Category Archives: GPS

Mapping Feline Itineraries

Among crowd-sourced mapping projects, Cat Tracker is something of an innovation:  rather than map a human environment, it is dedicated to mapping the motions of specific outdoor cats–their individual, day-by-day itineraries–rather than create something like a comprehensive map of a region, such as the HOT (Humanitarian Open Street Map Team) mapping of West Africa to track cases of Ebola.  But the mechanics of mapping are strikingly similar, if perhaps not destined for a larger audience.  While the HOT team uses the Bing imagery to trace a set of shape-files on different quadrants of Liberia or Sierra Leone, high-accuracy GPS sensors attached to the harnesses of individual cats provide the overlay for maps of cities to which they are resident, so one can imagine the regular radius of their strolls.


Cat Migration


User experience designer Alex Lee took the time to track his own cat’s motion by an attachable GPS sensor, tracing his motion around a London neighborhood over a few days to track her explorations around his home.




Where Kitty might go might be quite restricted, and be ompholocentrically concentrated about where she can count on being fed.  Researchers had earlier argued in 2011 that the meanderings of domestic cats are far more spatially restricted or circumspect than the zones of feral cats, one of whom roamed over 1,350 acres in rural areas–the domesticated cat only roamed in the area designated yellow, or usually less than two acres:




The issues of the rise of feral cats, and the danger of zoonotic transmission of protozoal diseases like toxoplasmosis is a serious issue that is only increased by the considerable breadth of their geographic wanderings.

The availability of sensor-laden harnesses to fit domestic cats with accurate GPS sensors has most rapidly expanded, however, and provoked a parsing of feline itineraries that might strike some as just TMI–although they carry the promise to provide a better sense of how cats interact with their urban environments, and engagement with urban wildlife.  While the initial tracking of cats might map as something like noise–


crittercam restricted


an image of itineraries over several days might distinguish paths or even register that one time that the cat’s owners were out of town, and their pet made an itinerary to their old house in the hope of finding food when it could not locate them otherwise, traveling unerringly for almost a full mile.


Big Feline Excursion


Creating a more complicated overlay distinguishing different days allows one to trace a clear record of the cat’s relation to its environment–and the potential incursions cats make into the wooded areas around towns such as Raleigh, NC, where  Cat Tracker has posted feline itineraries mapped with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and an online database dedicated to tracking animal movement, Movebank.





Tallulah K seems to have been attracted by a variety of surrounding rural prey or targets, but avoided most major roads:


Talllulah K


Sometimes cat travels seem to record instances driven by car, as a record of feline meanderings over multiple days shown below.  (It is unlikely, if possible, that cat space and human space were so completely congruent.)


Cat-TrackerCat Tracker


Similar results of GPS tracking, perhaps especially entertaining to cat-owners who let their felines  out of doors and wonder about their whereabouts, might provide a composite map of cats from different houses in a single neighborhood, in an attempt to find out what cat-roaming was about, or if it followed any particular logic at all–or what their relations might be called one another’s routes.


_68110711_catsmapRoyal Veterinary College, Structure & Motion Lab


The maps tracked by the Royal Veterinary College offer a basis to answer questions of how cat space maps onto human space, as much as to merely document feline itineraries.

Mapping cats in Surrey may seem like a bizarre surveillance of the domesticated:




Despite the sense that the signs tracking cats have limited legibility, do they signify a premonition of things to come?  On the one hand, this seems an extension of our own expectations for tracking and searching geographic locations.  Mapping seems to have its own logic here, providing the very terms by which we can undertake the variety of projects that technology allows.  Perhaps we’re experimentally using our technologies on our allegedly domesticated animals, as we affix ankle-bracelets with GPS trackers onto sex offenders, and map their residence and whereabouts, at the same as we get used to being tracked ourselves.

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Filed under Cat Tracker, cats, data overlays, Feral Cats, GPS, GPS Sensors, Movebank, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, OpenStreetMap, Royal Veterinary College, Structure and Motion Lab, toxoplasmosis, zoonotic diseases

Cabstopping: Data Visualization and the Re-Mapping of Urban Space

Data visualizations often employ maps to make their point, and organize an effective argument that will engage their audience:  when we see data embodied in a map, and are best engaged in its interpretation.  The alchemy of the data visualization is a magic way to throw the map’s content into multiple dimensions:  data visualizations offer plastic forms of mapping to illustrate the way we fill and occupy space, transforming the mechanics of mapping specifically intended to track the stability (and meaning) of constructions of place, and orient us to different perspectives on how we move through space.  We can better understand the ways links can be drawn about data in clear synoptic terms, and reassured by the act of discovering new patterns in a readily recognizable form.  In describing the spatial distribution of an attitude or affinity, maps are readily consumed.  But they are also cognitive tools to process shifting notions of place:  the sleek tapering negative lines in the above visualization of San Francisco’s cab traffic offers a dynamic model to examine how GPS changes relations between cities’ center and margins.

Data visualizations are not present in the recently published primer “Make Map Art” invites us to adopt traditional cartographical tools as helpful strategies to “creatively illustrate your world.”  Mapping has long been rooted in the world of graphic design.  But the siblings Sue Swindell and Nate Padavick’s Map Art invite readers to embrace the diffusion of mapping as a form of making in the service of self-expression in this lovely book–whose championing of the hand-made map seems a counter-strategy to the near-ubiquity of Google Maps on hand-held screens and maps in evites, embedded in social media, that direct us to a destination.   The toolkit offered readers of Make Map Art invites us to adopt tools and forms of maps not only as orienting tools but instruments of “creative illustration” that suggest we rehabilitate forms of mapping as our own tools.  These maps are marketed more as a hobby than a strategy of resistance:  but in their romanticized vision of the self-made map, a sort of trickle-down of the popular resurgence of hand-drawn maps, they neglect the diversity of spatial knowledges in their “creative toolkit” of easily mastered tools of design.  The handsome how-to book offers some twenty projects by which to frame  cartographical interventions in a world already abuzz with maps:  but the forms of mapping 2-D toolkit primarily marketed in stationery shops and bookstores neglect the most interesting ways cartographical design has caught up with how increasingly stark social divides have come to structure quite divergent perceptions of space.

Web-based maps are not included among the toolkit for map-your-life/make-meaning-from-maps they present, since their medium doesn’t fit the niche audience or the Luddite inflection of the book–or the sense that the map, once considered a tool of government, can be a relaxing way to order space in a world where we are all too often confronted or running to consult a handheld screen.  But this might be unfortunate.  For in a culture where we are consulting or faced by screens in  the forms of attentiveness data-driven maps create compelling models for charting our occupation of space and indeed processing our own relation to space in particularly creative ways.  If the screen often provides compelling tools to grasp our increasingly uneven occupation of space to a degree of visual attention unlike–although not foreign to–static maps.  They can show us how we fill space, and how our experience of place is redefined with a rapidity that the static design of a local or regional map has difficulty continuing to fulfill its orienting functions.  We are impoverished by circumscribing our access to a full range of mapping forms.

SF Traffic

In their engaging how-to book of personalized map design, Swindell and Padavick offer a something like a basic toolkit for those eager to respond to fears of being dominated by data.  In designing customized maps, one might resist widespread concern for being regularly mapped by unwanted forms of surveillance, and indeed dominated by the ways in which our lives are regularly mapped.  But Padavick and Swindell don’t push back that hard: they dwell in the cozily utopian idealized spaces that any map invites viewers to inhabit. It’s cool to play with our sense of space and abilities to create forms of personal orientation for ourselves or indulge in returning to cut-and-paste type of social media of material design in a DIY guide for fashioning personalized geographies ready “to be framed and displayed as artwork” to gain new decorative status as personalized cartographies.

Data visualizations, unlike static maps, define the networks of interaction in which we have increasingly become enmeshed, tracing forms of  inhabiting place that are often illuminating of the complexity of navigating place than they are comfortably reassuring.  Map-based data visualizations orient us to the shifting ways we fill space and inhabit our streets, and make interpretive demands on their viewers about how we actually have come to use our space.  For while the formats of maps offer cool tools of spatial orientation that remind us of the favorite streets we love–and how we walk across them–if the alchemy of data visualizations remake maps as especially creative tools of engaging with one’s environment, they process our own relation to a built space in dynamic ways, effectively organizing our orientation to space by revealing contours of divergent perceptions of and access to space in cities–spaces that are now no longer easily mapped by public transport maps, grids of streets, or even schools and social services.  The patterns that data aggregates are particularly valuable as a tool to unpack the changing occupation of urban spaces, from public parks to freeways to avenues, and to interrogate the practical and real boundaries of known space.  And they raise questions, perhaps known to some extent in anecdotal experience, about the increased dependence on GPS to navigate urban space in many drivers of ride-sharing services–from Uber to Lyft–perhaps in distinction from drivers’ familiarity with the automobilistic navigation of city streets.


1.  Maps that derive from big data offer particularly versatile tools, in contrast, to visualize the ways that we inhabit space and, by extension, how we travel through it and make it our own:  much as flows of information or currency or patterns of immigration, data maps show patterns of collective action that is rarely otherwise aggregated, and help us visualize how we inhabit space in dynamic ways.   They present the ability to map a network around both space and place as, indeed, constitutive of both, dispensing with and not adopting a static cartographical frame of reference to describe our relationship to space.  The alchemy of data visualizations allows us to  illustrate shifting relations between urban centers and peripheries in a map, tracking shifts in the nature of mobility in urban space, beyond a physical plant, but embodying how GPS readings tracked each cab across urban space as they move on major arteries, noting not only their positions over time, but indicating patterns of traffic, shifts in density at different times, relative rates of acceleration and different speeds of travel–all to chart how different dynamics by which the aggregate of cab riders’ experiences across urban space, the access to urban space that the self-selected demographic of cab-riders share, and the areas of cities that remain off their maps.

The dynamic results of such data visualizations provide compelling ways to understand the organization of urban space.  And in such lies their attraction for puzzling the existence and resilience of place.  “Cabspotting” at San Francisco’s Exploratorium invites us to track cabs as they carry fares at different rates of speed and acceleration across that city’s thoroughfares.  The data visualization is designed after the pioneering aggregate mapping of cabs in San Francisco’s streets by stamen design’s Shawn Allen and Eric Rodenbeck, displayed in a gallery setting in 2008 at MoMA, and first designed in 2005 by Scott Snibbe, Amy Ballin, and Stamen design.  This “high art” of data visualization was devised as a tool to reveal social, economic, and cultural data about the city in a variety of video platforms, exploiting the ability to download massive amounts of data about city cabs in aggregate that could be graphically condensed to a single image of apparent simplicity that spoke volumes on space use.  “Cabspotting” (2005) created an innovative alternative model of revisiting the city as a permeable and open space that was at the same time structured by economic patterns and social divisions in urban space:  the famous visualization of how people use cabs to inhabit urban space re-envisioned the city’s physical plant in a dynamic data-driven pattern varying trail length in response to cab speed.  Its particular power as a data visualization lies in its tracing of a collective iteration of individual itineraries, whose line thickens as they accelerate, creating an image that asks viewers to cathect to real routes through and across the city–either in an aggregate view as below, or in a real-time film of the routes and speeds on which cabs move.


We are able to enter into the pathways along which the city plan is traversed and experienced, as well as occupying an Olympian point of view.

The sinuous traces left by the aggregate of cab-fares allow us to watch cabs moving at different velocity and acceleration across the city, to reveal a haunting socioeconomic X-Ray of the city’s space, and pathways within in its streets.  While omitting large areas of poorer regions, from Hunters Point, Bayshore, or Daly City, it illuminates areas in the financial district arrived at with disposable income:  thick lines of rides near the shores show a general acceleration, especially on the Central Freeway, Market St., the James Lick Freeway or the 101 and 280, as well as along the Bay Bridge and out to the Airport, reveal a dense distribution of cab lines filling the city plan that hinges on Market Street.  The absence of a network of freeways built within the city seems to have helped cabs’ circulation, but cabs are limited to a dense occupation of downtown streets.  Indeed, if the sort of freeways and highways were built over and across the space of San Francisco in the way that they were in other cities, perhaps the illumination of that gridded downtown would be less prominent in the Stamen visualization–although one can still discern the 101 or James Lick Freeway and Marina Boulevard leading to Ghirardelli Square in the Stamen map, imagine the shifting spatial spread in a city defined by the proposed arterials which would have rendered the city more navigable, but faced such intense local opposition  that they were never in fact built or got beyond the drawing board.




The animation of traffic around San Francisco’s roads and freeways that Cabspotting celebrated the unique space of San Francisco’s streets, removed from a world fearing surveillance.  It also provided a model for processing data from taxis to illustrate the ways we use cabs to inhabit and navigate a city’s streets, emphasizing what routes cabs take and how San Francisco’s urban space is navigated, by taking up the perhaps oxymoronic proposition of surveillance technology as truly inspirational, in Scott Snibbe’s phrase.  The resulting graphic illuminates a hidden geography of how San Francisco is experienced across time in cabs, whose tracks trace a socioeconomically differentiated space in ways that cast the city’s physical plant in a dramatically new lens, where the density of downtown peters out to wisps along those avenues where fewer cabs run their fares:  Cabspotting set a compellingly high bar for data art.

The compelling portrait that emerges from the Stamen visualization offers of primary routes of cab entry generated considerable excitement for a virtual palimpsest of how urban space is navigated by paying customers in a city on a single day.  In ways that privilege specific areas of the downtown, and the larger streets–around the bay near the Embarcadero, down Geary Street, along Mission Ave. or nearby Civic Center, it suggests a living template of the city, noting each cabbie’s trajectory of driving by a white line, and increasing the size of its ghostly white lines by velocity and frequency of cabs.   As a form of GPS-based art, the ghostly image of the city may have shaped Jeremy Wood’s use of GPS in 2009 to track his personal cartography in the Gliclée print “My Ghost”, imaging an overlay of his own itineraries over the span of a year, but Wood’s image lacked the richness of wealth implicit in Stamen design’s data overlay.  Even if it suggested the lack of access of certain areas of London to Wood’s experience of the city, and a wide wandering over a hairy looping of space, the individual migrations through London streets suggests restless  iteration of an individual across city streets, unlike the densely packed social clustering of cabs  concentrated in the downtown San Francisco and accelerating along freeway lines.




The image Snibbe and Rodenbeck designed offered a memorable real-time contours for a city’s urban space that show a far less dispersive wandering around the vagaries of urban byways, and a focussed repetition of routes around a relatively restricted urban grid.  In each of its successive animated time-lapse iterations and real-time rehearsals, the Stamen’s “Cabspotting” re-mapped urban space by tracking the collective aggregate of motion across urban space, using data from embedded GPS data of position, speed and acceleration to remap a strikingly plastic living urban landscape in dynamic–if haunting–ways:  pay-per-fare riders sculpt streams of traffic across its major streets and thoroughfares, rife with cab rides, appear illuminated by the aggregated overlay of rides over time, showing the different rides of the city that were being performed as if to condense a residue of the collective transit through the city around select hubs and thoroughfares of increasing or diminishing traffic.


Stamen Cabs



2.  The wealth of data mediated by GPS measurements allows one “map” space around each of the “lines” that designate cab-rides by relative speed, using red to highlight moments of acceleration at a fixed period, in a time-lapse moving image that traced the matrix of the city’s streets.  In ways that predate but prefigure the current rise of on-demand  smartphone-based apps as Umber or Hailo which aim to displace the local cab economies in most metropoles, the pulsing traffic of animated  tracking of taxi-cabs renders the city’s grid in a wonderfully dynamic way:  Cabspotting serves to delineate clear economic patterns and socioeconomic points about how different folks perceive the same space of the city.  The dense glow of traffic around Union Square of cabs parked, circling, or just stationary reveals a center of commercial congregation.


colored map cabs' speeds


Such tracking of cab-traffic of course may sharply differ in other urban spaces, where centers or commercial districts are more concentrated or differently distributed, and access to space less clearly privilege distinct thoroughfares.   The real-time tracking features of Cabspotting liberated static models of mapping by using GPS to amass data in ways Rodenbeck and Allen could readily visualize in clean lines.  But the “snapshot”-like nature of the Stamen graphic led to some early envy in data visualization, as Kottke and folks on the East coast imagined what a similar data vis of taxi flow for midtown New York would look like, and first obtained the GPS data from taxi trips to create an image of the “vital signs” of where cabbies picked up their fares in the first half of 2009.

The resulting temporal condensation of an animated sequence of cab traffic between January to March, once sped up to suggest something of a regular flow over time  is clearly made to appear synchronized with human cycle of breath, as if to suggest its record of the vitality of the city’s traffic, with fares increasing from 7 am to 8 am, expanding to their highest density in midtown every morning, pausing, and rising again, only to decline in their yellow-hued intensity by nighttime, and leave the city blanched in the early a.m. hours.  (The maps should be looked at by anyone interested in hailing a cab, and as a companion piece to the guide of NYC cab etiquette–asking cabbies “What route do you think fastest?” “instills trust in the driver”, rather than giving directions on where to go–although it is unable to be accessed in real time.)


Densest at midtown #4


This apparently anthropomorphic time-lapsed image created suggests the inexorable daily constriction and dilation of the city’s vascular system, in tempo with the gorging of taxi fares that slowly dissipate, as if in a forced analogy for urban vitality:  the density of fares in midtown suggest clots more than flow, but provided a neat heat-map of city traffic’s frenetic pace. The distinct flow of cab traffic responds to the dense layout of Manhattan, and the saturation of the midtown and lower Manhattan with cab rides that fan up and down its major avenues.  Unlike the smooth flows out of arterials and to the outer edges of San Francisco, the knotted nature of the New York City visualization suggested a rigorous diurnal rhythm of relatively small trips of privatized transport, densest at the city’s midtown hubs, and reaching over to its wealthier east-side avenues.  But while its anthropomorphic form may be stretched as a bridge fusing nature and culture, the map reveals in important ways the individual specificity of taxi patterns within an urban topography, and indeed the specific diurnal fluctuations that define the demand of taxis–fading as we approach uptown above the blip of the 79th street subway lines–and suggest distinct rhythms of distributions and concentrations of demand for cabs that appear across each urban space, focused in midtown below Central Park, along Broadway and Third Avenue, and specific spots in lower Manhattan.


Screen shot 2010-04-05 at 9.05.50 AM Screen shot 2010-04-05 at 9.05.50 AM Screen shot 2010-04-05 at 9.05.50 AM taxi-flow-nyc   taxi-flow-nyc


The specific density of midday midtown reveals a complicated geographical picture a city served by experienced drivers doubtless working in tandem with a sense of its rhythm, best able to gauge the shifting traffic contours of urban avenues.


Densest at Midtown #2


This image, if interesting, has been recently refined in a two-color data visualization that refine the image of how New Yorkers enter and exit from taxis to navigate New York’s urban space.


3.  Eric Fischer re-mapped a specific topography of ‘cabstopping’ by aggregating the range of cab hailings (blue) and destinations (orange) across the city in 2013.  And an even more massive amount of cab data was declassified after Chris Whong and Andrés Monroy used New York City’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain a copy of the taxi records from 2013 they soon published on the web.  The big data of some 187 million geo-located cab-rides inspired transportation visualization guru Fischer to map the aggregate of total rides taxi drivers gave passengers across Manhattan’s particularly packed automotive space, now on Map Box, in a striking visualization of the collective use of cabs across Manhattan.  The map’s strikingly clear block-by-block topography is of striking precision; it illuminates how densely cabs are concentrated in midtown Manhattan and how specifically the vast majority of pick-ups and drop-offs center in specified regions–and how omnipresent are cabs up to Columbia University and 96th on the East:  cab-density, unsurprisingly, is a measure of socio-economic wealth and property value.


Big Mapping NYC Taxi Trips from Open Data


The social topography of the city is balanced by the white skein of veins in midtown that define a special density of cab-use along major traffic arteries.  And it presents one way of mapping a changing configuration of center and periphery across the city. For Fischer, a fan of both crowd-sourced mapping and urban transport system, dissected the data in visually compelling ways by highlighting the starts of taxi rides in blue and the end-points of destinations in orange, a spectrum that allows us to map the topography of collective cab-use around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The demand for local usage of cabs isn’t divided into analytics, but provides an image of the density of cab-use in an actual topography before folks like Uber or Hailo threaten change its face–and seem to use their own GPS tracking to exploit by a smartphone app to connect passengers with vehicles of hire, provoking some concern about using GPS to charge fares, and adjusting fare rates in relation to the density of traffic flows:  indeed, the apparently clear preference of New Yorkers to use Uber in off-peak hours and geographically removed and less-served locations suggest that Uber might, in New York, be better conceived as complimentary to the apparently engrained services of other cabs.  Are such drivers even more dependent on GPS to discover the relations between fares’ destinations and the cityscape, as well as to find their next pickup?


Uber hand


The data that maps coordinates for the start and end of cab rides provided a way to “map” what places New Yorkers are most likely to hail a cab–perhaps the most difficult places to get a cab, but also no doubt those areas where cab-drivers aware of an increased demand–as local knowledge of cab-riding more informational of urban space than even the most comprehensive transit map–and perhaps augur the life-span of cabs in the age of Uber.  It also offers a readily accessible instance of open data which provides a nice counterpoint to the banality of the Google-Maps-based cityscapes that feature on demand cab-hailing apps:  or the difficulties for the sophisticated software that sets its rates in relation to the hours of increased intensity to offer what an actually accurate image of the urban space in which it promises travel.




But let’s return to the subtlety Fischer’s coding of end points in orange and sites of hailing in blue allows.  The aggregation is so dense that it defines the entire street grid.  Most superficially, a scan of the data visualization he posted shows the hailing of cabs to be clustered on avenues where cabs congregate and course North or South–joins legibility with aesthetics, charting where New Yorkers access and stop cabs to tell us a lot about the navigation of the city’s grid in its crowd-sourcing of automotive itineraries.

For Fischer’s visualization deserves plaudits for elegantly synthesizing an exact visualization of the unique ways that folks use urban space:  of the over a million and a half taxi-rides that were taken in 2013, most concentrated in the cab-mecca of Manhattan, most seem to be taken along the North-South axes of the avenues, somewhat predictably, with a striking density of destinations on almost all of the major streets, often ending along North-South avenues.  Fischer’s map almost illuminates the grid of city streets in ways that tell us considerably amount the range of disposable income available to Manhattanites as well as to most visitors to New York.  The intense activity that the cab occupies as a sort of “second car” and mode of transit suggest a fully served community, if it sacrifices data on speed, acceleration, and delays that might be necessary to really envision drivers’ relative effectiveness.


187 mill Taxi Trips in NYC


4.  Access to this huge data offered a rich vein of data for Fischer, a data artist who often sources huge amounts of information off Twitter, to work characteristic visualization alchemy in a static spectrum to conveys the dynamics of how people move in patterns to organize urban space.  While the image is 2-D, the fading and clustering of its range of illumination invest the Manhattan grid with an illusion of three-dimensionality by using a simple set of primary hues.  Indeed, the phosphorescent blue taxi pick-ups create indelible records of where the cabs were “spotted” and used, although something of a patina in this digital visualization is created by shimmering “GPS-static” in the more densely built skyscrapers of the city, which are odd artifacts of the mechanics of data collection:  as Fischer notes, in certain spots, GPS signals have reflected off buildings’ windows, in ways that add an other (if not welcome) layer of legibility to the map of the city’s space.  (Far crisper contours of cabs’ signals arrive from streets that service the much lower-lying buildings of Brooklyn or other boroughs, even if cab-traffic there is far less intense.) We can read the data visualization to detect the conscious choices of cab drivers to negotiate the flows of urban traffic, even though the image is static, based on the similar clustering of overlays in data.    Although midtown is somewhat filtered beneath  a gauzy layer of interference or blur of GPS-signals’ distortion, as is much of lower Manhattan, reflecting the interference created by urban canyons of clustered skyscrapers that render GPS reception less precise–though we can see the white heat of cabs hailed or congregated at businesses and hotels that serve as sites of conferences and conventions, and detect a temptation to leave rides on East-West streets,as on Central Park South and 57th Street:


Blur of Midtown's White Heat


The data visualization charts the tacit mechanics of the topography of cab use, by using a orange-blue color differentiation to set of regions where destinations dominate cabs hailed or flagged and journeys begun, and where they leave passengers.  We can see a sharp preference to take cabs to destinations on East-West streets, negotiating a topography of traffic that taxi drivers’ familiarities with the different velocity in the white-lit larger avenues control.  In contrast, the specificity of red bulbings of destinations at various crosstown blocks where passengers stopped cabs suggests a specifically situated transportation midtown, even with clear evidence of the blurriness of GPS-interference.  (GPS fixes are also less easily held near LaGuardia airport, as bright red “worms” approach the access roads of terminals, as if to indicate “premature” arrival of a cab stopping before where they were surely headed; a pattern of blue blurs result that seem air-brushed, in comparison to the crisp lines in Cabspotting.)


GPS Fixes near LaGuardia Airport


If the Bay Bridge stood as a beacon of taxi density in the Stamen visualization of San Francisco, La Guardia seems a brightly burning beacon off Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Bridge provides a lighter but indelible tie recording of inter-borough taxi traffic.

The traffic patterns recorded in the visualization reveal a palimpsest that demand interpretation of denser lines of red (where cabs leave folks in the city) and a tool to investigate how city space is used and what neighborhoods visited per annum:


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2


Red lines are veins across New York City’s Central Park, where one can’t imagine the destinations are actually along the crosstown lanes of traffic that run on paved roads across the park, where tunnels that cabs run through seem to have interrupted the GPS signals as well at 86th street, 81st Street, and 66th:


Veins around park and Mysterious Red Dots


Brightly lit blue lines illuminate 5th Avenue, a street almost always crowded with cabs, and light up both lanes of Broadway, in ways that offer a beautiful visualization of the way we demand to be driven in Manhattan’s urban space and across its street plan that demand to be pored over with a magnifying glass in hand to best interpret its elegant aggregation.  The map can help us create a better navigable urban space–and perhaps respond to the needs for taking cabs in the city–by mapping needs of public transit, and the readiness of customers to use cabs to navigate urban space.  The street plan provides tons of neat points about the nature of collective behavior, as all aggregated data, nicely foregrounded in Fischer’s color scheme:  just as we detect bright blue sites of starting cab-rides near the Brooklyn Bridge, if considerably brighter in Manhattan, and notice bulb-like orange clumps of drop-offs in Dumbo–the downtown municipal buildings are the looming black blocks.


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2


The blue bulbs at street corners give a more likely (more convenient and better) place to start one’s cab-rides in Manhattan, as our GPS lines bulb out at centers of cab-hailing at intersection in the form of a Q-Tip, suggesting considerable refinement of the data, in spite of the occasional blurred reception of GPS signals:  some corners burn an incandescent blue.


Corners are often Bulbs


5.  The specific transportation needs that taxi cab services supply suggest a distinct manner for negotiating urban space at a pace that public transport can’t provide, and a particularly resilient form of a local economy.  How might this relate to the specifics of the survival of the cab as a viable vehicle and model of transportation (and the regulation under which cabs function)? In an era when GPS’ing pickup locations in the crowded downtown by Uber threatens the cab-drivers who have so long made their livelihood in the city’s streets.  It awaits to see how the density of cab traffic already available in the city will react to the influx of passengers with handhelds.




Indeed, despite the universalizing nature of Uber’s intentions, the app they offer may best function  precisely in those cities and urban areas which fit the traffic patterns specific to San Francisco most closely.  San Francisco, the city where the app was first devised, offers a unique problem of navigation for taxis:  pedestrians and inhabitants both face a scarcity of free cabs and often face the need for long trips from downtown to, say, the Inner or Outer Richmond or Pacific Heights, call cabs over to the East Bay, and are often located at a distance from taxi stands, and where fares might have too much difficulty hailing a cab at later hours.  And where single women who want a secure ride door-to-door make up, it’s been suggested, a major portion of the fares.  (It might be argued, however, that the whole point of Uber was to harvest a huge amount of data that can be plotted by future mapmakers and indeed predict the relative likelihood of destinations across the city in a more sophisticated way than was ever possible.)

But even in San Francisco, it bears noting, the recent introduction of “Pick-Up Points,” or recommendations of specific pick-up locations in mid-2015 suggest a new way of mimicking mobile taxi-stands for their users–as if to acknowledge the difficulty inherent to promising mobility for an urban space that is often by definition clogged.  Although the potential to be anywhere–or assign a driver to appear anywhere–at first distinguished Uber’s provision of crowd-sourced drivers, eerily soon after the suggestion that the rideshare service provide precise locations of where a fare might be best able to draw drivers–and, if not hail a cab, meet one’s driver–the urban maze of U-turns, changing traffic flows, one-way streets and freeway onramps makes it not only more convenient but more enabling to imitate the interactive suggestions made by Lyft, for example, in inviting its users to indicate where they might best meet their ride:


The innovation is not to become less interactive, but to offer a set of coordinates from, for example, a crowded field or region, where one’s ride might otherwise have difficulty locating you, even if that selection may sacrifice the illusion of being anywhere, anytime, and involve some extra footsteps of one’s own:

Suggested Pickup POint UBER


There is some data that demonstrates that the indication of such exact sites of pick-up may allow riders to appear at precise times without creating a situation where drivers would actually compete for fares, and to ensure the illusion of personalized service in a service that in aggregate reveals clear patterns of its own.

The harvesting of data that Uber allows, indeed, makes it a sort of Google for the taxied set, and creates something like a valued dataset that Uber has done its best to exploit.  As Bradley Voytek has noted in a neat on the Uber Blog, in a neat weighted diagraph visualizing the flow of rides from one of San Francisco’s neighborhoods to another, noting the aggregates of rides leaving a neighborhood by a circle of varying size and drawing weighted arcs in the color of the neighborhood of a destination, the flow of Uber rides predominantly originate from South of Market or downtown–the largest point of departure of Uber clients by far.  Almost all the rides originate from the downtown.  This clustering of rides around a single region of the city suggest a restricted range of sites of departure for on-demand rides, and a marked clustering among three neighborhoods from which users predominantly originate–although it should be noted that Voytek used dated data rather than the data Uber now possesses–and offers a larger visualization here.

Rides into neighborhoods Bradley Voytek


Might one decide to map the different topographies of traffic flow across different cities in the hopes of predicting how well Uber offers a fit for the navigation of a distinct urban space?  Even with the increased homogenization of cities, the underlying plans and patterns of local traffic provide some guide to its potential “fit” with local traffic and cab-use. It demands investigation how the market would adjust for Uber to be most complimentary to local needs.  The integration of GPS with a local taxi economy has been recently argued to create an artificial scarcity of taxis squelching competition, but to champion the free market approach runs the risk of setting off shocks in the local economy of providing short-term rides that has developed in the city’s somewhat fragile transportation economy.  For as well as reveal the pathways of negotiating urban canyons of New York, the visualization reveals a delicate local economy in which car-users navigate the available calculus of transportation–a city where few drive the cars they own every day, and despite a relative density of car-ownership in Manhattan and New York City as a whole.

Indeed, many don’t even rely upon cars–despite the incredible density of cars per square mile in the relatively affluent region, according to the data mapped in StreetsBlog LA.


Vehicles:Sq Mile NYC   Vehicles:Sq MileStreetsBlog LA

Viewed another way–vehicles/person–New York City seems relatively low-density, indeed, because of the sharp contrast to outlying “suburban” areas or peripheries:   few cars are used for commutes, and multiple car ownership is quite rare.  Reasons for owning vehicles shift in different social topographies.


Car Ownership in NYC and environs Vehicles:Person StreetsBlog LA

The stark contrast in the regional distribution of statistics of car ownership are striking on the micro-level of Manhattan are indeed evidence of a large commuting culture, where many cars belong to commuters who live in more car-friendly lands outside the five boroughs:

NY-Vehicles-Per-Person   Car Ownership in ManhattanStreetsBlog LA


Although the vast bulk of cab-rides in New York City are based in downtown traffic, where garages are costly and urban street space at a premium, the data visualization reminds us of the continued importance of cab services to negotiate local space.  The relatively subtle tool for moving in a narrow time-window that cabs provide offer an increasingly needed medium to move through and use space that seems unwise to disrupt not only as a way to move the city’s economy, but for the very reason that it is so deeply established of negotiating specific constants of its traffic patterns and laws.  Indeed, the poor ability of GPS or any GIS system to record the shifting pulse and intensities of traffic raises questions of the time which its drivers need to accommodate to actual traffic flows.

If Uber is able to navigate it, best of luck.  Maybe it already has:  but the uncertainty of how markets are currently treating this ride-sharing service suggests that it may have opened the way to far more competitors than it ever foresaw.

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Filed under cabspotting, data visualizations, GPS, GPS devices, mapping city cabs, maps and surveillance, on-demand taxi service, Uber, unwanted surveillance

The Curtailed Circulation of Paper Charts

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Coast Survey has long issued authoritative charts of the nation’s coastal waters.  But from this coming Spring, that office of the Dept. of Commerce will cease to print the lithographic charts it has long reproduced on paper in such glorious precise detail.  What is billed as a major move of cost cutting no doubt reflects the dominance of electronic maps consulted on laptops or hand-held devices.  But it also will place a new emphasis on reading charts on the screen media and by comparisons to GPS, using computer screens exclusively rather than in consultation with paper charts.  Is the cost of charting the shifting form of coastlines worth the cost of ceasing production of revised maps?

As a response to the difficulties in reprinting up-to-date paper charts for sailors who often fail to purchase them, the Coat Survey has decided to shift only to distributing charts via on-demand printing, PDFs or electronic charts as of April 13, 2014, both to allow access to updated nautical charts, and allow access to digitized versions of the full range of coastal charts on NOAA servers.  Increased use of digital and electronic charts has dramatically diminished the profitability of commissioning individual lithographic maps, marking an end of an era of American cartography in print.  Yet does the close of a tradition of lithographic reproduction of maps effectively distance us from the delineation of coastal waters?  How crucial was the role of lithography as a medium to translate coastal measurement and tabulation into a recognized graphic format?  Or is the content of the chart so easily separable from the medium?

An online kerfuffle resulted from the announcement of curtailing the longstanding precedent of government-sponsored map printing in a cost-cutting move, and offering of maps only in downloadable form.   The suspension of the paper lithographic charts over which NOAA long exercised a sort of monopoly–and set a standard of the accuracy of nautical cartography–is difficult to take.  It seems, for one, perhaps the final extension of the dominance of online maps and mapping, and to reflect the dominance of laptops or tablets as navigational tools–something that few outside the world of practiced sailing would have imagined as a use for those media.  Although there will be a guaranteed possibility of print-on-demand charts (POD’s), ceasing to print those beautifully detailed lithographs appears a victory for the digitized map-use, most often associated with the digitized format of servers like Google Maps.  While not subtracting the paper map from circulation, it leaves most folks dependent on the two-inch screens of Palms, tablets, or laptops, with built-in Garmin chartplotters or other GPS systems in a sort of snazzy interface.  Indeed, the shift in the circulation of maps has potential reverberations for map literacy and readership, by removing chart-reading from the sort of intense engagement such as pencil marks, course lines, erasures, or time marks that were so long the norm on paper charts.

Are the knee-jerk reservations about ending the printing of lithographic charts based, we might ask, on a romantic the fetishization of the coastal chart–those truly beautiful creations?  It might as well merely register a changing threshold of map literacy.  The most compelling reason is the dominance of a new sense of interface that downloaded maps allow, as well as to keep pace with the expanding number of on board on-line devices from laptops to smart phones.  When GPS allows one to plot one’s global position at sea with an accuracy of within some 16 feet, the nautical chart seems to lose its accuracy.  Although the reactions to NOAA’s s Office of Coast Survey has been quick and often lamented the end of the nautical lithograph, the decision to stop the production of nautical charts is not only regretted.  Indeed, DuckWorks magazine has called paper charts the most dangerous thing for navigators–both in preserving a sense of incorrect measurements and obstructing access to the most up-to-date accurate cartographical information with a direct GIS interface, as another ghost of information worlds past.

Yet if downloadable charts promise an end to the problem of the inaccuracy of outdated maps, the medium also suggests a distinctly different notion of encoding data in nautical charts, now often restricted to the parameters of the medium of consultation–Tablet, handheld GPS device, or even iPhone–that seems the inevitable consequence of the shift in attitudes toward the disappearing the materiality of the nautical chart.  Even if Jeff Siegle of DuckWorks powerfully centers the debate around the “chart-image” rather than the medium, in an era when it’s a truism that “the medium is the message,” doesn’t the shift to downloading digitized versions of coastal charts onto slippy screens suggest a shift in the “period eye” by which we plot expanse on maps?

As screens of laptops are increasingly the primary forms for plotting navigational routes, and the use of chartplotter products or other apps remove the physical map from its centrality as a tool of noting changes in coastline, wreckage, or debris.  The consultation of paper maps is a rarity in an age of the coastal navigation by GPS, and the increasing role of on-line computers on board most ships.  In contrast to the security of the information on monitors, and use of apps as much as instruments, create a new sense of how we interact with nautical space; the frequent revision of paper charts create a sense that the map may often be outdated or incorrect.  Indeed the very iterability of the map–and the monthly updates that NOAA has come to release monthly probably made the choice to go online incumbent–is of a piece with the downloading of updated versions from their server.  Over time, paper charts have been less often consulted in relation to screens, and offer unwieldy forms of interface.  Even if the ability of reprinting of future charts from PDF’s of comparable durability is not that clear,  NOAA will certify print-on-demand chart sellers; the market for paper maps has dramatically shrunk as the authority of the printed chart has eroded over time in comparison to the electronic charting tools.

The announcement to cease printing paper charts seems another page in the “end of maps”–or at least of the lithographic staples that provided a basis to note different observations, routes of travel, or changing plumb-line depths of waters.  The announcement is perhaps not surprising, but suggests a conspiring of reduced funding after federal budget crises, decreased commercial demand, and the victory of the touchscreen viewer as a medium for plotting course have led to the end of unfolding a chart to read expanse, despite the huge distances regularly needed to be covered in nautical travel.  Could one ever depend on a touchscreen format or the individual tiles of a slippery screen’s surface, however, as a medium that allowed one to contemplate or project a course of nautical travel with similar expansiveness?  Practiced sailors lament that the map, while perhaps not a primary guide, augmented skills of orientation with “added redundancy” not only as a check, on which sailors were able to fall back, even as captains relied upon more easily updated electronic charts NOAA released on their servers.  When GPS crashes or goes out, doesn’t one have the same ability of control over one’s course–and a broader framework for judging course–on a paper chart?  But the medium of the printed maps faces an uphill battle in an age of GPS, when the use of dividers to plot bearings seems as rare as astronomical bearings.

Bill Griffin, general manager of Fawcett Boat Supply in Annapolis, Maryland, doubts that “any prudent mariner is going to have paper charts,” and refused to see his own line of sales of paper charts as declining:  “I don’t see paper going away anytime soon.”  Yet others are ready to celebrate the paper chart’s decline and say goodbye to an antiquated medium.  Maine captain Jeff Siegle, who sails regularly on a coastline “strewn with the remnants of sunken vessels that went aground on the rocks, believes that the second most dangerous thing to have aboard a ship is a paper map.  When advanced chartplotter software such as Coastal Explorer reliably record nautical position automatically, the electronic form of mapping allows a degree of interactive reading of the map that contains all the abilities for leaving notations that paper maps possessed, and an active interface with other digital media.  The electronical mapper from a radar pilot, moreover, allows one to visualize position on a screen that one can readily mark:

Electronic Mapper from Radar

Yet is one not sacrificing a degree of map literacy, including the depths taken by plumb lines from boats, that defined earlier NOAA maps, combined with local visible topography?  In maps such as this section of the existing chart of the Valdez Bligh Reef, one finds a path without latitude or longitude in electronic maps, and a far more static rendering of space.  Are we too accommodated to reading a Google Earth interface to negotiate the business of specific details included in the paper chart, or of how a sailor might process his relation to nautical expanse, or are things like the sounding of ocean depths simply TMI once one has registered one’s path?

Valdez Bligh Reef Chart

The sense of scale that a paper chart might afford of the surrounding waters intuitively seems more accessible than the more restrictive reading of an electronic map, as the unfolding of a larger map of the region seems to afford a degree of spatial legibility that stands to be increasingly sacrificed with the diffusion of small-screen tablets, whose ability for zooming in and zooming back seem less easy to map against the area where one is traveling.  Even when one has full access to all the PDF’s of NOAA on one’s own two-inch handheld palm pilot, tablet or iPhone the circumscribed screens of display threaten to remove their readers from a greater context, or a familiarity with shorelines, removed as it is from the encyclopedic detail of the synthesis of measurements that are encoded on the paper chart.  If paper charts were rarely utilized on many ships, eclipsed as they were by electronic charts, retiring the chart seems a sacrifice that responds to the dominance of our habituation to track, zoom in, pan, and zoom out that the static image on the paper chart does not allow.

Even if “We know that changing chart formats and availability will be a difficult change for some mariners who love their traditional paper charts, but we’re still going to offer other forms of our official charts,” Capt. Shep Smith, responsible for the US Coastal Survey’s division of Marine Charts, put the best face on the circumscription of his services to the provision of PDF’s. Given that “advancements in computing and mobile technologies give us many more options than was possible years ago,” the ability to make maps available for anyone to download created a sense of accessibility and widespread distribution of charts always able to be updated–what is more dangerous on a boat than an out of date chart?–and allowed the world of nautical charting to migrate into the most popular interface of our age.  It’s great to download an accurate PDF of the entrance to San Francisco Bay, NOAA Chart 18649–“Entrance to San Francisco Bay.”  On it,  one can find the content of earlier charts, or zoom into details at different scales, as much as its relative pixellation will allow, maneuvering in virtual form across the multicolored screen as a surrogate for moving through space.  What is lost by a lack of the broader context of the chart or its interface with compass seems as odd as the sextant–or the cavalry and bayonets which Barack Obama cleverly invoked in response to Mitt Romney’s unwarranted concerns for our navy’s size.

The use of tablet computers and GPS chartplotters on both larger, commercial vessels and pleasure boats suggests a different approach to the encoding of information in nautical charts, and indeed in using the map as a basis to plot routes of travel, which are frequently confined to repeated pathways.  But the frequent compression of the huge amount of graphic detail on one’s bearings to the form of a small screen–and the need to invest in a large enough screen to view the PDF in a visible form, or to find outlets where downloads can be printed on durable paper.

Golden Gate Chart

To be sure, the general differentials of depth are easily observed, lying as they do around Treasure Island, the pivot point of the Bay Bridge, but lines are less easily traced, measurements be noted for future sailors, or just for oneself, to be stored in a drawer, cabin shelf, or brought ashore for future examination.  As we store fewer hard copies of maps, how does this change our relation to the map as an object, or change the storage and circulation of cartographical records that one can consult?  Does the rise of digital mapping, as feared, decrease the sort of exchange, augmentation, and criticism of the cartographical sources or to the base-map?

The age of celestial navigation that first encouraged the rise of paper charts might be traced to the rise of a mathematics of charting nautical position whose need no longer exists with GPS services and the availability of electronic maps.  If the eulogy of the Salem Marine Society for Nathaniel Bowditch, author of the American Practical Navigator (1802) that featured expanded tables for navigation proclaimed that “the name of Dr. Bowditch shall be revered as one who has helped his fellowmen in time of need, who was and is a guide to them over the pathless oceans” and needed “no monument” to be kept alive “as long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the north, the stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens,” the expansive coastline that Bowditch traced from the Caribbean islands in his “Epitome of Navigation,” the pathless oceans now seem to have paths and positions without bearings.


The broader canvas of Bowditch’s actual chart covered the entire Atlantic, over which he sought to provide tables of reckoning to tabulate navigational position within a frame of longitude and latitude that could be readily consulted, charting an oceanic expanse from coast to coast, linking the ports on its facing shorelines, framing a totality not easily processed or comprehended on even a wide screen:

Bowditch Atlantic

What are we saying farewell to, if not an idea of reading an expansive map in paper form that can be readily preserved in the observatory of a boat, and displayed to its passengers, and to a shift in how one stores one’s own nautical maps of a course one often knows relatively well, and navigates over time?  The new basis for map-use (and map legibility) suggests both a far more limited field and a less personalized basis for translating personal tacit familiarity in plotting course to the map’s format, and a far diminished intersection of map with travel lines, once limited to parameters of backlit screens that offer limited opportunities for convenient collective consultation, or for unfolding to gain a broader sense of nautical course or compass lines.  Even if we are easily able to plan courses and trace routes on electronic screens by grease pencils directly on the surface of a screen in ways that can be easily erased, and download new updates of paper charts onto a handheld, and measure distances with nautical tools atop screens, if not rely on apps, does zooming in and out on screens of electronic form offer the broader contextual that a paper chart provided?  While I doubt  that as a landlubber, I can truly say,one worries that the end of the translation of nautical measurements to the sort of graphic syntax that lithographic maps long offered are truly as easily preserved in pixellated form.

New NOAA mapping format

While the interface of an electronic map with GPS may be a read herring to the downloading of charts as PDF’s , the display of data in electronic maps that is centered around the position of a ship or vessel on ocean waters seems to abstract the vessel from its surroundings:  the display of data in electronic maps is constructed about geospatial position in ways that antiquates the role of reading a chart in order to determine nautical trajectory or course, by centering the screen around ship’s location rather than immersing the reader in a system or abilities of measurement. The victory of the medium of display seems a victory of the ready-made–if not a lazy model of map making.  Like the self-driving Google Car, indeed, the courses of travel on coastal waters are not only almost mechanized on most ferries, or among commercial pilots, whose routes of travel are increasingly computerized, or driven in ways plotted and tracked on digitized maps.

The trimming down of NOAA would no doubt shock its founder, Thomas Jefferson, or William Maury, whose intensive coastal surveys synthesized new nautical knowledge in important ways.  Moreover, in an age of global warming–when we need clear precedents of water-levels and coast detail as something like a benchmark for future decades, the production of paper maps hardly seems an appropriate bureaucratic penny-pinching.  The decreased production of paper maps suggests not only a new use of the map as a basis for record keeping, but a decline in the literacy of reading the detail of our formerly exacting coastal surveys from the days of 1862.

But the very shifting of our coast-lines also suggest the need to provide readily available updates of the configuration of coastlines (who would have thought it?) in the wake of meteorological events like Hurricane Sandy or super-typhoon Haiyan, which call for the immediate remapping of a coastal bearings. And the digitized versions of these maps would offer a clearer interface with newly emerging weather patterns, not to mention the scattering on coastlines of debris from nuclear reactors.  At stake is, essentially, whether electronic charts or downloadable PDF’s offer a format removed from the tactile knowledge that is considered the basis of nautical navigation.  If the basis, it is not the sine qua non, but it does provide an  eery bit of evidence of the colonization of GSI of the world of the ocean seas, as the ocean approaches a form of ready scanning and tiling that stands at a far remove from the tactile sense of unknown otherness once associated with them.

