The Trouble with Maps…


‘A map can tell me how to find a place I have not seen, but have often imagined. When I get there, following the map faithfully, the place is not the place of my imagination. Maps, growing ever more real, are much less true.’

Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry

A map constitutes relationships and connections, divisions and boundaries. To adults, they are a means of organising space and navigating new territories. They offer a representation of landscape: time over distance, a way to make sense of the world, to orientate and affirm ourselves – by far the greatest use of Google’s geo-spatial applications is people searching for their own house. Children approach maps very differently, a fusion of imagination and geography  – a doorway to a world imbued with mystery, secrets and promise –  which they enter, not as visitors, politely following or observing, but as actors, running, shooting, fleeing marauders, flying on horseback to safety.

The first time I studied a map was in Hove Library, spread across a table upstairs in the old reference room, with its chipped plaster cornicing and Chinese students slumped over text books, asleep.  I traced my fingers along red arteries of roads and pink bridle paths, not understanding the difference between nautical and land miles, or between orange OS Explorer maps and the pink Landrangers neatly lining the shelves with their worn spines numerically ordered.  The plan was to walk cross-country from Bristol to Brighton. When I told friends, (usually male), they said  paper maps were redundant, Digital maps were the future. I should  download an OS app and plot my co-ordinates digitally. But I liked the feel of a map, the creamy thick paper which snapped when you folded it, the delicate contoured lines; miniscule symbols and legends. I liked to lay the maps out on the floor end to end and see a journey of 170 miles reduced to five feet.  The same journey on an iphone screen truncated into small portions was impossible to imagine or contextualise.

A recent experiment at UCL, highlighted the role map making plays in developing our neural pathways. A team of researchers took participants on a guided tour of Soho, and subsequently under laboratory conditions, asked these participants to navigate the same area virtually through a computer game, requiring them to make detours and diversions, drawing on the knowledge of the previous day. MRI scans showed changes to the hippocampus, the brain’s grey matter, the seat of memory, spatial awareness and navigation which regulates emotions, and memory.  These changes didn’t occur in the brains of those following GPS instructions. Compliance, it seems, does not create neurological links. The brain thrives on making meanings and relationships.

Cognitive mapping is the process by which we acquire, order and recall information about our spatial environment – how we define ourselves in relation to it and find destinations repeatedly.  Maps of the skies, of the Plaeides were found in the caves of Lascaux, dating back 17,000years. The oldest map in the world, the Imago Mundi, dates back to between 700 and 500 BC, leading to assumptions that  humans are ‘natural map-makers (but curiously not natural map readers). Yet, maps only became widely used in the West in the 1400s, paralleling a rise in populations (which  made direct communications more difficult), and the birth of the nation state. They offered an ideal means to create national identity and exert power through boundaries.

As children enter a map knowing it is make-believe yet believing in its fiction, we extend a similar kind of faith in them as adults, considering them objective and factual, when they are subjective representations filled with paradoxes. In order to find yourself, you have to know where you are; to read one you have to be simultaneously inside and outside the map. Every map made is the result of a set of compromises – solid mass scaled to 2D, orientation, signs and signifiers chosen and represented. Accuracy of one detail is sacrificed for accuracy of another: scale for perspective,  projection for pragmatism – two famous examples of this exist in the Mercator projection – which distorts the size of objects as the latitude increases from the Equator to the polar caps, (making Greenland and Antarctica appear larger relative to land masses) – and The Peters projection which combats this distortion by sacrificing accuracy of shape, distance, and direction.

The French philosopher, Baudrillard, famously said: ‘hence, the map precedes the territory,’ suggesting  maps conceptualise terrains and shape our perceptions before we set a foot on the soil. In 1875 a mapping project of the southern states of the USA brought together Arizona, California, Utah, Colarado – the only place in the US where four states meet, depicting  the four edges as a cross on the map – contradicting former mapping by indigenous Native American populations. Subsequently, this place has become known as ‘The Four Corners.’ After the civil war, a monument was erected and tourists arrived by the bus-load.  T-shirt franchises, Tacos stalls, burger vans, and tourist shops followed in their wake.

Despite their ‘indisputable’ accuracy, destinations have also been created by geospatial applications. In 1997, a new town appeared on Google Earth’s satellite mapping called Argleton, located off the M59, near Ormskirk in Lancashire.  Geographers were puzzled. Nothing physical existed in reality; yet Google algorithms linked the site to estate agents, chiropodists and hotels – creating a whole virtual town.  Some suspected it was a cartologist’s tell – the secret marker put on the map to establish the mapmaker’s copyright. Google could never provide a satisfactory explanation.

And, this is the crux of the problem; what is real? The map or the landscape? Your representation of it or mine?  The closer we aim for accuracy to track our paths, giving away a yen to explore in return for quick corporate quick solution (time over distance) we’re forced to enter landscape rationally with our heads, lining up markers,  tracking symbols,  estimating distances, hurrying to our destinations, rather than entering them through our senses or imagination.   Janine Winterson’s quote, written in 1989, largely predated the prevalence of GPS, but has proved to be eerily accurate in their effect on our approach to landscape.

There is a truth, a consistency in the sensory rather than logical approach. If we entered maps as explorers, physically embracing the sensuality of sights, textures and sound, the subconscious links to our imagination – here be the place I rolled in the grass, delighted at the toadstools pushing though the loam,  or fell in love under a canope of May blossom, we would at least exist inside them, make them our own.

The map precedes the territory, but which map? Whose map? That’s the question.



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