What Maps Really Show


I often find myself thinking that maps are experiencing a resurgence.

But to be fair, that’s an exaggeration, because mapping has never been out of style. World maps have been around since 6000 BC (some would argue even earlier). So while the human fascination with maps hasn’t changed, what has shifted through the ages are the intentions behind the maps we make. Flip through successions of old atlases and you’ll notice immediately how names, boundaries, and borders of countries change and adjust in response to “discoveries” and world events. This makes sense: historically, maps have been tools for recording and delineating the world. They provided tangible and necessary information–here’s the name of this place, this is what this region looks like, that’s the border of this state, this is how you get to this area.

Fast forward to 2015, and the word “map” doesn’t even immediately imply the medium of paper. As visualizations like Eric Fischer’s Locals and Tourists and the Guardian’s realtime aviation map show, nowadays mapmakers have interests apart from navigation, location, and delineation. These maps aren’t examples of looking outwards—rather, they’re examinations of the inner lives of geographical spaces. We’re interested in features and specificity. We want to learn more about ourselves, we want to see our cities differently. When we render cartographic reflections, we want the privilege of new perspectives and the luxury of different points of view, and that’s visible in the digital maps crafted today.

But maps have always carried a history and weight to them. They’ve always had assumptions and baggage implicitly coded into them, and lately I’ve been thinking about how important it is to critically consider this fact.

A windy day in Brighton. (Photo credit to Chi Anunwa)

What prompted this train of thought for me was a recent —> Read More