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A Perfect Map Of The World Will Never Exist

12 April 2015

I started reading the book on my way back from Singapore. A live map showed us where we were in real time

I started reading the book on my way back from Singapore. A map showed us where we were in real time (which is not anecdotal, as I found out after finishing its last chapter about today’s usage of maps)

I love maps, I could stand hours in front one, whether it represents my city or the entire world; whether it hangs on a wall or it twist at my fingertips on my tablet. It is quite a creative and cheap way to travel! I just finished a fascinating book: A History of the World in 12 Maps, written by a British professor, Jerry Brotton. He explains how humans have always been driven to represent the world around them, and how each of these representations is shaped by cultural, political or commercial interests. Google Earth is no exception.

If you want to see each of the 12 maps that are thoroughly described and analyzed in the book, you’ll find them on The Atlantic’s “12 Maps That Changed The World” post (you’ll also find great reviews on Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal or The Guardian). It spans dozens of centuries, starting with Ptolemy’s Geography and ending with the fantastic Google Earth – probably the closest mankind has ever gotten to represent the world on a map.

Today, Google Earth is probably the closest mankind has ever gotten to represent the world on a map

Throughout its almost 500 pages, the book describes different maps, the way they were envisioned, born, made and sometimes destroyed. For example, in chapter 9, Brotton tells the story of the Cassini Map, the first general map of the Kingdom of France, named after the Cassini family which made them between 1750 and 1815.

Click to look at the whole Cassini Maps... brilliantly visualized on Google Earth (by the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

Click to look at the whole Cassini Maps… brilliantly visualized on Google Earth (by the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

This was the first modern map of a nation, using innovating scientific surveying methods to comprehensively represent a single European country,” Brotton explains. In the chapter, the author also explains how the Cassini Maps where requisitioned by the newly formed republican institutions in 1793, years after the revolution, because it could fall into the hands of enemies and provide highly accurate information to attack France.

The Cassini family had worked on the maps for 4 generations, and they had just finished gathering all the data – the last bits coming from Brittany – before the National Convention of Republican France seized all their work. “For the staunchly royalist Jean-Dominique [Cassini], the nationalization was a political catastrophe and a personal tragedy. ‘They took it away from me’ he lamented in his memoirs.

This historical event and many other stories are told in the book, going very deep into the details of every one of the 12 maps that the title mentions. For me, there are 2 big ideas that are overarching throughout the whole book: (1) all maps are inherently subjective because their makers always have particular interests, and (2) it is not possible to represent the world on a plane surface.

There are 2 big ideas in the book: (1) all maps are inherently subjective and (2) it is impossible to represent the world on a plane map.

The closest we got to making a decent map is Google Earth – which also has a very interesting story, by the way. With the interactivity of the spatial representation and the huge amount of data that is available through this application, the people at Google created a fantastic tool to visualize the world as it is around us.

But there are some drawbacks: “For obvious commercial reasons, Google does not disclose the specific details of its code, which means that, for the first time in recorded history, a worldview is being constructed according to information which is not publicly and freely available,” Brotton explains. Without going into the book’s details, the commercial objectives of Google make its geospatial applications too subjective to be deemed as accurate and reliable representations of the world. The book doesn’t mention open source initiatives, which could be a great solution to this problem.

The commercial objectives of Google make its maps too subjective to be accurate and reliable representations of the world.

This is a very brief review of this fascinating book, which took me months to read, but which will never make me look at a map quite the same way again. But in the future, maps may not be the prime way to navigate through this world, as the rise of GPS navigation shows. Maps have always been egocentric, but with technologies like augmented and virtual reality, geospatial information will probably be more personal and local that ever, and be displayed in very different ways (than old-fashioned maps) in the years to come. Here’s an example:

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 April 2015 10:21

    I love them too. Whenever you’ve a chance to come to my office I can share some really peculiar ones. Have ever seen the “Atlas of atlases” ? ie: a world map made in Australia for example where the country is located in the center of the world… Just Amazing !

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