Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Where We Are

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Where We Are

Article excerpt

ON THE MAP: A MIND-EXPANDING EXPLORATION OF THE WAY THE WORLD LOOKS

By Simon Garfield

Gotham

464 pp. $27.50

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OUR INFORMATION AGE IS ALSO AN AGE of location. It seems that every day the news media reveal a new exploit made possible by geolocation systems, whether a dramatic snow rescue or a precision bombing. A recent expose by the German Green Party politician Malte Spitz showed that his phone provider, Deutsche Telekom, was not only able to track his location minute to minute, but was doing so systematically. It was not only able to identify him, store his information, and make it available for analysis--it was doing all of this as a matter of course. Deutsche Telekom was following him automatically on the principle that the personally identifiable information might somehow be useful. The German weekly newspaper Die Zeit assembled data released under court order and put it online as an interactive map showing Spitz's movements in astonishingly fine detail.

To understand the world we now live in, we need to understand maps. So when a journalist with the dexterity and breadth of Simon Garfield takes on the long history of maps, it is happy news. We are, as Garfield puts it, "on the map," whether we like it or not. And the map we are on is new. It is simultaneously everywhere and right here, centered on us, articulating itself in every direction from our current position ("me-mapping," to use Garfield's phrase). With GPS in our cars and Google Earth on our phones, we consult maps more often than ever before. In some ways, this cartographic explosion is opening up our ways of seeing; in others, it is inuring us to the processes by which maps are created and to the structures they impose. Technology allows us to feel that we choose our geographies, but we can't really do so unless we have some understanding of which projections we are using, how we got them, and what alternatives we might consider.

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On the Map wears its substance lightly. It tells a big story, but it is also an omnibus of little stories from the history of cartography, composed of short chapters on key artifacts--such as the 1507 Waldseemuller Map, the first to employ the name "America"--and curious examples--for instance, an 1812 electoral map from which we got the term "gerrymander," a portmanteau of "Gerry," from the name of the Massachusetts governor at the time, Elbridge Gerry, and "salamander," for the shape of the new districts crafted by Gerry's allies in the state senate.

If you love cartography, it won't take any work to convince you of the virtues of On the Map. More likely, you'll be foisting it on friends who are not yet cartophiles, since Garfield has the goods to lure them into the fold. He presents his work as another in the popular object-that-changed-the-world genre, of which his own Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World is a fine example. But that characterization isn't quite right, since there's no single object at the heart of the book, but rather a vocabulary for seeing. On the Map, like Garfield's recent book Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, is good for dipping into, but it also merits being read cover to cover.

From Ptolemy to Mercator to the satellite navigation provider TomTom, Garfield shows how maps have both reflected and shaped ways of understanding the world. …

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