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.