Today marks the launch of our new special edition publication New Cartography.  The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors.

Over the upcoming weeks we will be publishing a selection of the articles here on The New Wolf; the complete magazine can be viewed here.  

The first of these articles, The Map as Text, provides an overview of the historical and contemporary role of maps, and the way they affect our understanding of the data they represent…

In most situations it never occurs to us to doubt the accuracy of a map. As objects, they speak with far too much authority. These images show us the received wisdom of where things are. They show the streets and alleys people have walked, the land they have roamed, the rivers they have crossed, and the hills they have climbed, and where these things will continue to be done in the future. On a grander scale, they grasp the vast expanse of our entire planet – here are the mountain ranges traversed, there the seas navigated, all across the page the continents set out in full relief, the land stripped of its mysteries.

The wisdom of every map is collective as well – that is to say, not only does each speak with the voice of the cartographer who has drawn it, but it is also blessed with the tacit approval of all those who have used it and not spoken to its faults, of those who know the areas and locations detailed and recognise the truth of them in the image. Mapmaking is an old science, and gone are the days when we believed it to be fallible to any significant degree.

In the past, when we felt we knew the world less, maps bore the personal names of their makers – a life tied to a life’s work, and the reputation of one bound inextricably to the reputation of the other. Now our maps come from the Ordinance Survey, from Google, from Nasa even. Such institutions tend to have been either explicitly authorised to create definitive maps, or by their size and prominence claim for themselves the implicit authority to do so. We put our faith in them to provide accuracy, and the more systematic their work and the more advanced their tools and methods, the less we are inclined to doubt their results.

Equipped with these images, such is our confidence in the lay of the land that in our minds the map now stands as a yardstick of truth. When we speak of ‘putting something on the map’, our metaphor implies not the previous inaccuracy of the record, but rather the earlier insignificance of the subject to warrant inclusion.

Images and imagination

This authoritative objectivity which we credit to the image itself, however, hides the subjectivity inherent in examining its contents. The interconnectivity of places, the broad variation across a space, is not a simple thing to conceive of all at once, despite its abundant clarity on a map. To be in a given place is an experience to be perceived – its objects, its boundaries, its surroundings, the gaps between them, its routes to other places, and all the scenery and sensations associated with these. To be in another place is yet a separate experience. The map’s gift to us, its brilliance as a tool, is to simplify these places into a less detailed, more easily navigable and linear means of connecting relative locations. But a map can locate all places at once by reducing them to a series of points only, which necessarily entails banishing from each individual place the salient details that distinguish it from any other, and fundamentally abstracting it from how we interpret our surroundings.

In consulting a map, for example, I may see that to get from where I am currently to my destination I need to walk up one street, turn left down another, and so on, until I arrive. The map will show not only my beginning and end,but also the lines I should follow to move from one to the other. But to me these do not exist merely as lines – they are streets to be walked down. Consciously or not, I will look at the streets on the map and recognise the notion of myself walking down them. As I interpret it, the map describes a journey. This narrative, which spans a certain period of time, is suppressed by the map, to which all places are known at once, and my reading of it could evoke any number of images or ideas that the map itself declines to consider.

And by the same means that I could extrapolate a particular narrative from an abstract map of locations, the same map could suggest an entirely different narrative to someone else. Take, as another simplified example, a map of a prison block, including hallways and cells, and the door of the block itself. To the prison guard, this map might suggest the route he patrols past all the cells, a narrative involving conceptually the same experience over and again. On each shift he enters the block through the door, walks past the cells a number of times, and expects to find at each the same scenario as at the previous: a prisoner, still shut inside. At the end of his shift he exits through the door. A prisoner, on the other hand, could conjure an entirely different narrative. The cell is the only place he has access to, and its particulars which make up his everyday environment (say, a bunk and a toilet) may not even be detailed on the map because they are not relevant to the space outside the cell. All outside of the cell is closed off to him, and the route displayed on the map from his cell to the door of the block suggests an extraordinary narrative, quite different to that mundane and repetitive tale of the guard.

