what is a map?

To most, it’s Google Maps or navigation systems like Waze or Uber. To me, it’s a visual representation of spatial phenomena that are used as tools of argumentation. Let me explain.

  • Types of Maps
  • Argumentative Maps
  • Cartographer’s Purpose

Types of Maps

There’s a lot of maps out there: reference, mental, political, election, cartograms, traffic, anything that is spatially related can be mapped.

Sources: City of San Francisco; UC Berkeley; Judgemental Maps.

The maps above are all of San Francisco/Bay Area, California. But what’s incredible is that each tells you something completely different about the area. The first one will help you with transit directions, the next with the topography and the last tells you about the people and culture. No one map is better than the other, for they all tell you something different about the same place. A place, especially one as diverse as San Francisco, cannot be defined so simply with a singular concept. All of these phenomena happen simultaneously in the same space, which construct how we experience the place as a whole.

Argumentative Maps

election-2016-cartogram-purple

Source: Mark Newman, University of Michigan.

Fresh in our minds lives the results of the 2016 US presidential results. These two maps are probably quite unlike the ones you saw going around that year. These maps are a bit more honest. Both maps share a colour scheme that identifies red as Republican and blue as Democrat, but that purple blend shows that counties themselves can be divided. The left map is coloured by county. The right map may only vaguely even look like the US to you. This is a cartogram, a map distorting its area to represent the density of a phenomena; in this case, being population density. The left map argues that the country is more evenly divided than the map on the left. These maps show the same reality in two very different ways: this is the power of a map. It shows us the reality we experience, but the question becomes dramatic when maps are produced by authoritative sources. That is when we have to be suspicious if it is our honest experience or an implanted projection that is our pure reality.

Cartographer’s Purpose

So who makes these maps? Maps are made by someone after all. A cartographer is the person who designs the map, they make a great deal of decisions ranging from data cleaning, colour combinations, map extent, feature elimination and exaggeration, iconography, format and so forth. The grandfathered debate is who is more powerful: the king or the cartographer? The king is the one to make decisions, yes; but it is the cartographer’s map and decision making process that leads the king to his decision. So who truly is the more powerful one?

Maps are, in short, art, communication, simplification and deception. Maps can help us better understand the world around us, especially from views that much unfamiliar. But they can also distort our perception of reality and cause us to believe something other than our definition of truth. So I now urge you to continue this blog and learn about the cartographer’s ails so that you too may be both suspicious and admirable towards maps.

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