Maps are flawed but useful. For instance, we can leverage the experiences of others to help us navigate through territories that are, to us, new and unknown. We just have to understand and respect the inherent limitations of maps whose territories may have changed. We have to put some work into really seeing what the maps can show us. Here are three things you need to think about when using a map: The perspective, the author, and the territory.
Maps are an abstraction, which means information is lost in order to save space. So perhaps the most important thing we can do before reading a map is to stop and consider what choices have been made in the representation before us.
First, there are some limitations based on the medium used, like paper or digital, and the scale of the territory you are trying to represent. Take the solar system. Our maps of the solar system typically fit on one page. This makes them useful for understanding the order of the planets from the sun but does not even come close to conveying the size of the territory of space.
Bill Bryson explains in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “such are the distances, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. … On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away, and Pluto would be a mile and half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway).”
Maps are furthermore a single visual perspective chosen because you believe it the best one for what you are trying to communicate. This perspective is both literal — what I actually see from my eyes, and figurative — the bias that guides the choices I make.
It’s easy to understand how unique my perspective is. Someone standing three feet away from me is going to have a different perspective than I do. I’ve been totally amazed by the view out of my neighbour’s window.
Jerry Brotton, in his book A History of the World in Twelve Maps, reveals that “the problem of defining where the viewer stands in the relation to a map of the world is one geographers have struggled with for centuries.” Right from the beginning, your starting point becomes your frame of reference, the centre of understanding that everything else links back to.
In an example that should be a classic, but isn’t because of a legacy of visual representation that has yet to change, most of us seriously underestimate the size of Africa. Why? Because, as Tim Marshall explains in his book Prisoners of Geography, most of us use the standard Mercator world map, and “this, as do other maps, depicts a sphere on a flat surface and thus distorts shapes.” A world map always has to be distorted, with a bent toward the view you are trying to present. Which has led to a northern hemisphere centric vision of the world that has been burned into our brains.
Even though Africa looks roughly the size of Greenland, in fact, it is actually about 14 times larger. Don’t use the standard Mercator map to plan your hiking trip!
Knowing a map’s limitations in perspective points you to where you need to bring context. Consider this passage from Marshall’s book: “Africa’s coastline? Great beaches – really, really lovely beaches – but terrible natural harbors. Amazing rivers, but most of them are worthless for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall.”
A lot of maps wouldn’t show you this – the lines that are rivers are all drawn the same. So you’d look at the success the Europeans had with the Danube or the Rhine and think, why didn’t Africans think to use their rivers in the same way? And then maybe you decide to invest in an African mineral company, bringing to the table the brilliant idea of getting your products to market via river. And then they take you to the waterfalls.
Consider who draws the maps. A map of the modern day Middle East will probably tell you more about the British and French than any inhabitants of the region. In 1916 a British diplomat named Sykes and a French diplomat name Picot drew a line dividing the territory between their countries based on their interests in the region and not on the cultures of the people living there, or the physical formations that give it form.
Marshall explains, “The region’s very name is based on a European view of the world, and it is a European view of the region that shaped it. The Europeans used ink to draw lines on maps: they were lines that did not exist in reality and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen. An attempt is now being made to redraw them in blood.”
The map creator is going to bring not only their understanding but also their biases and agenda. Even if your goal is to create the most accurate, unbiased map ever, that intent frames the decisions you make on what to represent and what to leave out. Our relatively new digital mapping makes a decision to respect some privacy at the outset and so Google doesn’t include images of people in its ‘streetview’.
Brotton argues that “a map always manages the reality it tries to show.” And as we have seen before, because there really isn’t one objective reality, maps need to be understood as portraying personal or cultural realities.
“No world map is, or can be, a definitive, transparent depiction of its subject that offers a disembodied eye onto the world.” All maps reflect our understanding of the territory at that moment in time. We change, and maps change with us.
This leads to another pitfall. Get the right map. Or better yet, get multiple maps of the same territory. Different explorations require different maps. Don’t get comfortable with one and assume that’s going to explain everything you need. Change the angle.
Derek Hayes, in his Historical Atlas of Toronto, has put together a fascinating pictorial representation of the history of Toronto in maps. Sewer maps, transit maps, maps from before there were any roads, and planning maps for the future. Maps of buildings that were, and maps of buildings that are only dreams. Putting all these together starts to flesh out the context, allowing for an appreciation of a complex city versus a dot on a piece of paper. Maps may never be able to describe the whole territory, but the more you can combine them, the fewer blind spots you will have.
If you compare a map of American naval bases in 1947 with one from 1937, you would notice a huge discrepancy. The number increased significantly. Armed only with this map you might conclude that in addition to fighting in WWII, the Americans invested a lot of resources in base building during the 40s. But if you could get your hands on a map of British naval bases from 1937 you would conclude something entirely different.
As Marshall explains, “In the autumn of 1940, the British desperately needed more warships. The Americans had fifty to spare and so, with what was called the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, the British swapped their ability to be a global power for help in remaining in the war. Almost every British naval base in the Western Hemisphere was handed over.”
The message here is not to give up on maps. They can be wonderful and provide many useful insights. It is rather to understand their limitations. Each map carries the perspective of its creator and is limited by the medium it’s presented in. The more maps you have of a territory, the increased understanding you will have of the complexities of the terrain, allowing you to make better decisions as you navigate through it.