Maps of Fantasy

The readings this week are concerned with the human imagination, and our ability to create meaning, patterns, and maps from suggestion and implication. By creating a map, the map’s subject becomes defined and explained, making something that previously was abstract into a visible form. Maps give definition to what we cannot see. This is even more evident when the map is created whole-cloth to serve or from a fictional narrative. These kinds of maps are ones that I am intimately familiar with, as I’ve been playing and reading with fictional maps since I was in preschool. I encounter them in the books I read for pleasure (Which, often enough, are formula fantasy.) as well as in my intellectual and academic reading. I encounter them in the electronic games I play (Including, until a while ago, World of Warcraft, but also many other games.) I even create them myself, for tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Maps capture the imagination and invite exploration, either of space or ideas.

With any tool, there is also the potential of misuse. This is especially true of something that grasps the imagination like a map. This is also quite well illustrated by the readings this week, especially in the maps of Dante’s Inferno. Our very ability to create maps from abstraction also leads us to see patterns and structures where none may exist. It may be because of this week’s election, but the tendency of groups on either side of the aisle to leap to conclusions, saying “This is a clear mandate!” or “This means we can achieve real change!” based on what are ultimately small changes in the percentage of votes in any given place strikes me as an example of letting imagination and maps create unsound conclusions. This isn’t to say that maps are dangerous, or shouldn’t be used. I merely mean that maps deserve our respect, both of their power and their limitations.

Comments 10/28

I left a comment on Alex’s blog

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.

Comments for October 21

I left a comment on Rodney’s Blog

Natural Scene Designer

Working with Natural Scene Designer, I have produced a number of images of the city of Boston, or at least the land underneath it. I have to admit, choosing a subject for this project was more than a little difficult for me: I have not done very much small-scale work of the kind that lends itself to maps of this nature, and that which I have done comes in 3 types, flat, flatter, and pancake. I picked Boston more due to side interest from a game I occasionally play.

My first image is taken looking north at the city center from above the hills to the south of Boston. It is simply the bare terrain with water added to the harbor:

The second image uses an overlay from the USGS site. Unfortunately, the overlay and the elevation files do not match up quite right. The map appears to be rotated slightly, which is unfortunate. The picture was taken from above the airport and shows the inner harbor, showing something of the opposite view of the first rendering.

Now we come to the interesting things. I used a composite map showing the growth of Boston and the surrounding area as land was filled in and the harbor area narrowed. I retrieved this map from Mapping Boston, map #19, though I had to re-size it properly to fit and lost some of the detail thereby. I then positioned my camera above Bunker Hill, to the northwest, and rendered the picture of Boston Harbor, including the old city. Dark green is the original landmass, and as the color lightens the age of the land decreases.

What I would really like to do is use a detailed map of property and land values in Boston and compare it to the elevation and land growth map. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a sufficiently detailed version of any such map. It is entirely possible that the map would first have to be generated using something like GIS before it could be used for the comparison.

Overall, I think Natural Scene Designer and the elevation and overlay maps that it can produce are excellent for allowing an intuitive grasp of the landscape. There are inherent difficulties depending on the availability of accurate elevation maps, the variance in elevation of the area in question, and the size of the region one is working with, but NCD and overlay maps are very good at conveying certain sorts of information. It would be even more useful if one had reliable topographical data from the time period being examined. Combined with architectural reconstruction (the next project) it might be even more useful. Of course, constructing an accurate reproduction of historical architecture can be a daunting task, or at least one better handled by a professional. Reconstructing a historical location might allow us to ask new questions about the history involved, or at least answer old questions in new ways.

Sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar

This week’s readings come from the writing of Martin Bruckner. The article in Common Place, “The Materiel Map” is a continuation of the theme of maps as dual-natured objects, both conveying information and serving as aesthetic works. His book, The Geographic Revolution in Early America, isĀ  an exploration of the growth of geographic awareness and publishing in 18th century English America, both before and after the Revolutionary War.Bruckner argues that the way that 18th century Americans conceptualized space is directly linked to the political beliefs that shaped the emerging nation and its identity.

Unfortunately, the writing in The Geographic Revolution in Early America is, in my opinion, some of the worst I have ever seen in a professionally published book. Bruckner apparently believes that all texts can be read and understood in the exact same manner as literature, and proceeds to deeply analyze precise words and phrases to the same extent one would analyze the precisely turned prose of a literary masterpiece. He reads deep layers of meaning from the text, but frankly I feel that more often than not he reads the meaning into the text, rather than from it. If this is the case, than a large amount of his analysis (regardless of his theses accuracy, which I feel are sound) is approximately as useful as that of a scientific study that discards all data that disproves the original hypothesis.

Not all ‘texts’ can be read and understood by the same methods of analysis. A source must be understood in the context of its creation. Reading deep, multilayered meaning into writings in a casual daily journal or an informal letter is as much as a mistake as only reading the immediate and most apparent structure of a work of literature. This is a pity, as the analysis of novels in Chapter 5 is quite well done and examines them in the appropriate manner and context. It just feels out of place for me to apply the conventions of literary analysis to many of the documents that Bruckner is examining. Given that it is Bruckner’s specialty, I could very well be wrong and he could be correct, but for me personally Bruckner’s writing runs back and forth from intellectually puerile and frankly worse than what I would expect from an undergraduate student to being relatively excellent and well done, all within the same book.

An interesting look at a very old map.

I was looking through my copy of the Historical Atlas of the United States again a few days ago, and I noticed the map of the Outer Banks region on page 24. Being somewhat familiar with the region after several vacations spent there, I thought to myself “Huh, that’s surprisingly accurate, I think.”

Being an enterprising young student, I immediately set out to confirm my hypothesis that it was, indeed, a rather accurate map given the conditions of it’s construction (Or reconstruction, given that it was likely reproduced from notes and memory after returning to England).

Here is a section of the map in question:

I took the map into Illustrator and traced the major coastlines in order to get an overlay that I could compare to a modern map of the region. This is the result:

Now, looking at the area in Google Maps, that doesn’t look all that accurate. Until, of course, I remembered that Google Maps orients it’s maps towards true north…while this map is likely oriented towards magnetic north. A quick approximation of the magnetic declination of the region in 1600 (I could not find exact numbers) led me to rotate the Google Maps image. Resizing and layering the coastline trace over it produced this image:

Huh, it IS somewhat accurate after all. Not perfect, but not utterly without relevance to the land, either.

In somewhat unrelated news, I’m going to post the finished version of my hand enlargement of the negative space map from Generous Enemies we took a look at in class.

Some errors managed to creep in towards the top and right, as I mentioned previously. I’m tempted to take a look at the Buskirk map and an old map of New York in the Hayes book that I suspect was one of the primary sources. Maybe in another post next week?