Thursday, October 10, 2013

Maps for Strangers

My paper for NACIS, delivered October 10, 2013:

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding in how we view maps for land navigation—road maps, street maps, and topographic maps. This misunderstanding colors what we think the historical place of such maps is, and how we view the role of maps in the new mobile era.

Here's the problem: when we say a map is a travel map or a visitors map, we assume that the map itself—the laying out of the landscape—is the means by which a stranger will figure out how to get from point A to point B.  Are maps the best, most fundamental way to find a path? I want to argue that they are not, that the two-dimensional “mappiness” we take for granted is essentially irrelevant to that process, and that we are now witnessing the devolution of that idea—the idea that maps are how you ought to find your way—and its replacement by the resurgence of the itinerary as the foremost tool for wayfinding.

I grew up with this image, from Peter Spier's 1967 picture book London Bridge is Falling Down, illustrating the old nursery rhyme:

See-saw, sacradown, 
Which is the way to London Town?
One foot up, and the other foot down
That is the way to London town!

See-saw, jack in the hedge,
Which is the way to London Bridge?
Put on your shoes and away you trudge
That is the way to London Bridge

The rhyme, and some aspects of the scene pictured, are in fact spot on in showing how people traveled before stage coaches and railroads. People walked, or rode. But they didn't, as far as we know, customarily take a map with them until well into the nineteenth century, and even then it would be a topographic map to guide in hiking or bicycling, not more conventional town-to-town road travel. Instead people used a combination of an itinerary, a prepared list of points one should travel to in order, and, as here, asking people the best way to get to the next point.

Catherine Delano Smith tracks the emergence of European, especially British, maps that relate to travel from late Middle Ages through the eighteenth century in her chapter "Milieus of Mobility" in Cartographies of Travel and Navigation. What she finds are that while some maps that show travel information, they were not tools for travelers on the move. Early strip maps were parts of portfolios with their own agenda of promoting local prosperity, and purchased by wealthy collectors. Other early network maps may have been used to plot itineraries, but the itineraries themselves consistently form the heart of how travelers made sense of any specific, longer journey. They were the linear framework within which one customarily then made up the details of the journey along the way, by asking for local information.

The key point I want to emphasize here, is that it is not the two-dimensional sense of a whole landscape that travelers needed. What they were intent on was their path through that landscape. Any other information may have been potentially interesting or at least diverting, but with the exception of triangulating by distant landmarks, they were inconsequential for the purposes of navigating.

It's been demonstrated by a number of people, especially Jim Akerman, the editor of the book that Smith's chapter is part of, that modern American route networks developed in the early 20th Century as part of the improvement and development of roads. Thus the opening of the Lincoln Highway 100 years ago this year spurred improvement of the existing roadways it used and signing them in common. Back and forth, these three tasks—designation and signing, mapping, and physical improvement—created the American network of Interstate, US, state, county and local roads we live within today.

This iterative development in the US may have blinded us, at least somewhat, to the difference between a route and a road, a designation vs. a piece of pavement. Modern vehicles' dependence on paved surfaces—not as extreme as railways, but still pretty strict—makes drivers forget that the network of roads is a subset of possible routes, in a way that foot-travelers never did. As Smith notes, before the modernization of roads and fights over the commons in the 17th century, traveling out across meadows was not seen as trespassing, but as the usual way of things. This is still true in parts of the British Isles, notably in the highlands of Scotland, where there are few linear rights of way and the law generally favors the right to cross open land.

We can get a taste of the older way of thinking in terms of itineraries, by looking at early auto guides like The American Automobile Association's Blue Books, which were popular motoring guides before the First World War. This was how you got from city to city before routes were blazed—indeed many of the very earliest road markings were made by the publishers of such guides to help their buyers find their way. And note that it doesn’t work entirely without maps—but that maps are clearly subordinate information to the detailed directions.

