Geographer Anthony Robinson is studying the phenomenon of viral maps—maps that are widely disseminated on social media, many of which are terrible: superficial, inaccurate or deliberately misleading. One burst of virality occurred in November 2016, when there was an eruption of maps, some silly, others dead serious, showing the outcome of the U.S. presidential election “if only x voted” (where x was women, or people of colour, or some other demographic). This episode is apparently one of the subjects of Robinson’s paper in Cartography and Geographic Information Science, in which he sketches out a framework for evaluating viral maps’ design and the ways they spread. The paper is behind a paywall, but here’s a news article about it from Penn State, where Robinson works.
Last week, Jimmy Kimmel Live had a skit where they asked passersby to name a country, any country, on a map of the world. The results were predictable—doofs who couldn’t name any country at all, or who thought Africa was a country—and so has been the general reaction. Americans not knowing their geography is a cliché that’s decades old at least. Thing is, the half-dozen or so people being shown aren’t a representative sample: the aim here isn’t a scientific survey, it’s good television. And laughing at idiots counts as good TV in America. In that vein, the kid going all Yakko’s World at the end is an absolutely necessary punchline. [Cartophilia]
Mark Monmonier’s How to Lie with Maps has always been about how to read maps, not how to make them. The map-using public is inclined not only to believe what’s on the map, but to trust it: why would so many people willingly drive their cars into ditches, if they didn’t trust their cars’ navigation systems more than their own eyes? Monmonier prescribes “a healthy skepticism” about maps, and this book is a tool to that end: “I want to make readers aware that maps, like speeches and paintings, are authored collections of information and are also subject to distortions arising from ignorance, greed, ideological blindness, or malice.”1 The book is essentially a cheat sheet, showing all the ways that maps can be made to shade, or at the very least, select the truth. At the minimum, mapmakers must decide what to include or exclude, and those decisions may not necessarily be honest or fair.
The first edition of How to Lie with Maps came out in 1991, the second in 1996. (See my review of the second edition here.) Since then the cartographic landscape is much changed: the map a person may use most frequently may come via their phone rather than paper. But the advice found in this book is still valid. What goes for a paper map is still relevant to the map you call up on your iPhone. And so now, 22 years later, we have a third edition of How to Lie with Maps, which came out from the University of Chicago Press last April. For the most part it’s familiar territory. Other than a nip and tuck here and there and a few new chapters at the end, it’s largely the same book it was in 1996. How does it measure up in the present moment?
Mostly well, with some caveats. The core message of How to Lie with Maps will not become obsolete until maps do, which is to say never; but the examples and emphases are starting to become a bit dated. The reader might have to do a little more work in some cases to see the applicability of a chapter—to translate it into familiar terms—but that effort will be rewarded. For example, I think that everyone working with web-based maps should become quite familiar with chapter 3, “Map Generalization,” for its insights on what to include and exclude at different scales. The chapter on data maps, discussing the use of choropleths, cartograms and other data visualizations, is absolutely essential: so many of the maps being circulated as memes are data maps of some kind, and anything that improves the critical eye with regard to such maps is going to help.
But that chapter on data maps does get a bit lost in the weeds, especially for the general reader. And I’d have liked to have seen something on heat maps akin to this xkcd cartoon:
Bad internet maps have been described as a “social media plague”: they’re popular, they’re insidious, and they’re often not even wrong. But they’re not specifically dealt with in How to Lie with Maps, and that’s a blind spot: in the era of fake news, hoaxes and state-sponsored mendacity, maps that go viral are the ones most in need of a vaccination campaign.
Instead, the new chapters focus on image maps (satellite and aerial imagery), prohibitive cartography (which seems out of place here, and seems more a summary of Monmonier’s other work) and “fast maps,” which is more about web-based mapping than the stuff that gets shared on social media. The new chapters are noticeably more concise than the old. The net effect is a book that is still important, still relevant and still badly needed, but whose updates don’t quite bring it up to the present.
I received a review copy from the publisher.
The Routledge Handbook
Out last month, the expensive, 600-page Routledge Handbook of Mapping and Cartography (Routledge). Edited by Alexander J. Kent (who co-wrote The Red Atlas) and Peter Vujakovic, the book “draws on the wealth of new scholarship and practice in this emerging field, from the latest conceptual developments in mapping and advances in map-making technology to reflections on the role of maps in society. It brings together 43 engaging chapters on a diverse range of topics, including the history of cartography, map use and user issues, cartographic design, remote sensing, volunteered geographic information (VGI), and map art.” [The History of Cartography Project]
New Academic Books
New academic books on maps and cartography published over the past couple of months include:
- The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860 (University of North Carolina Press), the latest work by the historian of early American map literacy Martin Brückner;
- Paul Robert Magocsi’s Carpathian Rus’: A Historical Atlas (University of Toronto Press), a cartographic look at a strategic borderland in central Europe;
- Jasper Van Putten’s Networked Nation: Mapping German Cities in Sebastian Munster’s ‘Cosmographia’ (Brill), a study of city views in Renaissance Europe; and
- Claire Reddleman’s Cartographic Abstraction in Contemporary Art: Seeing with Maps (Routledge), an extremely theoretical study of modern map art.
More on Books We’ve Heard of Before
Related: Map Books of 2017.
