The Next Page: The map is back!

On the occasion of Simon Garfield's splendid new book 'On the Map,' Christopher Briem celebrates the growing appreciation for geography (though no matter how good maps get, 'reality still has a complexity of its own')

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Geography today channels Mark Twain, who famously opined that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. More than 65 years ago, geology professor Marland P. Billings argued for the closing of Harvard's geography department, which the university did in 1948, a policy that would be emulated by many other academic institutions over subsequent decades. The demise of the university's geography program would be eulogized in the student-run Harvard Crimson newspaper in an unsigned 1948 editorial titled: "Geography: Off the Map."

Since then, there has been an unmitigated resurgence in all things spatial. Simon Garfield's book "On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks," just published by Gotham Books, is only one of the data points proving that geography is again "on the map."

The evolution of computer based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is one factor that has given geography a newly ubiquitous presence. GIS coupled with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and ever more miniaturized computers all now come together in the smartphone. Maps now pervade our daily routine more than we realize. Could it be that a greater proportion of the world's population are daily map users than ever before?

It is inevitable that this explosion of digital geography will create a new generation of cartophiles. Simon Garfield proves himself not only a lover of maps, his book may create a few more along the way.

Everyone will learn something new from Mr. Garfield. I thought I knew a significant amount of cartographic history. It was an illusion I renounced long before I finished reading.

Yes, I knew that America was named for Amerigo Vespucci. Until the back story was explained in one chapter, I didn't realize that the actual naming was likely the responsibility of German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller who assigned the label America to the "new" continent in a 1507 map, and, more interestingly, effectively retracted the honor in subsequent work. Within the same pages is a summary history of the nearly perfect grid of the Manhattan street map (Pittsburgh's antithesis), the use of galactic maps in the earliest computer game, a summary history of Google Maps and even an explanation of the neologism "me-mapping."

Mr. Garfield's book is not really about maps at all, nor even cartography in itself. Instead it tells a multitude of stories about how humans interact with spatial data. It is an unprece- dented cornucopia of how maps have been constructed, presented and used throughout history.

It is also not a treatise in any comprehensive sense, but more a voyage unto itself, a veritable smorgasbord of snippets of the uses, and more than occasional misuses, of maps from antiquity to today. It is an appropriate treatment since what are maps in the end if not enablers of our travels and the voyages that would be impossible without them? More akin to a collection of short stories, Mr. Garfield's is a warehouse of fodder for our inner cartographer.

It is difficult to conceive of any one geography text containing so many individual stories about maps as Mr. Garfield has collected. In truth, the stories are only loosely connected, or connected in a stream of consciousness that meanders far and wide. Those who follow the path will certainly learn something new.

"On the Map" is not the only recent ode to the power of maps. In 2011, "Jeopardy!" champ Ken Jennings had a bestseller with "Maphead," his expert description of the "Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks." Last year, both Robert Kaplan's "The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate" and an updated edition of Harm de Blij's "Why Geography Matters" also covered similar, if distinct, ground. Mr. Kaplan's more sobering anthology connects maps to the recurring realpolitik of world history, while Mr. de Blij updates his essential virtual reference on the subject of geography. Together the new literature of geography is only beginning to follow the vast expansion of the uses of spatial data virtually everywhere.

• • •

It is difficult to overstate the importance of maps in the world today.

We rely on the latest mapping technology for everything from the delivery of our latest online purchases to the timely arrival of police, fire and EMS services when we are in duress. Google Earth gives many a new form of obsession, but it also brings the detail of the world closer to each of us than ever before.

Maps have even taken on new roles embedded in the nation's economy. Only recently was the stunted beginning of Apple's mapping service the cause of a rare hiccup in the corporation's otherwise uninterrupted appreciation in market capitalization.

Mr. Garfield covers all this and the map competition between technology behemoths, missing only the most recent developments, which must have come just after the manuscript went to print. Virtually all firms are seeking ways to better manipulate geospatial data with the goal of improving bottom lines. Similarly, governments and nonprofits, large and small, are looking to better maps to improve service delivery and outcomes. What was once cutting edge is quickly becoming mainstream, and those who do not keep up will be at a disadvantage.

Maps have always been more than graphic images. Maps define us; or is it that we define maps? How long has our current taxonomy of Red State vs. Blue State been part of our political vernacular? Some may think forever when in fact it is a fairly recent modernism -- the singular result of the taxonomy of color used by most media outlets to map the results of the 2000 presidential election. In previous election cycles, political maps were as likely to reverse the colors. Maps can be as frivolous as the depiction of regional linguistic semantics of pop vs. soda, to the more dire spatial maps of crime in our neighborhoods.