So why do we use maps today? Part of it is that our idea of a destination changed along with the motorcar. One no longer rode from a railroad terminus in Milwaukee to a railroad terminus in Chicago, but from one house in one part of the state to another, over a road network where one had to make choices many more times than on a rail network. And those choices, in America, are mostly anonymous crossroads rather than named places, as in Europe. America’s road system, especially in the center of the country, is based on an artificial grid constructed before European settlement, rather than organic, point-to-point networking.

So, while American road development focused on routes, even down to the local level, European roads and mapping used an already well-developed system of ways between towns and named places. Today, American road signs emphasize the route numbers and names, while European road signs emphasize destinations. In Europe, topographic maps formed much more of the basis of early road mapping, as navigation was much more a matter of finding one's way over an existing network of roads and lanes that connected named villages and towns, and less on following a developing system of routes.

I think also that the idea of maps’ primacy comes out of a desire for efficiency on the part of information providers. If we are going to produce a product in large editions that aids navigation, it needs to serve everyone with every conceivable route. But this does not mean that maps are what people wanted. The popularity of routing services like the American Automobile Association’s Trip-Tik program, or this knockoff concept by Universal Printing for a competitor to AAA, should indicate that really what people wanted is a linear route. Maps provide useful information, but they require the extra step from users of extracting that linear route out of the web of lines across the landscape. We have used maps because they work acceptably in huge single editions, and that gave oil companies, and later map retailers, something cheap to give or to sell people.

No more. This spring, I got lost in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. I got to an intersection with a CVS pharmacy, a RiteAid pharmacy, a 7-11 and a BP service station. And in those four stores on three corners, there was one map—not one map for sale, but one map, period, and it was a ten year old county atlas in the clearance bin at RiteAid.

As cartographers, we look at the mapping in Google and Bing, but I think this isn't what people are choosing over paper maps. It's the itineraries, the turn-by-turn directions. That's my hunch, anyway. What I see from the centuries before the oil company map, as described by Smith, tells me that people really want and  need this, and that on our modern road network, what online map services and GPS direction can deliver in terms of custom point-to-point itineraries, delivered on a uniform, one-size-fits all background, is simply better. It certainly beats this, a 1952 map marked up by a AAA advisor.

The dominance of printed maps for land navigation was a detour, a really big one-time glitch on the way to improving the itinerary.

So. Where does that leave us, the map makers? I talked earlier about our having made a mistake in thinking about the place of maps, and you may think this finishes that line of discussion, but every mistake has two sides. Maps are not the central communicative medium for wayfinding, but they are a central tool for something else. They allow us to construct a more coherent sense of place.

Itinerary: line, journey. Map: area, place.

In 1983, I spent a month in London, and took a bunch of walks. I had destinations, but the process of exploring the city by winding my way through it, was wonderful. And I specifically remember back in the dorm room at night, going back over my route on this Bartholomew’s London Plan map, realizing connections I hadn’t realized I’d made—walking one day around the back of a building I’d been inside the day before; passing by a tube stop I’d rumbled through the week before. Approaching Admiralty Arch first from the front, then from the back. I used the map to get un-lost a few times, but what I remember most is constructing a two-dimensional memory of the city after the fact on top of this dense artwork.

When we travel—when I travel—I am aware of how I essentially ignore large swaths of territory I am traveling through. I don't think this is just a product of the motor age, though the hermetically sealed automobile has emphasized this phenomenon. The plain fact is, most of the time we don't care much about the space we travel through—we just want to get through it. But we have a different relationship with the places where we stop. When we stop travel for a rest break, we move around, even if it's to get a sense of the relationship between the car park, our motel room, and the office. This most rudimentary geography sets up an understanding of space in more than one dimension, giving us a field within which we can carry out our "settled" functions of eating, sleeping, eliminating, washing, and maintaining our physical goods.

This is the kind of territory which, if it is complex enough that we can't easily hold it in our heads, we want a map for.

