Never before have possibilities for mapmaking been so readily accessible, but never before have we come to rely on maps for so many things. Never before have the possibilities of mapmaking so widely proliferated–or left us dependent on forms of mapping to make sense of information, data flows, and to orient ourselves to man-made space. The indices of measuring human habitation of landscapes have wildly expanded–as we now use maps to try to take stock of our impact on the environment and biosphere. In this sense, the growing reliance on data visualizations parallels how the recovery of the techniques that the ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy used to map the “inhabited world” [ecumene] provided tools to grasp spatial relations and networks of travel that were recorded for the first time in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a time at which maps gained wide authority of the same time. In order to interrogate the power of maps and out trust in their ability to orient us to the world, “Musings on Maps” views specific maps–from engravings to data visualizations –to investigate their continued power.
My blog began exploring individual printed and dynamic maps, using my historical research on maps and symbology to address questions of environmental mapping and human geography. I want to offer readers a take on my background and how I came to start the blog that began out of an interest to work outside academic writing, as it seemed important to relate insights about the power of maps to the persuasive power of maps in news media and as infographics within a broader historical perspective. Many blogposts reflect how Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have changed humanities research and have raised new questions of spatial analysis. It tries to focus on individual maps and mapping problems in each post, and raises questions about the selectivity and the visual power of cartographical materials as orientational tools. I’ve offered a sort of preface to the blogposts below. Thanks for reading!
We rely today on maps to process data, demographics, and the environment from different data sources, gripped by an acute sense of the several data flows in which we daily move. But we do so without fully understanding the unique sort of power they have over us. This blog aims to assess the logic of these maps, and to question the persuasive powers of the maps with which we are bombarded. In our dataphilic age, we’re all too apt to forget the made nature of the map as an artifact, and the “deep history” that underlies and to an extent informs maps. The variety of mapping forms has so broadly and recently expanded, with growing possibilities of interacting with mapping as both online and in static form, to raise questions of what constitutes map literacy and obscure the continued power maps exert in our arguments and notions of the world. We have begun to look at maps more than ever before to process information and orient ourselves to space, data flows, and too much information–viewing them as “information” as much as rhetorical constructions. Maps demand an increased surplus of attention to read and explore, but we are in danger of accepting the information they contained as more than proposals or arguments.
Are maps becoming more disorienting, and confusing, even as they are assigned more explanatory power? Having studied and taught European history for twenty years, I have been increasingly interested in creating a deep history of the power of maps during the transition of maps from print to bits, moving from the expanding uses of maps as media in the first age of mechanical reproduction to the use of maps in an age of digital literacy. I’m currently affiliated with UC Davis’ Center for Science and Innovation Studies; I was earlier associated with the Center for Science, Technology, and Medicine in Society at UC Berkeley, as well as an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Humanities Consortium, and organize Maptime SF/Oakland, a safe place for mapping in the Bay Area. For two years, Musings on Maps has been included among “Fifty Blogs for Journalists and by Journalists” (2014 and 2015), as well as in the valuable reading list Small Data Journalism.
1. In an age of big data, the historical format of the map is both increasingly familiar–there is a long history of granting authority to maps as forms of dividing space–and increasingly foreign as a way of visualizing streams of data and collective behavior, more than space. This blog hopes to raise questions about why we trust how maps by examining how maps persuade us that they can help us process and tell stories about space. And it started from the presumption that the proliferation of mapping forms makes it increasingly pressing to consider how maps came to process space, and create a conflation of nature and culture that we are able to visually possess. While this blog is akin to the venerated style of blogging which takes the keyboard as something like an autoerotic extension of one’s erogenous zones, it adopts a methodology it employs is more akin to STS, examining the assumptions, precursors, and institutional and semantic contexts of maps across varied media, and comparing the format of static and interactive web maps, and using web-based maps to examine printed artifacts.
Maps work so successfully to create a new relation to space, place, and indeed the inhabited world, perhaps, because we seek comfort and stability in their economy of signs as ways to stabilize meaning. Maps stands at an intersection between representational abilities of image-making, symbolic economy, and problems of processing information and change. Even if we might distrust the ease with which maps claim to orient ourselves to the lay of the land, their persuasive force attracts us to how they present information and orient us to its landscape. And even though the maps that we use are largely web-based, interactive, and dynamic, this blog suggests how the persistent materiality of maps engage us, and command attention in constantly creative ways, inviting people to shape narratives about public space. The next few sections explain my interest in and attraction to maps as symbolic forms, and mapmaking techniques as persuasive forms, and why several of the posts in this blog are regularly updated, augmented, or revised to include recent or recently noticed visualizations.
