ARTYFACTS: Simon Garfield – too much latitude

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Simon Garfield – too much latitude

We all like a good map - we guys that is. And as this was billed as ‘Why the world looks the way it does’ I expected Garfield to peel away maps to reveal something deeper about how we see the world through maps. Instead we got anecdotes about maps, strung together chronologically, but no real revelations about the cultural, political or philosophical role of maps. The stories were too long and too weak, which meant he overran by 20 minutes, leaving no time for questions. Too much latitude.
History of Maps
First, we had a quick, well not really quick, run through of maps since the Eratosthenes 3rd C BC map, based, he claimed, on travellers’ tales, as there were no maps before this. There were no maps before this! We have maps of the skies in Lascaux that are 18,500 years old, Minoan maps, Clay tablet maps at about 2500BC, Papyrus maps at about 1600BC, Anaximander, Hecataeus and others long before Eratosthenes.
Mapped mistakes
The only point of real significance in the whole talk, for me, was the fact that California was represented in a 1650 map as an island, and this mistake was repeated for over 200 years by 250 cartographers, the last in 1860. This is an interesting epistemological question, as paper-based knowledge, divorced from reality, can indeed fossilise false knowledge. It’s why Wikipedia has a far more sophisticated view of knowledge than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There are many examples of such mistakes, including the Mountains of Kong in Africa. That was worth exploring.
Annoyingly, and this happens frequently at book events, which are clearly aimed at older luddites, he had a go at Apple for releasing poor maps on the iPhone. Big deal. Nothing positive about Google Earth or Google Maps or the fact that I can walk down my own street showing the entire route on my phone. Nothing about the triangulation of five satellites and smart algorithms, to deliver my exact position on my SatNav. Nothing about screen-based maps making paper maps redundant. Just some wrong-headed comment about it all being held on ‘mainframes’ – mainframes!

In truth, we have entered an era of realism in maps, local, global and cosmic, that are truly astonishing and revelatory. From the sub-atomic to the cosmic, maps now reveal everything from our inner genome to the history of time and the universe. We are literally capturing, digitally, people, places and events in time on a greater scale than ever before. What are the consequences of all of this mapping – drones, death from invisible sources, the potential loss of freedom from mapping (surveillance) or new knowledge and progress… or a useful source of anecdotes?


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