Facts as narrated

It is also this ability of maps to help us visualise narratives in our own lives that makes them such useful aids in the understanding of narratives which are being related to us. For any story which involves a spatial element, a map can be superimposed with information that makes the nature of the whole event clearer. We can examine, for instance, a map of the expeditions of Scott and Amundsen to the South Pole in 1911–12, which shows where each began, the terrain they battled, the common destination at which they arrived on agonisingly close dates, and how near to a safe return various members of Scott’s party were when they perished. When the distances and routes travelled are themselves some of the primary characters of the narrative, the map alone can describe to us an aspect which cannot be properly captured in a written account – the words can tell us what happened, but they have only a limited, relative power in the realm of where.

Similarly, maps are indispensable for detailing how different things have occurred across a variety of areas. An election map of the UK will divide the country into constituencies, and note which party has carried the most votes in each. From this, some broad truths will immediately be made visually obvious – for example, that the Conservative party is strong in the south east, but weak in Scotland. It will show trends as well, such as the markedly different voting outcomes in urban and rural areas. All of this is information which can be interpreted more easily in a glance at a map than through a detailed written summary.

Imagining the data-mapped world

It is because of such qualities that we have grown used to being presented with maps as a convenient method of communicating complex information. For any set of data which consolidates a number of events over a series of locations, a map can be populated to show the spread. Take, as a case in point, the crime maps recently published online by the Home Office and others at police.uk. These maps plot each month’s crime stats (the type of crime being denoted differently) in the exact location they were reported: as users zoom in, each incident is defined on the map at street level, giving a precise breakdown of where the various incidents occurred. And,for a given area, the map will offer a marker scaled up in size according to the number of incidents which have occurred there, so that the relative crime rates can be compared.

Of course, the marker is simply a denotation.Each of these street-level markers, stands for a narrative of its own. When a reported crime is given a location on the map we are offered only the first part of that story, and implicitly invited to consider the aspects of the event itself on which the marker is silent. A vehicle theft on an isolated residential street – whose car was it? Was it parked on the street or in a garage? Was it expensive? Who stole it, and why? Was it sold on for profit, or abandoned later, or is it still missing? On all this we can only speculate, and so its effect is immeasurable on the mental question which is almost inevitably posed: is this the sort of thing that will happen to me if I go there? Or if I lived there?

And what the whole mass of these markers together depicts are the detailed contours of a criminal world. In certain areas with a great many incidents – parts of central and suburban London, for instance – the markers dominate the landscape. If I were to read these statistics in a document, they would inform my knowledge of a place and stand alongside everything else I knew or thought about it. When this data is mapped, the space is commandeered for this purpose and the image is stripped of all other elements. In this version, space belongs to the crime figures and all the other narratives are hidden away. Does this encourage the notion that certain areas are dominated by crime? If it does, is this impression fair or accurate? Or if it doesn’t, what else might I be reading into the map that I wouldn’t see in a set of statistics?

Knowledge and interpretation

The only lesson we can take from these problems is to remember that the map is a text like any other. We read it for meaning, but we should also read it with scepticism. The image itself carries an aura of knowledge, because it is right about where things are, and it knows about everywhere. But even ifwe trust the map itself, or the route it shows, or the data it organises for us, we should still be careful to remember that this is not a perfect picture of the world as we understand it. A map, like any document, can only lead us through the information it presents; it is our responsibility to contextualise this information, to read it alongside our own knowledge of the world – on which the map is silent – and to decide for ourselves what all this truly signifies.

Illustration by John Mcloughlin

New Cartography presents a series of essays, memoirs, artwork, photography and poetry that explores mapping in a modern context. It provides accounts of new and alternative forms of cartography, in particular the trend of maps as representations of an individual’s subjective experience of the world. And the magazine, through this framework of subjective cartography, explores experiences of living in urban settings.