2. Musings on Maps examines the rhetoric of maps from paper to bits to suggest how maps work to help us process a relation to space and place. My interest maps build on studying early modern maps in processing information about space, and indeed alternate spaces. My 1996 doctorate in the scientific culture of early modern Italy provided a basis to consider similar issues at the History of Cartography Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and continued to address as an Andrew W. Mellon post-doctoral fellow at UCLA’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, while attending to other historical research. As the medium of mapmaking has moved from paper to bits, we can recognize affinities in the craft of mapmaking and the power maps retain and allow us to consider (or reconsider) the habitation of earth and our effects on the environment.
It is no surprise that maps have become that maps have proliferated in a digital age or information age as important tools to orient ourselves to a changing world, with a degree of inventiveness whose proliferation and claims of legibility are only comparable to the print revolution–if the legibility that maps claim in the digital age are far more authoritative and forceful than was advanced in the early modern world. Perhaps this is because maps offer such effective forms not only to partition space, but to universalize the local to the universal, change our relation to space, and even create spaces out of whole cloth. I’m interested in the continuing power of maps lie in their ability to bridge culture and nature, framing a record of expanse that equates the representation of expanse with its legibility, by empowering viewers to organize a relation to space.
Maps both offer direct access to a culture and to spatial conceptions, but also cleverly hide their own status as made objects, or images of nature. Essays in the History of Cartography Project–an immensely valuable resource in whose production I was associated for two years-–present maps in a narrative about map-making. This blog is a counterpart to it. It examines maps as artifacts to suggest the work that they do as cultural artifacts, as forms of describing and orienting one’s relation to the inhabited world. When we “black-box” these operations, we fail to examine maps’ formal powers. I’ve been long interested in the material value and interrogate how image and text create compelling records of place and space in maps in powerful ways–so powerful to be useful to describe we inhabit space in an age of global fragmentation, when boundaries are no longer so clearly defined.
I hope you enjoy the blogposts, and recognize the similarities in the themes I address in it. I began it out of a conviction that in an age when we rely on devices that inundated their viewers and users by maps, we can benefit from more musings on their persuasive force as representations of space: for without interrogating the work maps do, we accept them as records of fact and transparent evidence, if not as unmediated truth. Many maps of sixteenth to nineteenth century maps preserve the naturalistic forms to represent their subjects, and similar claims of legibility are made by web maps and data visualization, even as they engage viewers as dynamic forms. While web-based maps demand a new level of map literacy to contemplate the arguments all maps pose for their readers, we rarely ask what those skills are, or what maps don’t include.
As we daily confront a barrage of data visualizations, their graphic and pictorial strategies demand more careful consideration than they often receive, lest we risk forgetting the inventive ways maps synthesize information, orient viewers–as their selective content either intentionally include or omit often crucial information, as if inviting us to overlook them and notice others. As much as to curate a selection of maps in this blog, I want to examine the compelling rhetoric of a range of printed and digitized images–raising issues increasingly important not only for information consumers. I hope it also addresses concerns of the growing field of the digital humanities, which must confront the difficulties of indexing, accessing, and searching for images in ways that have not been satisfactorily resolved.
3. As I’ve examined how forms of mapping address and engage their readers, I use the blog to raise questions about the continued relevance of map-reading to the digital world. Much as we are all to ready to accept the presuppositions and presumptions by which we read maps, so dependent on them have we become. By responding to the role of specific maps in the news, in the media, and the changes in the craft of mapping and cartographical artifice, paying attention to the symbolic forms of mapping as cultural creations. Each post engage specific questions through the varied and supple persuasive role of a range of maps specific to one medium. Each exploits the virtues of a web-based platforms to attend to old and new forms of map literacy, and to the availability of an increased number of online maps. In an age of increased access to map making tools and mapping forms, we’re in danger of forgetting how impoverished maps are as a substitute for critical tools of global engagement, and the richness of how all maps mediate (and perpetuate) interested images of the world.
While writing many of these posts, I was a Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society, and am currently at UC Davis’ Center for Innovation Studies. I’m especially interested in the place of on online mapping to expand work in the digital humanities, and see my posts as a contributing in a small way to this field.