Both the maps we use ourselves and the neogeography that follows us about in daily lives is ever more transformative. Our car-mounted GPS units, which is now old technology, and our smartphones use precise knowledge of our location every millisecond. And all of these data feeds are being used in ever newer ways, sometimes in ways we are not even aware of. Recently the Wall Street Journal documented how different prices were offered to different online buyers of identical products. The prices were based on the location of consumers -- spatial information that our computers readily provide to sellers.

What Mr. Garfield does is bring together the masses of today's geography-inundated public with what is actually one of the oldest disciplines. The connections are everywhere. Those of us engaged with mapping the micro-changes going on within Pittsburgh will learn that similar efforts in urban mapping extend back at least to 1593, when one John Norden published "A Guide for Cuntry Men in the Great Cittey of London, by the helpe of wich plot they shall be able to know how farr it is to any street. As also to go unto the same, without forder troble."

Oh, if only it was always possible to avoid "forder troble."

Or take the map projections used by default in hyper-modern Google Maps today? They are those of Gerhard Mercator, whose career was defined by the revolutionary maps he drew -- in the 16th century!

Mr. Garfield's book serves an immense need, connecting the latest geocacher with both the ancient art and modern science of the cartographer. Each may benefit from learning how the other approaches maps. Mr. Garfield uniquely provides that bridge.

• • •

As far as maps have come, they have much further to go.

The merging of spatial data with the vast warehouses of other data being collected is finding new applications unimagined until now. The fusion of geospatial and other information may be as disruptive a technology as any that came before. Already new mashups presenting spatial data in new ways show up daily across the Internet. Much of the population now uses maps. Soon the power to produce maps will be as widely shared as the ability to employ spreadsheets, or even word processing. Then the crowdsourced applications that follow will take maps to an entirely new level.

As clear as lines on a map may appear, in either ink or electronic form, reality still has a complexity of its own. Mr. Garfield relates a story easily understood by any Pittsburgh driver, or cursed by more than a few recent Pittsburgh visitors, of the Swiss driver who follows the directions of his GPS unit up a narrow mountain goat track. Unable to turn around, the driver eventually needed to be rescued by helicopter.

Only lacking in the book is a required reference to Ernie Pyle's famous assertion that the street plan for Pittsburgh must have been "laid out by a mountain goat" (see the sidebar below).

Computers can now beat the top masters at chess, but they have a few more years to go before they can navigate over Billy Budd Hill or avoid any of the Pittsburgh steps. Pittsburgh's topography still proves too much of a challenge for the latest in artificial intelligence on the most advanced of GPS units. For now.

Christopher Briem (, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research (, is a longtime map freak.


The ever-useful "Tools & Research" page on the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's website ( contains the following snippet from journalist Ernie Pyle in its Pittsburgh section. First published in Pyle's Scripps-Howard newspaper column in April 1937, it can be found in "Ernie's America: The Best of Ernie Pyle's 1930s Travel Dispatches."

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh is undoubtedly the cockeyedest city in the United States. Physically, it is absolutely irrational. It must have been laid out by a mountain goat.

It is the only city in this country in which I can't find my way around, the only one of which I can't get a mental bird's-eye picture. I've flown over it, and driven all around it, and studied maps of it, and I hardly know one end of Pittsburgh from the other. It's worse than irregular -- it's chaotic.

There's just one balm -- people who live here can't find their way around, either. One friend of mine who was born and raised here says she could drive to almost anyplace in the city but probably couldn't find the shortest way.

Another friend of mine has lived here six years, and all he has ever figured out is how to get from his house to Downtown. Every time he gets off this path he is lost, and although he has asked hundreds of people how to get somewhere, nobody ever knew.

The reason for all this is the topography of Pittsburgh. It's up and down, and around and around, and in betwixt. Pittsburgh is hills, mountains, cliffs, valleys and rivers. Some streets are narrow; some are wide. None runs more than a few blocks in a straight line.

You may have a friend who lives half a mile away. But to get there you circle three miles around a mountain ridge, cross two bridges, go through a tunnel, follow a valley, skirt the edge of a cliff, and wind up at your friend's back door an hour after dark.

books - opinion_commentary - intelligencer


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?