On Viewing the Flattened Past

Immediate access to images, maps, and other information makes us wax nostalgic for postal delivery on a 24-hour clock, and stamped snail mail six days of the week.  Even the labor of licking and affixing a stamp seems antiquated now.

 

Google Classic

 

If the notion of allowing a thirty-day wait in red bold letters is the best addition to this artificially aged virtual post card, the app “Historic Earth” offered touchscreen reminders of the pastness present in a landscape that was ever mapped for a short time, in a neat if cautionary collaboration between university libraries and iTunes.

The re-use of maps that this app encouraged provide an interesting case of the circulation of older maps that digitization allowed.  It’s as if Google Earth teamed up with an expansive archive of older maps, allowing us to summon on screens images of place which retain feel and detail and of paper originals, which were georeferenced to modern maps of the actual positions where one stands, using the background of an OpenStreetMap to suggest a layering of a map of actual space.  (OSM is a crowd-sourced alternative to Google Maps that provides a platform to load maps inspired by Wikipedia, whose over 600,000 contributors offer GPS readings, often taken with simple handheld units, aerial photographs, and other geospatial data, in the largest collective mapping project on Earth; the non-proprietary notion of the map OSM uses lends itself especially well to “Historic Earth.”   The service is also popular  as an alternative to default backgrounds in GPS receivers.)  The astoundingly large trace-density of OSM in Europe alone make it a perfect model for providing a background for older maps, as is made clear in a map Eric Fisher plotted of its specificpoint density:

 

1280px-OpenStreetMap_GPS_trace_density

The value of such a comprehensive open-source database facilitated the very features of geolocation “Historic Earth” boasted as its central selling point–providing an easily adjusted template of even broader scope than the uploaded maps covered.  The concept of geoindexing a variety of older maps for daily reference is exciting, but the curiosity in  older maps of all places was  not uniform for all sites  even the marketers realized that the interest of split-screen historical maps of few places were as compelling as those of the built environment of New York City, and even these poorly translated to an iPhone’s small screen:

The contrast of a cut-screen overlay was :

Historic EarthTM 1885 iScreen

 

How did the OSM background help “Historic Earth” work  to view local landscapes through the screens of old maps?  On the one hand, the app “Historic Earth” provided a great way to appreciate the map as a human artifact–as well as, more obviously, an earlier sedimentation of human space.  The maps that were made available in the app–formerly available from iTunes at bargain basement prices of $3.99 (£3.99 in the UK), uploaded from digitized images of the Osher Map Library, synchronized to one’s own GPS-determined position.  Rather than map actual space, or presume a single point of view, the app offered users a form of virtual time-travel through scanned media:  the experience of looking at an archive or junk store (or glove-compartment) is collapsed into the real-time consultation of a range of maps of wherever you are; the maps rotate in synchrony with your current location–so long as that location has been mapped.  (The availability of maps of North American cities is evident in the below screen, for example, especially of the Northeast, LA, and Midwest, as well as parts of the Northwest around Seattle:  urban views, one would guess, would work the best on this sort of app.)

 

historicEarth01.7Ves6uAjM23Z

 

Representations of a geographic space were geo-indexed for viewers, who could choose the epoch, from among the available years!  The strikingly high-res app reflects the large collection of digitized maps of Historic Map Works, which already boasted a “geographic time machine.”   The app goes further than digitization by providing a crucial element of geocoding to index this sizable virtual archive of over one million property maps, old road maps, antiquarian atlases, nautical charts of oceans, star maps, and views of place.  Their digitized collection constitutes something of a veritable grab-bag of images–predominantly focussing on North America and including England and Ireland, and while this is not able to provide the universal coverage one would like, the collection mirrored a considerable market-share.  In short, the app provided access to the world’s largest single collection of geocoded maps, both to “map the history of cities, times, buildings and landmarks” and “watch the landscape change over time.”  Historical Earth offered viewers readily accessible proof that all landscapes had a history.

Whereas Historical Map Works grew out of the internet ancestry industry, with the somewhat interesting demand to ‘visualize where your ancestors lived,’ albeit in schematic form, the app offered a counter-map to Google Maps, or anti-Google map, at the same time that app’s coverage grew, by exchanging a standard or uniform Google Earth visualization for the proliferation of a multiplicity of maps from historical eras–raising questions, I suppose, of where the market lies.  The expansion of this app at a heady time of the expansion of totalizing catalogues of images on-line mirrors the extreme optimism of a widely usable web interface for digitized maps.  But the range of time that folks seemed interested in looking at old maps was limited, in comparison to other mapping software.  Unfortunately,  the app launched in October 2009 received mixed reviews, and folded the following year, despite the 32,000 high-resolution images of American cities and multiple antiquarian maps it promised to correlate.  But the app deserves examination as a response to the widespread digitization of images.

Historic Map Works met the antiquarian in us all with the desire for a material record of place, by allowing us to order our own “personalized maps” of place suitable for framing above the fireplace or in one’s library, a ready-made family heirloom.  In contrast, the app would allow one to flip through a variety of maps at any site, through views oriented relative to your actual position, providing a record not only of space but, documenting “changing space perception” as Urban Tick put it, by comparing the changing manners for representing the salient features of a place where one is actually located.  The special feature “lock frame when browsing maps” allows one to select a demarcated frame of reference–and a rubric for placing one’s position relative to areas of the maps one might want to consult–to make it far easier than dealing with originals that might demand a similar practice of orienting oneself to each map as one goes through the requisite period of initial orientation to gain one’s bearings.