When we talk about map literacy, we mean the ability to read a map. We can blithely talk about how map reading has changed over the centuries while failing to interrogate whether what we mean by map reading has changed as well. It’s presentism to assume that people in the past did things the same way as they do today. In a useful essay called “Maps, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages: Some Reflection About Anachronism,” French academic Patrick Gautier Dalché explores how medieval audiences interpreted mappae mundi and marine charts. Even a mappa mundi, he argues, has a practical function. Spoiler: it’s not how you or I would use them.
It also occurs to me that Dalché’s paper is a must-read for writers of fantasy novels (and fantasy map makers), who might also fall into the trap of assuming that their characters would use their maps the same way as a modern map reader would.
A recent psychology paper challenges the notion that men are better than women at directions. When the same test was presented as a measure of spatial ability that women typically did worse at, women did worse than men. But when the same test was presented as a measure of empathy, women did just as well as men. Social conditioning, in other words, may be at play here. Good magazine. [MAPS-L]
I am not one of those people who is always getting themselves lost. In fact the idea of lost is a more or less academic concept to me: I have a rock-solid sense of direction. I suspect that the same is true for most of the map aficionados who read this website. But maybe you are someone who gets lost very easily, or you at least know someone who is. For such people, the New York Times’s Christopher Mele has a set of practical tips to improve your sense of direction, most of which are predicated on grounding yourself, observing your surroundings and relying not so much on the technology. [MAPS-L]
One of the most celebrated 20th century children’s map reading guides is showcased in our forthcoming exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. Published in 1948, Ronald Lampitt and James Deverson’s The Map that Came to Life follows the story of John and Joanna who use an Ordnance Survey map to walk to town. As they pass over fields, past houses and along footpaths, their surroundings are compared with map adjacent on the same page. The fields turn into contoured blank spaces, houses become black cubes, footpaths dashed lines. Map literacy is acquired by the reader as they accompany the children on their virtual journey, matching map with reality.
In The Map that Came to Life the map is portrayed as an objective, precise and above all truthful mirror of nature. And this inherent trustworthiness enabled maps to become important features of the lives of successive generations of people.
The idea that maps are objective and truthful is not something that would fly today, I think, but in the context of entry-level map education, which in Britain always seems to be specifically in terms of how to read an Ordnance Survey map, rather than maps in general, it seems harmless enough.
A book I was not previously aware of: Justin Miles’s Ultimate Mapping Guide for Kids. The British edition came out from QED Publishing last May, the North American edition from Firefly Books in August. “Readers will learn how to understand map symbols and legend, navigate without a compass, create their own maps, plan their own map-reading expedition, and even how to use their mapping skills on a geocaching adventure.”
Related: Map Books of 2016.
The Ordnance Survey is launching a National Map Reading Week, to be held 17-23 October 2016, aimed at improving people’s map-reading skills. The OS cites evidence that a surprising number of people in the U.K. do poorly at maps and geography:
People were asked to plot various locations, from cities to National Parks on an outline map of Britain and we were pretty surprised at the results. Some 40% of people struggled to pinpoint London and only 14% could accurately plot Edinburgh’s location. […]
Even more worrying to us, just 40% of those surveyed felt they could confidently read a map with 10% never having used a paper map.
Now, map literacy and geographical knowledge aren’t the same thing: you can know how to read a map without being any good at placing something on a blank map (at least in theory). Either way, the Ordnance Survey will be producing guides and hosting workshops during the week in question. (In the meantime, they point to these map reading guides.)
As a major publisher of maps, it’s in their interest to do this sort of thing—a map-reading public is a map-buying public, after all—but increasing map literacy is an unquestionably good thing.
BuzzFeed’s Jim Waterson calls out a map making the social media rounds that purports to show the results of the 2016 local elections in the U.K. Only it doesn’t. It’s apparently being spread by Labour supporters keen to defend their party’s performance in the elections and convinced their party is receiving unfair media treatment—and of course, people tend to believe what they want to believe. Waterson goes on to show how to make a fake map of your very own. [Thierry Gregorius]
Previously: When Maps Lie.
Writing in Nature, Roger McKinlay notes the complexity, infrastructure requirements (i.e., cost) and limitations of modern navigation technology and argues that people “should make better use of our innate capabilities. Machines know where they are, not the best way to get to a destination; it might be more reliable to employ a human driver than to program an autonomous car to avert crashes. If we do not cherish them, our natural navigation abilities will deteriorate as we rely ever more on smart devices.” [via]
Andrew Wiseman’s “When Maps Lie” was posted on CityLab last year, but its importance is evergreen: it’s about map literacy, and how to avoid being fooled by confusing, misleading or simply bad maps. This is very much what Mark Monmonier did in How to Lie with Maps (see my review; Amazon, iBooks); Wiseman updates it for the social media age.
Maps are big these days. Blogs and news sites (including this one) frequently post maps and those maps often go viral—40 maps that explain the world, the favorite TV shows of each U.S. state, and so on. They’re all over Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, and news organizations are understandably capitalizing on the power that maps clearly have in digital space: they can visualize a lot of data quickly and effectively. But they can also visualize a lot of data inaccurately and misleadingly.
It’s a must-read. [via]
“While many skills have become obsolete in the digital age, map reading remains an important tool for building children’s spatial reasoning skills and helping them make sense of our world,” writes Deborah Farmer Kris on the PBS Parents website. [via]