Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Simon Garfield: On the Map

Simon Garfield has written one of those charming books that were all the rage about 10 years ago- a biography of a thing. There were books about the tulip, salt, corpses and who knows what else. "On the Map" is very much a biography of the map. It has flashes of what I was hoping it to be: sort of a sociological analysis of maps and mapping and the "mind-expanding exploration of the way the world works" that the subtitle promises. "On the Map" contains a lot of cool tidbits and some cool pictures, but mind-expanding? Not so much.

It really is mind-expanding to think about how people before world exploration saw the world. I'm not just talking colonizers, I'm talking people in general. Think about it: you lived somewhere and knew the geography of the place, but what else was there? Could you picture the next place over? Did you want to picture the next place over? If you lived on the coast, did you imagine what the coastline looked like, beyond the immediate waves? I have a sense of the shape of California, but really, it's the shape on a map. When I'm standing with my toes in the water, the only shape I REALLY know is the shape that's as far as I can see to my left and to my right. The earliest maps would have given me a path to follow to get me where I needed to go, but not a picture of the shape of the coast. This is really astonishing to me, and maybe sociology isn't the right word: it's almost philosophical.

Another mind-blowing example of how maps change how we think (or maybe better, how we think changes how maps operate) is the mobile-phone/GPS style map, or "me-mapping." These dynamic maps now move with us: we are the center, literally, of the universe. I pull up my phone to figure out where I am when I'm lost or disoriented, click a button and whoosh, I'm located on the map. I can then orient myself on the map and get directions, if I want, to where I want to go. No more finding myself on the map- the map finds me. In a way, this is stepping back to that primitive spot on the beach: the only place I really know is the spot on the coast that I'm standing on. In a sinister way it's erasing everything else. Now that I do have the capability to know everywhere else and the shape of the coastline, instead of orienting myself to that geography, I'm orienting the geography to myself. Scary, creepy and self-centered. We are losing our ability to find our way around because we follow the arrow or the voice in the GPS. We are losing our sense of perspective, our place in the world.

Garfield doesn't lay this out very well, and maybe that is a benefit of the book: he gives us the history and then lets us fill it in, as I've done here. He gives us lots of stuff to tell our friends: did you know that Nicaragua blamed Google Maps for their invasion of Costa Rica? Yup. Apparently Google Maps had the borders wrong and they wanted them set straight. Also, Bill Clinton gets bonus points for lifting restrictions on GPS satellite technology in 2000 when he said the Cold War is REALLY over, enough is enough. And he presciently warns that we are unreasonably dependent on GPS:
GPS is now such a significant part of our lives that the effects of failure would be catastrophic. Malfunction would be a blow not just to the digital cartographer and the iPhone user, it would be as if the world's entire harvest of electricity, oil and gas had run out at the same time. The loss of GPS would now affect all emergency services, all systems of traffic control including shipping and flight navigation, and all communications bar semaphore. It would affect the ability to keep accurate time and predict earthquakes. It would set the guidance and interception of ballistic missiles to haywire. What would begin with gridlock at road intersections would very rapidly tun the world dark, and then off. Everything would stop. We would be practically blind. We would not be able to stock our shops and feed ourselves. Only those who knew how to plow a field like they did in the middle ages would have a chance.
Wow. So what do we do? Learn how to triangulate again? Keep AAA maps in our cars, if we can find them? Keep growing food in our backyards? (My tomatoes won't last me very long.) It's not really clear that we can or should go back. It is clear that maps and mapping have an immense influence in who we are and where we're going (dude, stop me), even if kids never fight to fold a map or try to read a street name that's been worn out in the crease of a map. Even if my boyfriend can't find his way around without a GPS and I have to give my volunteers printed directions to their destinations, there's mapping involved. Garfield does a good job of describing this and how we got to this point. The book is quick and readable and food for thought if you know how to get there.


mamagotcha said...

I've had to relocate to two major metropolitan areas in the last ten years, and I've noticed that it takes me a LOT longer to get my internal mapping sense reoriented than it used to. I chalked it up to hardening neural pathways due to old age, but maybe I'm not so decrepit after all... GPS technology has been my crutch both times.

And the "biography of things" description reminded me of that run of "autobiography of body parts" ("I am Joe's Toenail") I devoured in the 70s. Hee!