J.B. Harley was right on top of this understanding when he wrote his essay, “The Map as Biography.” To him, the map in question, a 1904 topographic sheet of Newton Abbot in Devonshire, reveals familiar truths to him: the history of an English town in its layers of development; the history of British mapmaking in the surveyors and draftspersons who compiled and published the map; and finally his own history, memories of a long residence, a marriage, births and deaths and burials. He wrote the essay after he had left Newton Abbot to live in Milwaukee, so it truly was an aide memoire to him, a reminder of where he had deeply been from. When David Woodward memorialized his colleague and this essay in a broadsheet for the History of Cartography project, he went a bit further, and talked about maps, and this map in particular, as a repository for memory.

Strangers in a territory—true strangers—don’t have these memories, and so I want to suggest that maps are fundamentally not for strangers. They may call out aspects of a familiar place we did not realize. They may correct misunderstandings our limited ground-based perspective gave us. But their real value is giving us a framework on which to construct our own familiarity—not from ground zero, but from some pieces of already-existing memory or knowledge. One must be familiar with a place in some way to fully make use of a map.

There’s a chimera I've been chasing since I started making maps: the idea that a map could somehow transmit poetic, profound sense of place. I’ve made a variety of arguments why it just isn’t so, mostly centered around how the construction of the fine arts and of cartography are incompatible. So here’s another reason:

We are all strangers to our audience. It's not just us. Almost every piece of published, broadcast, or publicly performed work operates this way. But a lot of work in other forms—memoir or poetry or landscape painting—slips a little trick in, creating, for the duration of the audience’s experience, the illusion that something personal, even intimate, has been shared. The subject might be actually personal, as in a memoir, or it might be fictional. But this is not the default condition for mass-disseminated media: this illusion of familiarity must be constructed by the author and/or performer and then agreed to by the audience. Now, the creator of this personal work may in fact be speaking truth, and we may be reading something personal. But the connection, the actual relationship between any individual audience member and the artist, is illusory. Of this fact all sorts of awkward fan encounters are born.

What we makers of modern maps do generally avoids this: we present what users take as simple, impersonal facts. But as Harley notes, it is upon these facts that a profound sense of place can be constructed by the audience. This is what we potentially have to offer: not a million people with one text. Instead, a toolset on which a million people create their own texts.

And this is why I so loved Becky Cooper’s Mapping Manhattan project: a blank map, handed to people to draw their own relationship to the most important island in America. it’s simple, it’s brilliant, and to me it’s a template for where we recorders of our geography need to go. The book at first seems to show a series of maps, but I suggest we should better look at it without the assumption that each new image is a separate map. These are each examples of the placement of individual memory upon a common map—the visualization of the internal processes all of use when we use maps as repositories of memory. This is how people at root use and want to use maps. It’s up to us to create maps that most effectively allow people to do that.

That is where this paper ended on Tuesday, but after a day at NACIS, I want to add a postrscript.

When we assume ahead of time what our maps must be made of, we pass on to our users assumptions about what kinds of texts, what kinds of memories, are permissible in the stories they are going to tell. This outline of Manhattan gives permission for a huge variety of responses. If Becky Cooper had handed her New Yorkers a URL to a mashup site where they could pin responses in digital form on a detailed OpenStreetMap zoomable base, would we have ended up with nearly as interesting and rich a set of responses? 

If we build our maps, our bases for public conversation, on data—if we ground our understandings insistently on data-driven mapping, we end up excluding whole classes of memory, of communication. To me this is  real challenge: from a data-driven perspective, there are centrally important modes of human understanding that are just too sloppy and vague to be admissible. The way we cartographers have learned to think excludes sloppiness. And, yes, sloppy thinking within a precise, complex system has arguably gotten us into the political mess we're in right now. But only part of the problem is the sloppy thinkers insisting on equal standing. The other part of the problem is the insistence of non-sloppy thinkers that we don't have a fully legitimate place for this sloppiness. 

I think that's the root problem: our insistence that our human response to the world around us not be sloppy. When we insist on this, we have overstepped our place.

No comments: