The Threat of Internet Mapping

At the Royal Geographic Society’s annual conference in London, British Cartographic Society president Mary Spence complained that satellite navigation and Internet mapping were obliterating knowledge of the landmarks lining the way from point A to B. See coverage from the Independent, the Times, and the Daily Telegraph. There’s also the RGS’s press release, which said that, at the session, Spence was to warn

that the focus of internet maps on providing driving directions produced by internet giants has meant that the whereabouts of the thousands of churches, ancient woodlands, stately homes and eccentric landmarks which make up the rich tapestry of the British landscape could disappear from public consciousness. …
“Corporate cartographers are demolishing thousands of years of history — not to mention Britain’s remarkable geography — at a stroke by not including them on maps which millions of us now use every day. We’re in real danger of losing what makes maps so unique; giving us a feel for a place even if we’ve never been there.”

My own reaction, based on what I have here (I’d love to have seen the full text of the session, which Ed Parsons also participated in), is that I don’t think I should be obliged to use a map showing these landmarks if I’m not looking for them. It’s the cartographic equivalent of forcing me to eat my vegetables — a GIS layer you can’t remove. But Glenn raises the point of spatial reference systems: I might not need to know the location of a cathedral to get from point A to B, but someone else might.

I think we’re looking at competing views of how to do a map: a comprehensive, all-in-one method showing plenty of extra information you might need, and a focused method showing only the information you will need. The fact that one has historically been paper-based and the other has generally been computer-based is not necessarily always true. There’s nothing to stop computer maps from showing cathedrals or other landmarks; as Ed Parsons is quoted as saying, you can have many different maps showing — or excluding — many different things. Where we are, in other words, is at the end of an era in which one map has to perform many tasks. This may well be a difficult concept for some cartographers to grasp.

(I wonder if this is an Ordnance Survey map thing; I don’t think North Americans would assume a highway map would be an adequate substitute for a topo map, or vice versa.)

Spence’s argument about the loss of map-reading skills is something we’ve seen before. (For example, her point about failing to recognize Ordnance Survey map symbols conflates general map skills with a familiarity with Ordnance Survey products.) The democratization of information invariably leads to complaints of a decline in quality — e.g., more people are reading, but they’re reading trash. An argument can be made — and Ed did make it — that Internet mapping is making cartography accessible to the cartographically clueless.

To what extent were Britons who currently use MapQuest or in-car navigation systems previously using Ordnance Survey maps with a high degree of skill, anyway?

Via All Points Blog, GeoCarta, and Vector One.

Previously: GPS Isn’t Making Us Dumb; A Third of Britain Can’t Read a Map.