The Growth of Mass-Produced Maps

It seems that all of the readings this week are focused on the development and proliferation of maps and cartography. The chapter by Diane Dillon in Maps: Finding Our Place in the World is focused on the growth of maps as a commercial product over a significant period of time, while the articles by Susan Schulten and John Cloud present a small-scale look at how map consumption and map construction evolved in the 20th century from a perspective of construction and technological development. Together, they paint a picture of a change in how maps are used by those who create and purchase them. Where early in the history of the map as a product it’s function was as a status symbol and a tool for learning, the exact relation of spacial geography in maps became more and more important, especially over the last century. Nationalism, and then the development of technological tools to enable accurate rendering of geospacial relationships without having to take measurements on foot (as elaborated in Cloud’s article) increasingly have lead to a singular focus on the map as a perfectly accurate depiction of one aspect of their function. In fact, this has gotten so pronounced that it actually angers consumers when maps are not perfectly accurate. Witness any case where a GPS navigation system in a car, or an Internet Map, has the wrong directions, such as mentioned in this news segment.

But, as the Dillon chapter notes, this is not the only form of mapping that people regularly consume. It is simply the one that leaps most readily to mind. Maps are everywhere, on commonplace everyday objects that we don’t even think of as maps. I own at least a half-dozen games that use maps of real locations, from Japan (Shogun: Total War) to the entire world (3 editions of Risk in both board and computer game form), for instance. Maps have lost their status-symbol nature, but have become almost so common as to not be noticed as a result.

As a Historian making use of maps, this suggests to me that striking a middle ground between perfect accuracy (impractical) and something that will be essentially ignored is essential to conveying the information I want a map to give a reader. Simplicity is the key, I think, but without sacrificing the accuracy of the information the map should convey.


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