The Return of Paper Maps, Again

Every so often we see a story about how paper maps are making a comeback. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that sales of paper maps have been going up in recent years—a story that NBC’s Today show picked up yesterday. One of the appeals of paper maps, these stories note, is that they provide context—the “bigger picture,” as the WSJ article puts it. Something that can be lost when focusing on getting to the destination.

I’m not remotely surprised that paper maps refuse to go away, that they keep showing signs of renewed life. I have a thought or two about this, and about the perennial question of paper maps in the digital age. There’s a reason this question keeps coming up—which these stories do get at. It’s that every new technology that supplants the old does so imperfectly and incompletely.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been dabbling in a lot of vintage tech lately: typewriters and vinyl records. In both cases what replaced them is demonstrably better: word processors do a better job than typewriters. CDs represented an upgrade over vinyl on many fronts, as did digital music over CDs later on. And in a similar vein, the ability to have a digital map of anywhere you might end up in your pocket or on your dashboard is an unquestionable improvement over having to rely on a paper map that you may or may not have with you.

And yet the old tech still has its adherents, and it isn’t always about die-hards and Luddism: there’s always at least one thing the old tech did better that gets lost when you switch to the new. Compared to computers, typewriters encourage disciplined, distraction-free and linear writing. Vinyl encourages active, purposeful listening. And paper maps aren’t just used for immediate navigational needs: you browse them, you study them. Each of these technologies fulfil needs that haven’t gone away and haven’t been met by their replacements.

On the other hand, the old ways had substantial barriers to entry. Typewriters require a lot more typing skill, vinyl is fiddly and high-maintenance, and the ability to read a map has never been universal. More people use GPS navigation than can read a map. Sometimes the new technology is simply more democratic and more accessible.

Which means that while I don’t think paper maps will ever go away, they’ll never take pride of place back from digital maps. (Then again, vinyl outsells CDs nowadays, so make what you will of my prognostications.)

Previously: Stanfords Cartographer: ‘Paper Is Going to Make a Comeback’; More on Stanfords’s Move and Paper Maps’ Comeback.