Paeans to Paper Maps
A couple of recent comparisons of traditional — even ancient — cartography with the latest mapping technology.
The paper map will soon die, and with it something central to human experience. There is a joy is not knowing exactly where you are. The electronic gizmo takes you from A to Z, but it does not show you the place you never knew about, off at the side of the map, the road less travelled. The joy of exploration lies in not knowing exactly where you are, or where you are going, in trying to match the visual world outside with the one-dimensional world represented by the map. Wherever you go now, the machine has got there first.
The good news is that maps always adapt, and electronic maps are adapting at an astonishing rate, perhaps returning us to an earlier form of cartography, where the map can tell you just about anything you care to imagine. By marrying digital mapping with all sort of other information, the map of the future will not only inform us where we are, but reveal other things important or interesting: the nearest cheese shop, the density of traffic wardens, the menu of the village pub and perhaps, in a strange realisation of Galton’s map, whether the local inhabitants are attractive or not.
Cartography, like other arts, has advanced one step at a time. Today, with GPS, satellite imagery and sensors, computer graphics and so many other resources, the work of the mapmaker is easily overlooked. It shouldn’t be. The levels of accuracy and information sought for mapping now were beyond the wildest dreams of a Ptolemy or Mercator or any of the others who made it possible to push back and move into the new frontiers.