Saturday, October 15, 2011

Physical Maps

I'm recovering from NACIS 2011, which as usual was wonderful and rich as a source of ideas and techniques and wonderful conversations with fellow cartographers and mapheads.

The thing that kept coming back to me this year is how we often leave aside the idea that maps are physical objects, or at least are experienced as physical objects. It's easy in this electronic world to get caught up in the content that streams to us via our screens, and learn to ignore the screen itself, or at least allow it to fall to a different level of consciousness.

A map is our word for a kind of information transmission: we talk about map makers and map users, about map-generating technology, the language of maps, the meaning and power of maps. Every link in that chain, from the physical ground of our discussion, through the physical means of recording, the physicality even of computers and their electronic guts, exists in physical form. It is grounded in stuff.

This used to be so self-evident as to be an absurd statement. Phrases like "buying a map" or "reading a map," "folding a map" or "publishing a map," represented physical processes that were the primary concern of map makers and users. In fact, we as a map culture were so caught up in these physicalities, that it was kind of a surprise and a jolt to be reminded a generation ago that there was something abstract, ineffable, and grounded in symbol about map-making.

This is to me one of the huge changes the digital revolution has brought about. We now mostly accept that maps are images, texts, arguments, or propositions. The public no longer talks about "folding that paper up like a road map" because our children have no more idea what we're talking about than they do when older folks talk about "dialing someone" on the telephone.

We need to be reminded of the physicality of maps. At a session in NACIS, I made the point that a technique of cross-hatching that Patrick Kennelly presented (really cool idea, by the way), would carry more of the rich texture of the art prints he was using as examples, if he actually made copper plate intaglio prints from them. And the conversation then turned to how you could add texture in Photoshop and so make them look more like old prints. And I held my tongue. The point is, an actual copper plate print, in its physicality, looks and feels different than even the most interesting plotter print—they may look the same on the projection screen at a conference, but their physical appearance in the world is not the same. Physicality matters.

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