although of course our product may be framed to serve that purpose. Our job is to translate the World into something intelligible and navigable. That aura does not reflect a power of dominion, as Denis Wood et al have suggested. Power is not always power. Wood's urging the People to take maps' power into their own hands is something people have always done. A map are like a stage setting: We take it and when it is laid out before us, we can—anyone can—make arguments upon its surface.

Returning to jbkrygier’s point (that his students actually do need to be disillusioned of the idea that the map is the territory, and for that reason the map-as-proposition-not-representation idea makes a lot of sense): as I was driving around in the snow here today (finally), it occurred to me how this felt like the ongoing gritting of teeth between cartography people and graphic design people, when our professional lives intersect.

Folks approaching from the world of graphic design often have the opposite problem than what jbkrygier described: instead of thinking of maps as pictures of the world, and needing to be persuaded that they are propositional images, they assume that maps are there to persuade, and need to be persuaded of the necessity of ground them in real, accurate data, scale, an appropriate projection, etc. I'm wildly overgeneralizing here, but I expect most readers who are from the world of map production have run into the designer who has assigned the equivalent of a landscape-shaped space for a map of Chile. On the other hand, I know I have been at times a less than ideal vendor for clients who wanted something that looked "less mappy." Mappy is what I do, mostly.

If anything, cartographers need to think more about maps as pictures. I just got done reading a very interesting little book by the illustrator Molly Bang, which purports to show how picture composition forms the emotional content of a picture. Very simple, but quite effective; reminded me of Scott McCloud on comic book composition. A lot of well-balanced practitioners swear by Edwin Tufte.

The problem is, we as cartographers are blocked by the basic nature of cartographic maps from truly thinking about them as pictures. It's not a part of how we are supposed to think. More on this later. I need to go...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cartography=maps? nyet.

The core problem with almost any conversation about maps and what they are is that there are multiple sets meanings for the word, which, while related (nested even), do differ. Here’s my nomination of a list of “ontological domains” people may be referring to when they talk about maps:

In the broadest sense, a map is a multi-dimensional (i.e. it can be two-dimensional in form, it can be three-dimensional; it can be animated and thus be four-dimensional) abstraction (i.e. it is not simply raw sensory data, but has been interpreted) of a conceptual or physical space (i.e. it refers to something other than itself). Besides the more usual usages of “map,” such usages as “mind-maps,” “linguistic mapping,” and maps of conceptual spaces like the internet or the cosmographic structure of a religious system all fall into this broadest of categories. This is the sort of over-broad definition used by many of the most theoretical discussants, and leads to many interesting byways of semiotics and such. Because it contains so much, it is also practically useless as a definition when it comes to discussing practical mapping techniques.

The next smaller meaning-space is one where the subject of the map is the surface of a planetary body (most often the earth, but there are maps of several other planets and moons). These representations may be three dimensional, but they essentially refer to geographic space. This space is essentially defined in human terms: it refers to the space we move about in. Because of this, it is always represented as a reduction in scale, and usually a significant reduction.

We are approaching the most common usage of map, but we’re not quite there yet, as we have entered the area of cross-cultural “mapping” traditions, and it’s here I have the biggest issue. People have made all sorts of representations of geographic space over the years and across the miles. Often-cited examples of decidedly non-western traditions include Marshall-Island stick maps, Aboriginal Australian bark paintings, Native American pictographic narratives, and Hawaiian performative place-based ceremonies. All these transmit and store knowledge about geographic space, and a good case has been made that excluding them from the “table” in discussing space has been an effective way of disenfranchising “primitive” peoples (see the excellent Maps are Territories: Science is an Atlas by David Turnbull). Even where the geographic tradition is closer to western modalities, as with pre-Western Japanese or Chinese “maps,” modern western-oriented mapping sees mainly inaccurate, “ bad maps,” and wonders how such an advanced civilization could have not developed good mapping techniques (see “Reinterpreting Traditional Chinese Geographical Maps,” by Cordell D. K. Yee in The History of Cartography, volume 2, book 2).

