Friday, August 29, 2008

Two Posts, No Waiting

I wrote two new posts for all of you. They concern:
  • The news of the day (the first of the two)
  • Cartography, Google and the future of maps (the one that appears immediately below this one)

Consider this your little gift for Labor Day Weekend.

Give them your consideration before giving summer one last hurrah on this blatantly Socialist holiday weekend, comrade.

Maps In The Age Of Google

It seems that Mary Spence MBE, the President of the British Cartographic Society, thinks so.

I read this article with a considerable amount of interest. Read it for yourself, but the gist of it is that Dame Spence is worried that the rise of satnav in cars and mobile devices, and websites like Google Maps, Mapquest, Rand, Yahoo! Maps and others are doing harm and (in some cases) violence to the British landscape and the history behind it. People, according to Spence, want to get from point A to point B and don't care what's along the way. What's more, she continues, the "corporate cartographers" at Google and the like ignore the patchwork of traditional representations of landmarks, ancient woodlands, ruins and historical sites that have been characteristic of British (and Western) maps since the early modern era.

I had multiple reactions to her arguments and the ideas behind them, so lets deal with them in turn. First, we must consider what purpose a map serves? What is it that a map is trying to do? This is rather hard to define precisely, but a good general description is that it is trying to represent a piece of three-dimensional territory in a two-dimensional medium. I know that is a broad and (perhaps) flawed definition, but it is a good starting points.

The better answer is that maps have several purposes and their makers often have different goals in mind. You can look at different maps of the same terrain made for different purposes and have it seem like you are looking at three different places. For example, look at these three maps of Downtown Chicago. They essentially depict the same territory, but were made in different times for different purposes (namely, land use, transport and recording a historical event).

Now, when you think about it, a map of the Chicago Fire of 1871 or the CTA map of the Loop is of use to some people, but not to others. What good would a historical map be to a modern apartment hunter? What good would a transit map be to someone entering the city by car? Not much is right. So, I take issue with the notion that using online map services for purposes of practical navigation is a bad thing or something that should be left to paper maps. These services have their place and they are very popular.

Second, I was interested in the way that Dame Spence decided to frame the issue. She framed it, without doing so expressly, in the classic dichotomy of "space versus place" and also from the standpoint of how and what the map depicts and how that relates to the landscape, the built environment and its history.

Space versus place is one of those arguments that academics (mainly geographers, but recently others have gotten in on the action) love to have with each other. Basically, the stripped down version is that a place is a space imbued with some kind of meaning. Here again, this is right from the Department of Tenuous Definitions, but it will have to do. Spence was saying that with satnav and online mapping, places were becoming spaces (in a manner of speaking).

I was also interested in her mention of the lack of historical and archaeological detail on the maps. This concern comes straight out of the maps produced by the Ordinance Survey (OS). Since the 1790's, the OS has been charged with the detailed mapping of the whole of the British Isles and large parts of their (now) former empire. OS maps, starting from their first large body of work mapping Ireland between 1828 and 1836, have a lot of fascinating aspects that tell us as much about the mapmakers as the territories being described.

The original OS maps of the 19th century bespeak of a country concerned with preserving its past but also looking enthusiastically toward its future. Sites of ancient ruins, cathedrals, stone circles and other such historical bric-a-brac were shown along side harbor improvements, the deep cuts for the canals and railways and other such modern bric-a-brac. These maps were bought not only by history buffs, but by land speculators, railroad developers, canal and turnpike companies and towns interested in development and the emerging discipline of modern town planning. They were truly showing the Britain of the 19th century as a place, imbued with meaning and indicative of its times.

These maps saw different users over the years, especially by hikers, bikers and other outdoorsy types. In these users, one can see a desire to maintain the landscape and monuments as a fragment of a deathless Britain even as Britain's imperial century drew to a close. This is along side the fact that, until recently, the best maps of the British Isles were produced by the Ordinance Survey, an executive agency of the British Government.

Thirdly, and this relates to the point above, it was interesting that Spence used the phrase "corporate cartographers" to describe Google and their kind. In defending the traditional (if you can call it that) mapping of Britain by the OS, she seems to be saying that the undying landscape and place of Britain was being hacked to bits or flat-out ignored by these corporate stooges, interested in getting people between locations, history and sense of place be damned.

Here is where I must part ways with Spence a little. Granted, the OS maps of Britain are great and you would have to go a long way to do a better job mapping the whole of a country. I own several OS maps and they are rich in detail and information about the topography and physical character of an area. They are also simply a joy to look at, following the contours in the map and in your mind.

That being said, I also agree that the OS maps have their function, but so does Google and other electronic, satellite maps. If I need quick directions, especially to an unfamiliar place, they are easy and readily available. This does not replace paper maps, which are often needed for greater detail or as a check against mistakes (which do happen with electronic mapping services).

Electronic resources, maps included, have the added advantage of being able to be updated in real-time, allowing travellers and local residents alike to respond to adverse weather conditions, roadwork, disruptions in rail or air transport and other highly variable conditions.

