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Whose Reality Is It Anyway? 29 August 2008

Posted by Dr Moose in Life, Ponderings.
Tags: , , ,

Just by chance a headline on the BBC news feed caught my eye this morning, Online maps ‘wiping out history’ and although I really should be doing something else this feels worthy of comment. The article begins thus:

Internet mapping is wiping the rich geography and history of Britain off the map, the president of the British Cartographic Society has said.

Mary Spence said internet maps such as Google and Multimap were good for driving but left out crucial data people need to understand a landscape.

Mrs Spence was speaking at the Institute of British Geographers conference in London.

Google said traditional landmarks were still mapped but must be searched for.

That piqued my interest as a geographer, especially after discussions of “pyschogeography” at Greenbelt, and a PhD in Geography, of course. One of the phrases that sticks in my mind from years ago is that “A map is a model of reality.” In other words a map exists to aid us in our understanding of wider reality while inevitably simplifying that reality and making value decisions about what is, and is not, of importance. A model, after all, cannot be the same as the real.

The article itself then goes on to highlight both an alarming fact and an interesting debate that reflects not just cartography, but whole swathes of human understanding which have far-reaching implications.

As a map-fan (a ‘cartophile’ possibly, or maybe more correctly a ‘cartographile’) I remember being taught the art of map reading at primary school, and the fantastic world it revealed through an apparently simple map. So I find the assertion that “this skill is not being taught in schools” to be particularly disturbing.

After this assertion there follows a…, well, not a debate, but a statement of positions. On the one hand digital map-makers are accused of not including the rich features of the national landscape within their products, so that churches, stately homes and ancient woodlands are not readily discernible. The counter is that the information is within the product, but must be searched for. “These traditional landmarks are still on the map but people need to search for them. Interactive maps will display precisely the information people want, when they want it.”

And herein lies the crux of the cartographic issue. While I have not seen it explicitly stated I strongly suspect that the vast majority of users of online and digital mapping (if we include the discussion to satellite navigation systems) are looking for maps to help them get around – products which will function as road maps. A road map is a specialised map that exists to serve a given purpose, to expedite travel. A few minutes perusing my area on Google Maps is instructive. The default map provided is one marking roads, railways, street names, even bus stops – but the only way I’ve found to highlight, say, my church, was to switch to a photographic or satellite image and even then it was only recognisable because I knew exactly what to look for. Not a symbol (or should I say icon, these days?) but the church itself viewed from above.

All models presuppose a certain degree of knowledge or expectation on the part of the user. Nowhere did I find two of the most basic elements that cartographers are taught to include (or were when I was taught) – a key, to enable decoding, and an indication of orientation, usually displayed as a “North” arrow.

The traditional Ordnance Survey map that I was taught to interpret contains a wealth of information, but you have to know how to interpret it.

Two very different schools of thought thus present themselves. The one seeks to give a large amount of information to suit the user who can understand it (and, to be fair, learning to read a map is not especially hard), the other presents what it expects most users to want and then gives them options to add things of interest.

The first allows the user to engage and explore far more than the latter, which enables the user to make informed decisions (although on my brief survey I find the latter, in the form of Google maps, sadly lacking.) I suspect this is a long-running debate in epistemology, the theory of knowledge, as well as in education.

Would I have developed such a love for maps and matters geographical had I not been exposed to the sheer breadth and detail available on Ordnance Survey mapping? Somehow I suspect not.

Maybe it reflects my mindset, but in a similar vein I get highly annoyed when a piece of software, usually a word-processing package, presumes I have no prior knowledge of what to do and leads me in directions I don’t wish to go. Like a mass access to digital map it hides things from the user, based on the user’s perceived needs.

This begs the question of course, has humanity as a whole simply decreased in intelligence over time, that we should be presumed to need such constant simplification? Has our education system failed us? Or are the very forces which seek to aid us, admittedly often with a corporate and commercial motive, actually doing more harm than good?

And if you’re looking for a link to Christian matters, the theology or pastoral ministry, there’s always room for an observation, which I hope is somewhat relevant: most parents I visit who wish to have their children baptised seem to think that faith is spread by some sort of osmosis from the surrounding culture, without them having to take any active steps of instruction or church attendance – that faith “just sort of happens”. Or worse still that infant baptism allows a child to make an informed choice when they are older – which is, of course, utter tosh. I always counter that a child learns the language they hear at home, that they are immersed in.

Is the “language of education” within our wider society, whether cartographic, spiritual or anything else, so circumscribed by an “ease of use but you can choose to make it complicate philosophy” that we are failing to be stimulated and living purely utilitarian, maybe economically productive, but otherwise sterile existences?

(It’s rough, it’s unpolished and it’s long, and maybe with a bit of work could be better, but i hope it makes the point).



1. Jane - 29 August 2008

One of my main purposes for a map, apart from getting from A to B, is “so what’s interesting around here, then”? My satnav does a great job of telling me where to turn and making noises when I get close to something practical like a refueling point (for myself or the vehicle), but totally fails to say “look left, there’s a hill-fort”, much less “we’ve got 20 min to spare, turn into the next village”. Navigating by satnav instead of map book, or by the directions given by sites such as Google Maps, I feel as if I have blinkers on.

The new utility-driven maps fail to inspire curiosity. And curiosity is what got us down out of the trees, and out of the caves.

2. Stephen Elves - 3 September 2008

As you say the maps in a sat nav are there for a purpose, to get you from A to B, whilst it may seem that all digital mapping systems are opurely for that purpose it simply isn’t thus.
The system I’m in charge of (www.mapsandstats.com sorry IE + plugin required, I know, I know I prefer firefox myself, but watch this space) for instance has a primary function to support funding bids for community groups thus includes data layers (which can be turned on and off, including various OS base maps ) that have a variety of symbols (although rather embarrassingly for this example not churches, where can I get a list of religious buildings from) that are helpful in achieving this aim.
Equally there are a number of councils who have provided maps showing rights of way for ramblers that have just the sort of information that you are lamenting a lack of, the surrey one (http://surreymaps.surreycc.gov.uk/public/viewer.asp), discovered via a random google search, has as well as registry rigths of way but also “what to see” areas of outstanding natural beauty and ancient woodlands marked.
Final returning full circle most Sat nav systems allow you to load your own POI’s (Points Of Interest) files which will then pop up when are near them, and there are loads available (http://www.pocketgpsworld.com/tomtompoi.php) including (early) churches.
Even though I’m an atheist I’ll refer you to Matthew 7:7 😉

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