With the dominance of the practice of mapping actual position, we may sacrifice the notion of the structuring of voyages exploration along routes of known islands plotted on a global, rather than a local, surface, one senses, together with specific ways of mapping travel in oceanic space or the ocean as a distinctly different medium of travel.


But the question of how we will continue to navigate our coasts with safety of necessity depends more on understandings of precision and efficiency than it is to the range of options of nautical travel.

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Filed under chartplotters, Downloadable maps, Google Car, Google Maps, GPS, Joseph Nigg, Nathaniel Bowditch, Office of Coast Survey, San Francisco Bay

Mapping Ancient Ruins

Few precedents of mapping historic ruins are as striking as the curious radial map for which Leon Battista Alberti provided instructions in the middle of the 1430s:  by plotting ancient ruins in Rome, the paradigmatic city of ruins, the Renaissance humanist recast the city of perpetual incarnation and of survival in the midst of recurrent abandonment, seeking to provide a guide to retain an image of the classical city’s monuments and topography in the mind’s eye of humanists, and his creation around 1450 of his extremely popular and innovative Descriptio urbis, a humanistic version of the city’s marvels–Mirabilia–a genre narrating the miraculous sights of the city which had circulated, as an early tourist brochure and keepsake from the 1100’s.  If the Mirabilia was a guide to the wonders, augmented by numerous early urban myths, listing its gates, hills, columns, statues, baths, arches, bridges, amphitheaters and temples, often including fanciful etymologies of their names, the Descriptio urbis provided an exact location of each, or as an exact a description as possible, setting out the minutes and degrees from which each could be observed from the Janiculum Hill in Rome, providing what many have argued constituted a model for drafting one’s own schematic map of monuments for ready consultation.  The popular manuscript survives in multiple copies.

A practiced architect and impassioned enquirer about the physical construction of ancient Rome, Alberti set forth directions for preserving their arrangement in an elegant radial map which plotted ancient ruins by a meridian and a circular calibrated arc, in order to better excavate and make present–or recreate–the ancient remains lying in the city in its reader’s mind, which circulated widely in manuscript form before the age of print.

Alberti's Meridian

Alberti significantly described the advantages of plotting such monuments according to a radial grid by using “mathematical tools” to survey monuments by taking sightings from atop the elevated Capitoline hill.  The finding of significant monuments on coordinates served to purify earlier travel books by selecting its authentic classical buildings, stripping away accreted legends like so many obscuring cobwebs, and creating a pristine media to understand the ancient world and the city’s physical plant.  Although the rubric by which Alberti mapped the ancient city on top of the new one–the half-inhabited Rome of the recently returned popes–his intent was not only to replace the handbooks orienting pilgrims and visitors to Rome’s marvels but refine his admiration to a veneration of antiquity and the city’s ancient design, which he preserved in traces in its contemporary layout; his booklet may have provided a model for contemporary views of the ancient ruins in the city’s walls such as this Florentine fifteenth-century illumination from the workshop of the Renaissance mapmaker Pietro del Massaio, who made several maps of the region of Tuscany and of Italy that were destined for inclusion in a codex of Ptolemy’s treatise on world geography–an ancestor of recently undertaken efforts of digital archeology of the city.  (The maps of Pietro were also known in several independent sheets, some of which are stored in the Vatican libraries.)  But the city views that he included in the most precious codices were the most similar to the transcription of archeological highlights that Alberti, who sought to share his own passion for the antique with a generation of humanists with whom he corresponded in other Italian courts, had noted:  they gave the monuments of the ancient world a new plastic form, and complemented the image of Rome–its coliseum a bit above its center, as seem below, but the Janiculum and Senatorial palace closer to the center–with images of other ancient Mediterranean cities, including Cairo, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Venice.


Massaio's Rome

More than a hint of Alberti’s Renaissance resuscitation and incarnation of the ancient city in erudite terms was present in the view that Michel de Montaigne in later took in 1581 pf “studying Rome,” whose plant was at that point still two-thirds uninhabited, by climbing the Janiculum to “contemplate the configuration of all the parts of Rome, which may not be seen so clearly from any other place,” lamented “that one saw nothing of Rome but the sky under which it had stood and the plan of its site” with knowledge of the city only “as an abstract and contemplative knowledge of which there was nothing perceptible to the senses” since the world, “hostile to its long domination, . . . [had] broken and shattered all the parts of this wonderful body and, since even quite dead overthrown and disfigured, the world was still terrified by it, had buried its very ruins”–and lamented the lesser nature of “the buildings of this bastard Rome which they were now attaching to these ancient ruins.”  These sort of maps preserved a city from its own decay, and created a powerful structure and physical design for mediating the past, as much as mark the situation of the city as a nexus of itineraries–such as the “Peutinger” chart (named for the Renaissance humanist who discovered it) depicted the city at the node of ancient Roman roads.


It’s interesting to think of Alberti’s booklet as an attempt to halt the burial of the past, or to excavate the lost history of a city whose buildings he had excavated and measured, but whose underlying plan was difficult to grasp:  the techniques he offered provided not only a basis to draw one’s own version of the “map” of the city, but to internalize the ratios among its monuments, even for those who would not visit the site itself, at a time when the preservation of the ancient past gained new premiums as a model of urban planning.  Alberti accorded the ruins a new language of wonder, and accorded a new wonder with the city that was associated with an unprecedented level of literacy with the map, using a graduated or calibrated circle reflecting his precision as an architect and classicist.  It provided interested readers with practical instructions to create a reproducible map on the eve of the age of widespread circulation of printed images–images that no doubt encouraged subsequent humanist men of letters like Pirro Ligorio to create his own detailed mappings of the ancient city by the 1550s, as Flavio Biondo had earlier offered antiquarians a more detailed written geography of the ancient city.  And it is the basis for projects of constructing an urban map of Rome’s monuments today by the same instruments.  The role of these maps as validating the emerging antiquarians by setting standards of proficiency and expertise for interpreting and deciphering its ruins as they encouraged admiration of Rome as a unity in ways that undoubtedly served to lend far greater concreteness to its dismembered past.  The distance of antiquity that one realizes in Rome today, accentuated by the proximity of its actual ruins, would provide Dr. Sigmund Freud in 1899 with a concrete metaphor for the simultaneous storage of multiple dispersed memories in the mind.

The medium is not always the message, but the personalized maps created by GPS (or, for that matter, Google Earth) dispenses with the intermediary of the cartography as a guide to orient viewers to a region.  Rather than viewing or privileging the map as the vehicle for accessing the coherence of the past–or assembling a desire for such coherence–the map becomes a mode to access meaning and location, isolating the part from the whole, or the object from the context.  And it may well be that the lack of coherence that we now have of our maps of ancient prehistoric sites in the United States is somehow informed by the media with we use not only to geo-locate but to pillage them.  It is odd that GPS provides us with a new method for exposing and accessing the ancient world of the Americas in quite a different manner:  if Alberti and Ligorio sought to provide readers a valued guide to antiquity, geo-location of Flickr images offer owners of GPS devices ready access to the coordinates of the cities of Ancestral Pueblos or Anasazi across the boundaries of Arizona, Colorado, or Utah–often to better pillage sites such as the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in Colorado, as well as to get access to the archeological heritage.

For the form of mapping that is used fail, unlike Alberti’s map, to preserve the sense of coherence that Alberti so prized, and that Montaigne sought to regain contact with, and, as such, preserved little sense of its fragility and cultural integrity as a patrimony.  Those visitors who arrive with GPS devices in hand to navigate these prehistoric sites, David Roberts reports in the New York Times, not only observe their structures but often to take a piece of its ancient artifacts home with them–or might well carve their initials beside rock art panels, and indeed validate their locations by the coordinates they’ve downloaded, if not disturb their contents unknowingly in a region where pueblos of Anasazi are often beside evidence of later Hispanic settlers.  One doesn’t need to be a Luddite to compare the relative poverty of meaning in most downloaded maps available online that promise ready geo-location of regions of Anasazi pueblos  to the pilgrims to such sites.

To be sure, the detailed topographic maps of the Anasazi lands provide accurate records of picturesque panorama for local hikers or explorers–if the routes of exploration are quite oddly rendered on websites as unfolded topographic map of the region, in which specific itineraries are highlighted on which one can track one’s elevation and descent, viewable as if an old USGS survey were extended before the viewer–but one that contains a far lesser level of density of meaning than that survey itself, whose legibility preserves but a fraction of the detail of the paper topographic map.

Picturesque Panorama

But most maps and handbooks they use to explore the sites offer few signs of warning–or cautions–that frame them as a site of similar historical or cultural significance, and the remains or objects that fill the site seem there for the touching, tagging, or taking.  Even the above visualization conveys a sense of unfolding a privileged map of the region for foreground specific sites of interest and views, as much as to track their relative distance.  Yet the users of this site, as Gary Gemberling, include imprecations enjoining readers to respect its integrity by advising them to refrain from vandalism and lack of respect for its original inhabitants, given the increasing use of trails as a form of prehistoric tourism and in situ observation of long-abandoned dwellings, formerly abundant pottery shards, in a tone that is all but absent from any earlier maps.

