Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Aura of Cartography

The last few posts have been setting the groundwork for what I really wanted to be approaching: the aura of cartography (should be said in a hushed whisper).

A number of writers have talked about the "power of maps" over the last few decades. J.B. Harley was the first to address it, Denis Wood wrote a book about it, and now Vincent Virga has written a breathless book about it (n
ote: I have not read the book yet, only heard the interview).

But, as will become apparent after talking a while with cartographers, we are often a little baffled by all the "power" talk. If we, cartographers, have all this power, where are the dancing girls? Where are the yachts? Heck, where are the offices with windows?

But, of course, there is something there. There is an aura of authority that has hung over published, cartographic maps for a long time. It's the authority of an encyclopedia or a dictionary, not of a uniform or an altar. The fact that it has been harnessed to temporal power doesn't mean it posesses that power inherently.

Specifically, it is an interactive authority: the cartographer does not, in principle, parcel out information only to the favored few. He/she/they publish it far and wide. And the users, when they interpret the map, are themselves holders of additional information about a territory, more than they have by simply standing within it.

And this is where I go back two essays, to the business about the author/user divide. To the extent that map users get a "rush" out of seeing the world laid out on paper beneath them (and yes, I get that rush too--I suspect all us map-lovers do), we assume it somehow reflects the intent of the map maker, and indeed some think it reflects the abilities of the map maker.

And it doesn't. Because the construction of the illusions of completeness, of continuity, of accuracy, are all projected onto the finite (considerable, but finite) work of a craftsperson, a geo-librarian, an editor. And interestingly, this is true of people in the "artsy" arts as well. Over Thanksgiving, I was listening to an excellent interview with guitarist Leo Kottke on Minnesota Public Radio. Kottke is very much an "inspiration-driven" artist; he really believes in his musical ideas coming from somewhere outside him. But the act of getting them into his repertoire is absolutely a butt-in-the-chair, hard-working attitude.

Map-makers tend not to be especially inspiration-driven. I mean, we are inspired by and driven by our love of place and geographic space, but we don't suddenly reach in to the air for motifs and riffs and turns of phrase: our modes of expression are fundamentally conscious. And that conscious working of shape and form creates the fra
mework which allows the users to experience what they experience. It's a little like designing a roller-coaster.


I talk about all this like it's a static cultural phenomenon: maps work like this, the culture works like that. But really I think this
aura of cartography is one of the casualties of the changes underway in the geo-world. Just as literacy changed they way we view people who write and desktop publishing took graphic design off its pedestal, the cultural context of cartography is getting a more rational footing. People still think it's cool if you make maps for work, but less an less do you get the baffled "but how do you make them?" sorts of questions. It's more like being a librarian, in that the systems you create and use are pretty transparent... and after all, that's the goal.


Joe Banks said...

[People are going to wonder if I'm really Nat, writing under a pen name.]

What Nat's highlighting in Cartography is true in all the world-building disciplines right now. Marx's dream of the proletariat owning the means of production has now happened, only it happened in Silicon Valley basements, not the fields of armed revolution. Those "means of production" are the software, algorithms, and raw data lying around cyberspace -- we can make maps with them, record songs, paint and edit graphics ... even debate map making. For free.

World-building? Yeah. Tolkien needed maps to make his incredible fiction, and he needed songs. There is something about a map, in its suspension of disbelief, that is pure magic.

Marshal Mcluhan predicted that the electronic revolution would "re-tribalize" humanity -- i've always felt that was happening by bringing into an individual's grasp any tool imaginable, rather than having to obtain them through means like universities, guilds, or secret societies.

I mean, i like it -- i've learned a lot more math through wikipedia than in class. I like that we live in a world where Beck can record a #1 hit in his living room on crap-ass equipment. I like that my daughter will be writing code to pimp her webpage loads earlier than i learned how to type.

But it is fundamentally a different place to be, as a culture/species. I remember interviewing some Lakota medicine people for an undergraduate thesis, and asking them some questions about a ceremony they did. "How do YOU know about that?" they wanted to know. The truth was, i didn't really know about that; i just knew what some words were about it.

So yes, we get to do things, take things for granted that in former years no one could even imagine. But the investment in anything -- map making, 12-string guitar, code, ... that investment (or what Nat calls butt-in-the-chair) is what enables the real magic to happen, in whatever paradigm.

The best thing about this new way of accessing the "means of production," ie., not through any specific tradition or hierarchy, is that crossdisciplinary connections will now begin proliferating. Some genius geek-girl in the Ukraine will discover a clean power source that rebinds carbon in the atmosphere because she has a cracked version of Mathematica, AutoCAD, and enough isolation to not know she can't do it.

The halo has fallen; Prometheus has already left and been chained to the mountain.

natcase said...

"that investment (or what Nat calls butt-in-the-chair) is what enables the real magic to happen, in whatever paradigm"

More on this as my narrative of the Festival of Maps adventure progresses: I think one thing that has been lost so far in the hoopla over map-mashups and handheld map servers and so forth, is that new technology doesn't make quality irrelevant. Looking at some of the real masterworks on display the last couple days was, well, a little humbling, but it was also inspiring to go try to make Great Stuff. What I've heard mostly in regard to new technology is "gee whiz now anyone can make maps just like cartographers" instead of "wow, now maybe with practice I could make a real masterpiece too."

Different things. And a different topic. I digress.