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Road Mapping

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The Map Room points to the New Yorker’s article of road mapping, particularly as it is done these days (a la Mapquest and Navteq et al). It is quite a bit like earlier stories on the adventures of Navteq frontline staff (see 1, 2 and 3) but is better written and provides some background on road mapping in the past 100 years. It is a very long article - what would expect of the New Yorker.

The writer, Nick Paumgarten, suggests that current day online mapping services are seeking to provide directions to travellers, rather than, specifically maps. “Before there were maps, as we understand them, there were itineraries, sequences of customized directions. Maps, to say nothing of the ability to read them, were the stuff of progress. To see and depict the landscape in such abstract terms, as you might from above, requires a measure of sophistication that the mere itinerary, with its blindered view of the world, does not. So it’s curious that the current geographic revolution is in many ways a reversion to primitive techniques: it is a high-tech gloss on the lowest-tech approach.”

Paumgarten talks to Jim Ackerman of the Smith Center for the History of Cartography who suggests that there is always the tension between providing a list of features or places in the order that one would encounter them (for example, old railways map or portolan charts) and the bird’s eye (or God’s eye view as he calls it) perspective of the world.
“‘The tension between these two modes of navigating goes back to these maps,’ he said. ‘The itinerary represents space as one experiences it on the ground. A map like this has that element, but it starts to introduce the notion that you can conceive of it as a larger unit. It’s a God’s-eye view, which puts you in charge of navigating through space. This is the origin of the notion that you can pull yourself away from the world and see it from above.’

“The irony is that centuries later, when we have perfected the God’s-eye map and become conversant with it, we have, in the thrall of technology, turned back to the ancient way: the itinerary and the strip map. OnStar and MapQuest zero in on the information that’s relevant to reaching your destination. “They close down your choices and give you a route,” Akerman said.”
It is interesting to note how road mapping has come to dominate the entire mapping enterprise. “Over time,” writes Paumgarten, “as the systems grow more sophisticated, the digital maps will come to look more and more like the world as it’s perceived through the windshield of an automobile. Bodies of water, for example, are often given short shrift, because one cannot drive on them. Navteq takes note of “water polygons,” as they’re called, mainly because people are accustomed to seeing them on their maps. “Maps look very strange if they don’t contain those things,” [Salahuddin] Khan [senior vice president of Navteq] said. ‘There’s an almost paradigmatic expectation on the part of consumers to see maps that look like maps.’ It will be interesting to see how long this expectation survives.”

Read the entire New Yorker article.

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