To the larger question of electronic resources "killing" off the extrordinary history of British places, I think that Spence's trepidation is a bit misplaced. Why? The reasons I gave above for different maps for different uses and situations. Quick directions are useful in some situations, but not in others. What use would they be if your intent was to wander around looking for something interesting? Not much, in fact, that activity might be best with no map at all.

So, I think that paper maps are in no danger of extinction because of the vital part they and their details play in how we conceptualize and represent places. They have been part of our symbolic language for centuries and they serve a great purpose. We think cartographically (to some extent) and these cartographic iterations help us to do that in different but not mutually exclusive ways. Google and good, old paper maps are both welcome.

To put it all another way, there is more than one way to answer Burt Bacharach when he asks "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?"

Burt Bacharach and cartography...what a way to end the week.

And Now, The News In Brief

I had some short things to say about recent news items that might be more important than people and their waning map reading skills. Seeing as I am a bit of a cartophile (my Master's thesis was based largely on critical reading of maps), I didn't think it was not important at all.

So, here are some news items and my (hopefully) short takes on them.
  • Now that we are between the conventions (Obama Media Love-In over, Mc Cain Scowl Fest to come), I think it is time to remind everyone of something before we all get carried away. Politics has, and has always had, elements of the theatrical at its very core. Statecraft is really stagecraft in large part. From displays at the courts of medieval and early modern Europe, to the grand architecture of government buildings throughout the ages to grand speeches and proclamations, the political leader is at once actor and policy maker. Ideally, the conventions should have not told you anything that you didn't already know. It is really all an act, put on to put powerful images in your brain and associate them with a particular person. It is branding at its best. I have always said that advertising is the great American art form, and no-where is this clearer than during an American political party convention.
  • A while back, Greg asked if I thought that Europe was ready for a leader of color. My answer was no, and that the US was more ready on that score. We discussed the matter (over Blatz, naturally) and came to the conclusion that it would so gall the Europeans to admit that we elected a black leader before they did. That means, in a certain sense, we are more progressive than them. Can you imagine the French, Dutch, Germans or any of them admitting that through clenched, non-floridated teeth? Well, this article in The Guardian may be proof of just that. Give it a read and tell us what you think.
  • While all of this convention mishegoss was going on, the world rolled on. Or to be more specific, Russian tanks rolled on into Georgia. There was an excellent piece in the Financial Times that I think gives a good read of the situation. I particularly agree with the point that Russia's claims of victimhood after the collapse of the USSR are rubbish. I also agree with the notion that when empire is lost, shame and disgrace are common feelings. Think of the British after, say, the Suez Crisis in 1956. Russia is losing friends and is blaming everyone but themselves. Keep an eye on this situation, folks. It could continue to get interesting.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mental Health Time? Urban Isolation? Not Bullshit.

You know, it's funny. You can go your entire adult life confident of your beliefs and events can still over take you and cause a fundamental reappraisal of things that you have believed for years.

As you might have guessed, the beliefs that I am addressing are the relative bullshit nature of two concepts, those being "mental health time" and "urban isolation." We will discuss them in turn.

Mental health time, as I understood it, was time taken away from one's primary activities to gain some sort of mental perspective. I knew that it was related to stress and how people deal with it (see these guys for more info on that score).

Now, being the (usually) driven and ambitious person that I have always been, I thought that mental health time was a lame cop-out, an excuse given by the weak-minded for their failures to cope with the whirling shit-storm that is modern life. These people should quit whingeing and get back to work.

Well, um, this turns out to be not so true (for me, at least). A lot of things in my life were coming to a head at once (professional, financial, emotional) and I thought that I could soldier on and shrug it off easily (like I usually have before).

Not so fast, Will. Something was different this time. That something was urban isolation.

The term urban isolation describes a phenomenon that has been a part of the human experience since at least the time of the Industrial Revolution. People move to cities, away from their friends and relations and although they live in the midst of a teeming multitude, they still feel isolated and alone.

The usual perscription for dealing with urban isolation is to form a network of friends and meaningful associations to get you through the tough times and remind you that you are not alone. I usually have this, but because of the vagaries of academic and personal life, it was not as prevalent is it has been in the past.

I thought that urban isolation was bullshit because, well, I like being alone. I like spending time by myself reading, thinking or whatever (if I was a smart-ass, I would say here that spending time with myself is the best way to be assured of intelligent company). Anyone who claims to be isolated while surrounded by people is, well, either delusional or not trying hard enough.

Again, these assumptions on my part turned out to be rather wide of the mark.

So, in other words, I guess that need for mental health time + urban isolation = mental ground zero for me.

Worry not, dear readers. I am fine now. I retreated to my family and friends to, well, get some mental health time and remind myself that I am not as isolated as I might think. It did wonders for my mental state and I am back and ready to go again. We, as ever, have much to discuss.

Thanks for your continued support. Goodness knows I need it.