The problem is, we have come to see the modern map, the cartographic map, as the definition of a “good map.” There are good reasons for this. The values of consistent scale and projection, quantitative accuracy based on scientific survey, and clean, easy-to-read design all lead (if done right) to a product that can be picked up and used by anyone used to using maps. For all that the discussion of maps as power had focused on the vertical power structures involved in their publication (who makes the map claims the land), the modern cartographic map also has a leveling, democratic quality, certainly compared to traditions like the Hawaiian or Australian ones, where knowledge of the land is transmitted only to those properly initiated.

As I said in my previous post, I think the idea of tradition would be a useful one for us cartographers to absorb. On one hand, it pulls us down a notch: we are not the only tradition. On the other hand, it gives us a theoretical place to stand: we are a tradition, with an established way of doing and seeing things. It is, I hope, a living tradition, but one whose conservative look and feel should be respected.

When we cartographers talk about “making maps,” we know we are talking about this last, limited definition of “map,” but we don’t want ro be accused of cartographic cultural imperialism. If anything, we are excited by the adoption of modern cartographic techniques as a form of empowerment by formerly colonized peoples. I do anyway. Empowerment by distributed GIS is a cliché by now, but it got that way because it’s true. And ultimately it fulfills the democratic potential cartographic maps have had from the get-go.

But what do we call the other things? the stick-charts, or even the things that look like maps but were not made in the cartographic tradition?

I think a key is to recognize that much of our claimed western map heritage is really just as foreign in social context as these obviously foreign non-western images. Five hundred years ago, the maps we see today as part of the cartographic tradition were treated quite differently. Cartography, in the form of scientific mapping programs, really started only in the late eighteenth century, though the tradition was coming together for maybe a century prior (see The Mapmaker’s Quest by David Buisseret). Even today, there is a vast body of things that aren’t cartographic (stick-map locators, cartoon maps, map “art” using recognizable shapes but no scientific survey content...). Affected by our tradition, but not of it.

So to be clear, let’s think of the broader world both of other culture’s material, and that produced in the western world outside of cartography, as maps. Instead of declaring cartography dead, let’s reclaim our territory as a cartographic tradition within the world of maps. Cartography better not be dead; it still has a vital job to do. That's the next entry.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Maps maps maps

I make maps for a living. I get up in the morning, go to work, sit down at my desk and make maps, or do back-end work for making maps, or edit my company's catalog which is mostly maps.

I go to map conferences (OK, I go to one map conference. I don't get out much.), where people talk about map-making techniques. Sometimes, to my great fascination, people talk about what maps are.

So what the heck are maps? My latest conception, which came about after doing some reading on Hokusai, the great, idiosyncratic Japanese printmaker and painter, has to do with traditions. In the west, the phrase "artistic tradition" is coincident with the baggage carried by the "fine arts" (see separate blog rant to come on maps and art), so I will simply posit "picture-making" as a broader field within which maps form a tradition.

There are those (hi Denis) who have proposed that maps are not pictures or representations at all. I find the argument baffling. I think what they are arguing is that there is a disconnect between reality on the ground and the expression of that reality on a map. But that disconnect exists with all representations and pictures. Even photographs. I think the problem lies not in defining maps as pictures, but in narrowly defining pictures as direct representations of optical phenomena. Pictures cover such a broad range of expressions... assembly diagrams and product beauty shots; cut-paper silhouettes and mug shots; petroglyphs and Mark Rothko paintings; my four-year-old's picture of a toilet on fire and 9/11's falling man.

Another part of the problem in talking about map ontology is the way we in cartogrphy have responded to charges of cultural imperialism. Instead of saying, "Here is a limited field within which we practice," we have opened up the definition of map to include all sorts of things which lie well outside the cartographic mainstream. Marshall Islands stick-charts. Performative geographies. Tibetan mandalas. All fascinating, all potentially useful eye-openers to us map-makers. But...

One of the things I was interested in about Hokusai is the way he studied western and Chinese techniques yet is clearly still within the Japanese picturing tradition. This is of course nothing new: outside influences happen in every cultural tradition no matter how conservative the gatekeepers. What struck me is how strong his received tradition was, and how clearly identifiable. He lived within closed Japan for most of his life, and his pictures are now iconic of Japanese visual identity.

I think we map-makers could learn from this. Instead of tearing down the tradition of cartography, simply accept that it is a tradition (one of many), with a somewhat more limited reach than every expression of geographic space created by anyone anywhere, and work within that tradition, while acknowledging and experimenting with techniques form outside it.