But is this really not a diminishing of what one might call map literacy, or the ability for reading information from maps?  In a kind of antiquarian’s Google Street View, one can look through sepia-colored lenses at the past, condensed at a safe distance and with only an aura or hint of materiality, arrayed on the screen of one’s tablet or phone, adjusting the map by a slider in the same way that one reads Google maps, panning and zooming on a touch-screen, and in essence forgetting how maps are read.  It creates, as well, some wacky hybrids, so that one can imagine oneself keying one’s position to a mid-19th century map while strolling in lower Manhattan, by the same iconography of a Google Map:

 

9134_310253195696_2317062_n

 

That could be fun.  Or, if it would be any use, while driving in a landscape that you thought was familiar, but might want to see exactly how upper Manhattan looked and was mapped a hundred and fifty years ago:

 

9134_310253200696_1174201_n

Needless to say, it flattens history:  we see, rather than inhabited lands, lines of property (old real estate maps) and architectural views, all represented in synchrony with the present GPS-derived screen, with little sense of their evolution (make your own links) or social geomorphology, to coin an absurd phrase to capture the gamut of forces that shaped the world in its current disposition and form.
Speaking of dispositions and maps, flattening history on maps can work in at least several (or multiple) ways, even the end result is two-dimensionality.  There is something of a self-referential circularity to the practice of mapping–albeit a compulsive one of providing a total image of the earth’s surface–analogous to the use of OSM in the ill-fated if temporarily super-popular on-line version of Monopoly City Streets–but along the lines of the basic diachronic question, “Isn’t it amazing how much things have changed over the last 1,800 years?”   This underlies, and is even openly asked, by the Washington Post‘s Max Fisher in the synoptic survey of all world history in but 40 maps, a post recently cobbled together from varied sources.
It took more than the simple ten whose design Peter Barber of the British Library judged worthy to be named the ten “greatest” maps to sum up human history as well as effective cartographical communications and shifts in cartographical media:  to be sure, Fisher adapted the maps from a website boasting “40 maps they didn’t teach you in school, but essentially offers a Robinson global projection (or the variation of the Mercator projection that serves as the Google Maps template) to ask informed readers “how many of this map’s divisions are still with us today?” and break down a variety of economic databases or Gallup Polls on a multicolored data visualization.  Two measure such stereotypically quasi-racist questions whether national Muslims worldwide “believe in democracy rather than a strong leader” or view “religious conflict” as “a very big problem” in their countries:  these maps serve to reveal “big secrets” that we already suspected, in short, or provide us, as the map of countries that possess nuclear warheads; North Korea’s missile range, or the infographic that sadly compares economic inequality in the United States to the rest of the world–in each case transposing sourced data to familiar (if not generic) cartographical schema.
My favorite two are typical in being less about rendering space, spatial relations, or really even the explanatory ability of the map:  the first, revealing who “loves and hates America [i.e., the United States], an emblem of our current isolationism–
map-opinion-of-us
–and another that maps “self-love,” but also reflects the meaningless nature of emotional “liking”–in the sense, itself residing in that meaningless, promoted by Facebook culture–of where people feel “most loved yesterday” in the world:
love-map
Each map poses as a sort of revelation about global conditions in a pretty half-hearted way:  folks aren’t that happy in central Asia, but Americans and Canadians, as well as Brazilians and Australians and South Africans (and Saudi Arabians!), seem pretty well off!  One is tempted to read the greyness of Russia as a gruff “there is no data here,” but it is a more believable probably less than half.  The ‘map’ of Central Africa is sad, but does it map that much anyway, except what we already expected?  In spite of the global purview of each, re-use of identical cartographical templates in each of these images diminish their cartographical arguments–or obscure in intentional manner the power of the map as an argument.
Fisher’s map is likely to celebrate in somewhat jingoistic and reassuring fashion of explaining what one already knows, as in the affirmation of “where it is best to be born” whose broad swaths of blue and expanse of red only obfuscate variations in the economic data used to decide what “best” means:
where-to-be-born-map3
It’s odd that Fisher only included two maps weren’t digital constructs or data visualizations for his post at WaPo.  Both of these are in fact newly designed maps, and both border on cartoons:  a historical missionary map of Africa of ca. 1908 and a 1990 map of a Russian political scientist Igor Pannarin, inexplicably chosen, prognosticating dissolution of the United States would split into six distinct pieces by 2010, each parts of separate sovereign states, in a reverse fantasy.
Only these maps out of those that Fisher posts make clear arguments, either as propaganda or wishful thinking (or fantastical projections)–but both do so in ridiculous forms.  The other maps, deriving from a digital sphere, celebrate the transparency of the map as an elucidation, that hint at ethical problems in the naiveté of the re-use and circulation of maps in the blogosphere that echo the range of ethical problems Ellen Ulman associated with the “digital environment.”
Perhaps this environment is yet another inflection of a post-modern condition:  does our ability to map most everything undermine or empty reading maps as sources or categories of information or to read them as descriptions of space?

1 Comment

Filed under counter-map, digital environment, Facebook, georeferencing, Google Classic, Google Earth, Google Street View, Historic Earth, Historic Map Works, Igor Pannarin, infographic, Max Fisher, Open Street Maps, Peter Barber, Robinson Projection

One response to “On Viewing the Flattened Past

  1. Victor

    Russian Standard lie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s