Here’s Gemberling, writing on the actually quite informative site of Jay David Archer, addressing visitors to the Anesazi ruins in Grand Gulch Park in Utah:  “I’ve done this loop 3 times and every time is like the first, this loop i feel has the best rock art and cliff dwellings of the whole stretch, GET A MAP! its easy to walk right by some of the dwellings, i missed perfect kiva the fist time in, walked right passed it, and now my fav[orite] site, RESPECT!!! there is some vandalism sadly, its easy to disturb ruins, they are fragile, but you will learn this in the ranger station, you must check in,this place is like a outdoor museum, and its my church, i love it there more than any where in the world and i have been to 36 countries and 47 states, i have changed my life style to be able to go back here for many years to come, cedar mesa, monument valley, goosenecks park,bridges nat park and grand gulch is the jewel area of south east utah . . .”   Yet the dense location of abundant wall-paintings or panels seem located on twisting path, with limited or little sense of their cultural uniqueness, even in the most detailed of maps of Jay Archer David, with limited signs of how best to negotiate its extremely fragile landscape:


fragile landscape

The sense of entering a privileged space seems diminished, partly as a result of the media, but also of the very accessibility of the ancient sites.  With GPS device and iPhone in hand, one compares where one is to the destinations others have already photographed, and which are readily downloaded from the internet and available as a sort of vicarious tourism that one can use to plans one’s own trips.  There is almost a popular confusion here with the rise of GPS geolocation of seeking to commune with the past–or realize concrete contact with its ruins–by leaving a sense of one’s presence their, or view the site as a treasure hunt, which lacks its own integrity as a privileged place where ruins continue to be in situ and, as much as they will ever be, alive.  If Alberti wrote a guide treasured by antiquarians, the accessibility GPS offers on exact coordinates allows a form of tourism without a sense of antiquity without any entrance fee save a GPS devices.  The accessibility of the map, and, indeed, of multiple posted photographs of the actual site itself, does not mediate the past, but seems to create a sense of entitlement that apparently justifies removal of loot found at the end of the treasure hunt, or the prize of the pilgrimage.  There is less of a sense of the marvel of the ruins as mirabilia with the transference to the Google Earth sense of wonder in the mappability of everything–and the problems of the accessibility of everything via photographs downloaded off smartphones and the GPS tracking of precise coordinates.  Perhaps access to wi-fi could be limited or circumscribed in these areas of reservations,  or national parks, in the hopes to preserve a sense of their wonders.


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Filed under Anasazi sites, GPS, Leon Battista Alberti, mapping ruins, Sigmund Freud

The Will to Map: GPS and its Discontents

Navigating the necklace of highways that hug the Santa Cruz Mountains beyond San Jose with a GPS map affixed to the windshield, you become both disoriented from the panorama before your eyes and quickly aware of the token roadmap GPS offers.  What is the map on the screen doing in the car and when do we need to look at its content?    The question emerges since it’s not clearly a partner to the voice-directions; the interface between isn’t evident or apparent:  the overlay of data on the terrain graphic of a Google Maps backdrop seems interactive, but shows a route, and not a guide or a means to explore paths of other possible travels.  There’s a need to offer a map in our map-saturated culture–but the map is no longer a clear way to translate familiarity with space to their readers, so much as an added document.

The difficulty of internalizing directions from the onscreen map derives from its limited use to orienting oneself, and is unlike the roadmaps that readers internalize over time.  It is not only ready-made and disposable, but seems to exist to satisfy customer expectations for a visual record more than offer users an actual guide.  It has limited relation to the injunctive directions declaimed by a Siri-like voice, and seems a source of ornament despite an absence of actual visual interest, as if it was designed to meet nostalgia for the visual records of automotive navigation on highways and interstates or for a time when we needed maps.  Some drivers might object to directions from a disembodied voice, instead of someone informed about the topography or terrain.

Without those over-creased highway maps in our glove compartment, one grapples with the minimalist Google Maps graphics before surrendering passively to the intoned directions, still frustrated that we can’t  transpose directions from the map, and conscious of being cognitively challenged, but perhaps pleased to contemplate a landscape of trees overhanging on each side of the mountain roads and to follow a course traced from on high.


Boulder Creek Map Traffic


The mechanics of the synthesis of a digitized map is of course completely different compilation of meaning.  But it is most striking that the map didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t that likely to be consulted as a navigational tool and of limited use if one strayed off course the curvy roads in the Santa Cruz mountains; if so, we’d be more likely to look at a paper map anyway, for the image provided little easily-consumed information of fine grain about the mountain roads; the verbal directions were so removed from the map as if to devalue the long history and use of maps as autonomous media: rather than provide the purification of spatial experience often attributed to maps, the schematic Mapquest image distances experience so abstracted from an actual route of travel to minimize our sense of reading space.

As well as a shift in how mapped information is synthesized, digitized maps mark a shift in reading terrestrial expanse and reading one’s place in maps, diminishing the relevance of a coordinate system or apprehension of spatial inter-relations.  Whereas the Mapquest route that defined a path of travel, navigation by GPS seems a new relation between map-use and environment.



The relation to its pixellated surface is rooted in fascination with the image that adjusts on one’s screen synchronized to one’s actual bearings, rather than reading one’s course and the options that it presents.  GPS was not made for wanderers.  The screen notes a route on a formal schema abstracted local terrain, which is replaced by a generic image, its data mediated at a remove from the world as if “flattened” to two dimensions, rather than the sort of surface that invited multiple possibilities.   The map produced on demand places cartography with limited sense of permanence; the personalized nature of the map it creates, as in a service economy, offers an image of terrestrial location that dazzles, but is only commensurate with a specific viewer’s specific needs, and as it is part of a system that provides on-demand maps that can be immediately generated for any global region.

Santa Cruz Mountains

The place of reading a GPS map in a car or a mobile phone is independent from the expectations for both providing and decoding the map.  How maps are read over time offers perspective on how maps address their readers by embodying a relation to space through their synthesis of spatial information.

Such an emphasis is distinct from, say, one on the mathematics by which cartographical projections synthesize data on a uniform graticule or techniques of transferring the curved surface of the world:  one can appreciate these precepts only in a very vague sort of way, similar to ignorance of how GPS generates a map, to read its organization.  As the video by which Google promotes Trekker as a natural extension of a user’s relation to their environment during a walk in the woods.  The mechanics by which the cameras stuffed into a bulky backpack remain both mystified and  outside of the average viewer’s appreciation or ken, but the user is amazed at how the digitized synthesis takes us through a mind-bogglingly detailed record of space.

One is awed by the alternative surrogate awesomeness that the map provides of the Grand Canyon.  The data such maps compile for readers implies a very different sort of map-reading from te far smaller-scale trail maps of a similar region which offers clues to travel on foot, rather than car, whose color-coded signs of elevation, trail lines, and symbols of orientation offer a semantic register to decode.


The legibility of the above map engages different cognitive skills to decipher our position than the plastic formats of mapping in GPS, which derives from a  dramatically different context of the corporate investment in map making, less dependent on attracting viewers than provide comprehensive access.

Google Earth’s data collection and synthesis is unlike that of the National Geodetic Survey’s mandate to maintain “a consistent coordinate system that defines latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, and orientation throughout the United States” for the public, by which “everyone accurately knows where they are and where other things are anytime, anyplace.”  Criteria for mapping are now market-driven and based on providing information for consumers in an explosion of available maps.  Google acquired the digital mapping company Keyhole back in 2004, allegedly when Sergey Brin claims to have been so wowed by digitized maps of bombing Iraq he saw on television.  The digitized satellite maps that Keyhole provided afforded a new way of defining one’s relation to an over-mapped world:  Google’s vice-president, Jonathan Rosenberg, celebrated how the military-grade map-provider used by the Department of Defence was repositioned as it became “a valuable addition to Google’s efforts to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” allowing users to “fly like a superhero from your computer at home to a street corner somewhere in the world–or . . . map a road trip” by tapping information collected via satellite and airplanes through easy-to-use software.  The rhetoric was fulsome as the acquisition was completed: “The sun is shining brightly in Mountain View,” read the press release, describing Keyhole employees as “all smiles” and Google employees as “all open arms,” as the same software used by the US government to track the arrival of smart bombs to Iraq via a multi-terabyte database (and begun by a venture capital firm backed by the CIA) was re-deployed to dramatically expand the wide, wide world of GPS.

Driving through the region near Mountain View, one couldn’t help think of how the removed view on the GPS screen was a diminished share of the mapping tools Google had purchased.  It’s striking that even in 2004, Google felt the need to calm anxieties about the potentially intrusive nature of such satellite technology that would cover the United States, but was energized by the belief it could unseat Time-Warner’s Mapquest–as it has– in providing its users with a far more robust mapping technology to orient themselves.  “It’s not like you are going to be able to read a license plate on a car or see what an individual was doing when a particular image was taken” in ways that would violate their privacy,” Keyhole’s General Manager, John Hanke reassured the public.  The photographs, after all, were from a database generally six to twelve months old, rather than being real time.  But recent indications about intrusive surveillance suggests that such a project might not have been far from the CIA’s mind in funding the project, which Google rolled out as an innovation in both convenience and reach to craft high-tech maps for viewers from satellite views by its powerful search engine.

GPS  situated its customers into a culture already bombarded by images by granting vicarious participation in a Brave New World of digitized maps.  What is striking in the maps is the near-absence not only of textual but semantic content, which are dramatically reduced in its imagery to increase its ready legibility.  The ways maps were understood in specific sites of reading, argues the medievalist Patrick Gauthier Dalché, who examined the questions that readers from Italian humanists, monks, or the readers of marine charts had for maps, and called attention to the ways of reading maps as much as their semantic construction.

Considering the combinations and forms reading practices a printed map engaged opens interesting possibilities to understand relations of text and image in early printed maps whose readership is not known; it documents the cultural translation of mapped information from manuscript to print, and raises questions for the materials of reading we wax nostalgic when using GPS systems.  It is common to compare the shift in mapping space that digital  interfaces allow to the shift from manuscript and print in the European Renaissance, both as an increased legibility of space that maps diffused and the greater circulation of  maps as reproducible engravings.  We might take time to reconsider the different semantic varieties of map-reading print encouraged,  examining how early printed maps ask viewers to engage a representation of expanse to understand them as forms of spatial literacy.


