Art & Culture

Wild About Maps

When was the last time you used a paper map? Years, probably. Or maybe never. Today, we rely on digital maps that come with built in directions and the ability to pull up streetview images of our destinations. What digital maps add in convenience and wayfinding comes with a loss of how we visualize and interact with our environment. Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of paper maps, although, like everyone else, for navigation, I use the map on my phone.

Although unwieldy on a road trip, I would argue that physical maps connect us to our landscape in a way that digital maps cannot. Even with a basic road map, spreading out a map and tracing possible routes with your finger is a very different experience from asking Google to generate the most efficient directions. There is also evidence that this shift in our relationship with maps from physical to digital may be affecting our memory. Maps act as placeholders for our direct experience, allowing us to visualize our physical place in the world. The less we use these abilities, the more diminished our mental mapping and spatial awareness may become. 

A map of the state of New York, showing the main cities, topography, highways, and boundaries.
This map of New York state shows the boundaries and topography but it is less useful for exploring the area. Ikonact, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Although we most often think of them as navigational aids, maps are simply visual representations of the world around us. A map can be as big or as small as you’d like — from a map of your bathroom to a map of the universe. Most importantly, maps are not photographs. A blend of art and science, the information that is included or left out tells a story as designed by a cartographer. 

We think of maps as definitive, as precise depictions of the world. But every mapmaker must make choices about what to include or exclude. Our digital maps are no different. Opening Google maps shows me the streets and parks of my neighbourhood along with a dozen different business listings—in this case, advertising has influenced the mapmaker’s choice of which features to include.

A map of the Toronto subway system, showing subway lines and stops.
A subway system map conveys very specific information. Craftwerker, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Maps are subjective. The scale and purpose of a map determines which features are included and the story that the mapmaker wants to tell. A road map shows how to get from point A to B while a topographic map tells us how flat or hilly the landscape is. Two maps of the same location can provide very different information and can connect us to a place in different ways. 

With subjectivity comes the ability to use maps for political purposes. A line on a map can show a boundary between neighbours or between nations. Maps can add clarity if everyone agrees on the terms being used to create them or they can exacerbate divisions when the opposite is true. In the worst cases, maps are tools of colonization, weaponized as proof to displace people from their lands. 

Perhaps the most important example of this is the doctrine of discovery and terra nullius. Western European explorers and governments used cartography to show that lands in North America, Australia, Africa and other newly “discovered” places were empty land, ready to be claimed for foreign powers. Obviously, terra nullius and the maps that supported it were deliberately designed to overlook the millennia of Indigenous occupation of these lands. Mapmakers told the story they wanted to tell and used it for political purposes. 

A map of North America showing overlapping traditional Indigenous territories.
Far from terra nullius. A map of traditional Indigenous territories in North America. Via Native Land Digital.

We think of maps as serious things and the authority that is imbued within them creates the expectation of objective accuracy. But even the most detailed map requires a mapmaker to make choices. The hand of the cartographer might be invisible, but it is still present. In addition, maps are based on data. Where data is absent or incomplete, maps will also be deficient. 

Maybe, instead of assuming objectivity, it would be better if we leaned into the subjective nature of maps more often. What does your map of your neighbourhood look like? Is it different from the perspective of your family members or neighbours? After all, the purpose of a map is to give us the ability to document and interpret a place and the features that are important to us. The understanding we gain is subjective. The most important thing is understanding the story the map is trying to tell.   

I’m not arguing that we should all return to paper maps. Sometimes, we just need directions in the most efficient way possible. But given the chance, maybe there’s an opportunity to think about maps, and how they connect us to the world, a little differently.