Mapmaking and the archeology of the future

There’s been plenty of discussion on the geoweb about the latest offering in what I’ve heard called the ‘online mapping arms race’, Microsoft’s Local Live. You can zoom in on photos of cities, move about and rotate your viewpoint.

While it’s technically interesting, impressive, geeky, and all that, I think it’s interface also illustrates a shift in what we’re perceiving maps to be. Generally thought of as being a medium of information communication (and although MS Local Live is still that), the nature of cartographic representation is obviously changing, and online mapping is driving that change.

Here’s a sixteenth century map of Edinburgh:

Map of Edinburgh, 1575

And here’s downtown LA in Microsoft’s new mapping system:

Windows Live Local view of downtown LA

The similarities are pretty obvious: isometric(ish), literal, evocative. In many ways, these maps are similar. One leads logically into the other.

Yet there wasn’t a direct evolution of the nature of cartography between these two examples. Maps after the engraving of Edinburgh started to change. In fact, these maps, created half a millennium apart, seem to have more in common with each other than they do with the more symbolic, representative, top-down maps that came between them and lasted for centuries (your typical A-Z roadmap, or an Ordnance Survey map, for example).

It’s interesting to note what’s been lost in transition, the elements that were no longer deemed necessary in the newer map. The people in the foreground and detail in the background have been dropped - we no longer need the reference point of humans, or the surrounding hills and fields for the map to make sense of the map. Perhaps this comes from a shift away from a focus on the self to a more universal world view, driven by scientific discovery. As science learned that the movements of the planets were not centred around earth – as people realised, literally, that the universe did not revolve around them – their understanding of their position in relation to the physical world changed, and became more abstracted. A shift in perception is reflected in changing methods of mapping. Our knowledge of the world allows us to see it in different ways, and this manifests itself in new graphic representations.

Maps are more than representations of places; they reflect a time and outlook. Read a map, and find the lie of the land in more ways than one. There are layers of history, reason, thought that have influenced why a place has been abstracted precisely in the way it has. John Berger writes that

An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made it’s appearance and preserved – for a few moments or a few centuries. Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as it is often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.

The marks we make reflect our way of seeing, our interpretations from within our own sphere of reference.

Back to Local Live – what’s going on here? The map is becoming less abstracted and more literal, more tactile, seemingly coming full circle to a literal representation of my place within a wider world view. Is mapmaking returning to a medieval approach to representation? What is this saying about how we think about location and ourselves? Why now?

Like the changes that happened after the Edinburgh map and up to the Local Live map, I think this is at least partly due to developments in technology. The introduction of photography brought about it’s own crisis in the meaning of representation. Think about how the internet has allowed us to become self-centred individuals again, albeit individuals with a sense of scale and place in a massive world, zooming in from the macro to the micro (à la powers of ten), making the paradox of mass personalisation possible. Or think about the small circular maps in first person video games - as you move about, the entire map changes around a static arrow that represents you, the individual.

Or how our understanding of our context within a technology-filled world now allows the fact that how we know we would look if viewed from satellites that are floating in space high above the planet to be a representative mapping medium.

(Some of this comes from a couple of days knocking heads last month with colleagues at i-DAT, in particular a discussion with Dr Mike Punt on the relationship between technology and history.)

— 27 Jan 2006