Ptolemaeus Teutsch


Few land-masses are evident to modern viewers of this printed map of apparently spherical form, an early German translation of Ptolemaic precepts that transposes the form and outlines of a manuscript projection. Most likely adapting the semantic forms originating from a Ptolemaic codex its printer or engraver transposed the map onto the gridded surface of a globe to create the illusion of a mathematically derived spherical projection.  Although the spherical projection is but an illusion, the transposition of a Ptolemaic projection to a spherical grid provided a new way to read its place-names:  a few place-names on the surface of this printed map–“Europa,” “Asia,” “Ethiopia,” and a “Mare Indicum.”  Although the map echoed the tripartite organization of mappaemundi, numbers keyed locations to written descriptions unlike the ancient places listed in manuscripts of Ptolemy’s geographic manual:  the names were not only abstractions, but numbers provided tools to gloss a sophisticated primer of geographic knowledge, using Euclidean precepts to render global expanse on a uniform plane.  Readers would have seen the map and its accompanying German text–the map appeared as the fold-out endpaper of a book titled Ptolemaeus Teutsch–as mediating the ancient classical treatise of world-geography to a broader audience than a tradition of learned geography.

The map abstracted expanse as if to address readers familiar with single-line engraving by compacting of terrestrial relations–although it does not seem to have been as successful as a commodity as its printer hoped.  The limited success of the booklet may reflect the extent to which it dramatically and rather drastically condenses geographic data to symbolize measured expanse in a spherical format that imitated how globes prepared a surface for readers to  actively gloss, interpret, and reflect on its symbolization of expanse, and a dynamic tool to render and encode the distribution of worldly expanse.



The reduced size of the engraving encouraged its engraver to use numbers instead of bulky toponyms, in order to create an easily consultable spatial template for placing the known regions on a ruled plane surface which comprehended–and mimicked–the terrestrial globe.


Globe of Ptol Teutsche


If the GPS system made me think of the manner information was processed and distilled on the screen in a passive form of readership, the positioning of place on the globe suggested a combination of tools of single-line engraving and a facility to abstract a geometric record of spatial relations, often tied to a unique exchange between humanist and artists in Nuremberg’s visual culture that printers eagerly exploited to expand the book market.

The map recalls its rough contemporary, Martin Behaim’s Globe, celebrated for concretizing a “mental image” of a new relation to space and place in Nuremberg around 1490. Although it omits America,  the globe’s surface assembled an image of oceanic expanse that confirmed Behaim as master of crafting a modern relation to a  legible space from nautical charts circa 1492.


Behaim Vorstellung


This modern recreation of the Behaim globe’s underlying map suggests how the engraved spherical map reflects the status of globes as material records of regional relations, representing terrestrial curvature as much as to measure spatial relationships with precision or provide a guide for travel, and indeed to arrange the disposition of place on a globe.

The engraving reproduced skills of reading the commodity Behaim presented Maximilian I in 1492; it indicated appreciation of the material construction of the globe in imitating the epistemic claims and encyclopedic intent by combining visual and written on its surface, if in far compacted form.


Behaim's Globe


Behaim had earlier sailed with Portuguese vessels for several years, where he gained access to supposedly secret charts, and fashioned the globe from them, working with the painter, woodblock cutter, and printer Georg Glockendon to assimilate an abundant and expressive tradition of written geography even as they embodying expanse in a new form of material media. Earlier  publishers of colored maps for translations of Ptolemy’s ancient Geography unsuccessfully attempted to reach broad audiences; Behaim’s erdapfel provided a  materially impressive way to depict a comprehensive record of the inhabited world; if it exaggerated the world’s oceanic expanse, it  profited from empty oceans to inscribe written accounts of travelers from Marco Polo to Mandeville, in ways readily readable at a reader’s eye-level.



The self-standing globe attempted to replace written geographic media it amply cited in as a materialization of global expanse, as much as completing empty spaces on the map’s surface:  it suggested empty spaces as a way to pique interest among its readers.  Unlike scholarly editions of Ptolemy, the material condensation of Behaim’s erdapfel was a powerful painted media, juxtaposing huge continents with islands that spill across its surface, making less reference to meridians or parallels than texts to orient its audience and invite them to pour over its content.

Globe's Written Surface


The globe echoes imperial regalia.  Designed for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, the modernity of the globe is thematized in a 1939 film about Behaim as a man of action, “Das unsterblich Herz,” portraying Behaim as a  precursor to Columbus, and a Germanic figure of modernity (rather than, say, Luther), whose will to map the world and African coast modernized the imperial heritage of Holy Roman Emperors:  no doubt his globe was imagined as something like a precursor to the Third Reich.  The cinematic retelling of how Behaim fashioned a globe of comprehensive coverage for Kaiser Maximilian I glorified the mapmaker’s imperial service.

The master of kraft, roughly contemporary to Columbus, is presented as conscious of the strategic deployment of maps as tools of dominance that broke with the medieval past:  this Behaim recognized the inaccuracy of sundials or timepieces at sea, and his decisive realization of the need for portable clocks enabled him to map the shore of western Africa, filling uncharted regions of the globe on account of his dedicated perseverance.  The film celebrated Behaim as a man of action and genius, representing the globe-maker’s craftwork and the material globe as an icon of modernity.  The Nuremberger’s skilled instrument making is indeed juxtaposed in the film with two other measures or standards of modernity, clocks and ammunition, which define a modern conception of time and finality that fundamentally broke from medieval conceptions of time and space; the globe-maker seems a figure who rises above medieval conceptions of the closure of the world’s confines, if not of the confines of an imperial expanse–if he also seems a bit manic in his vision than one might suppose of the historical Behaim.


Behaim--Unsterblich herz


The historical Behaim is far more complex, and so is his modernity.  Although the film lionizes a globe-maker who epitomized a way of being-in-the-world for its audience, Behaim worked from manuscript nautical charts to make his globe, and if he fashioned the globe was a modern way of interfacing with space by embodying it in concrete form, the globe provided a medium for reading space informed by multiple sources that its surface effectively synthesized.

Modern reconstructions of the globe and close-up photographs demonstrate how the globe creates a legible surface, a site of reading where place and space not primarily mediated  by meridians or parallels, as much as a grandiose modern conceptions.  Islands as those here around Taprobana suggest less of a unified than fragmentary regions for their reader to imagine, haphazardly situated on  the surface of the far-off the unknown shore of Asia, and as incomplete as closed.  Panels of text seem to anticipate the reading of a new notion of expanse, but treat the globe’s surface more as a composed text than a pictorial cartographical record.


Globe's Written Surface


The organization of meaning on the globe was no doubt in many ways understood as a site of writing, as well as a surface on which to trace extensive rivers, discovery lakes, or find move from the landscape to surrounding written texts.  Conceptually familiar sites like the rubicund Red Sea  provided reminders as much as depicting actual oceanic conditions–as is evident in this lovingly crafted modern facsimile of the globe in Alberta (Canada)–as much as a uniformly distributed graticule; the globe reveals the epistemic difficulty of synthesizing nautical and terrestrial maps even as it provides a surface for reading both in relation to one another.


Globe of Behaim- Africa

Interrogating the map as a scene of reading afford a lens to read the map than evaluating it as a purely formal geometric projection of expanse, but as a material interface.  Behaim’s stationary globe and the printed spherical projection both vaunted the map as a form of reading that its printers believed would reach a large audience.

The German translation seems less profitable as a printing enterprise, and survives in but two editions–only one of which includes the map, now stored in the New York Public Library which was discovered and squirreled out of wartime Europe by the book collector Erwin Rosenthal.  But it suggests a new consciousness of the map as a form of reading space, one that might be reproduced in the form of a German-language primer for a large audience of readers.  The preservation of a measurement of terrestrial relations is often argued to have redefined the map as an autonomous register.  But the sense of the globe as a legible space is even more apparent.  It’s not a coincidence that some of the first globes were donated to libraries, synthesizing written information that parallel the growth of early modern libraries; early globe-makers donated terrestrial and celestial globes to the Vatican libraries–still private, but a world-famous repository of manuscripts and codices.  If print was an early information overload in demand of new expertise to process, the globe was both an abundantly copious container of meaning and a particularly modern means for ordering terrestrial expanse.

Questions of legibility provided the engine for the reproduction of early modern maps.  Even as lines of parallels and meridians were foregrounded in this map by Peter Appian, amplified by Vespucci’s maps and those to include the Americas, reading a globe-like surface was more important for consumers than being able to trace terrestrial locations, although it clearly vaunted the indexicality of place as a basis to better organize place-names or textual content–which now seems subordinate to the disposition of a mapped expanse within a frame in this image based on Martin Waldseemüller’s 1506 wall map, which first named “America,” vaunting a new ability by which a framed expanse could be read, over which our eyes could skim in super-human ways, much as maps offer the neat trick of both embodying  space and allowing us to escape our own embodiment.


Iuxta Ptolemei Cosmographi Traditionem

It’s difficult to recast maps as other than sites of intensive reading. The digitized screen of GPS seems strangely disembodied because it lacks similar tools of decoding. For rather than a dynamic semantic surface, GPS provides limited visual navigational tools that interface with the viewer, even seeming to diminish its readers cognitive skills by replacing a legible register of space.  That is why the map is hard to replace as a material object or legible register.

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Filed under Google Maps, GPS, GPS maps, Keyhole, Mapquest, Martin Behaim, National Geodetic Survey, Siri, Trekker, user interface