The Cartographer’s Illusion

map of California as an islandIn November I had the pleasure of attending Mapping and It’s Discontents, a symposium put on by the UC Berkeley Global Urban Humanities Initiative and hosted by the David Brower Center. The speakers covered everything from the history of mapping to the innovative developments brought on by our digital age, including big-data demographic applications and quirky artistic renderings. The attendees were quite diverse. Their map creations can found at the See-Through Maps Exhibit and Attendee Maps. Video of the symposium can be found online here. For those intrigued by maps, the above links are well worth visiting.

During the event, I was often reminded of a young man I met decades ago while traveling through the Nusa Tengara archipelago of Indonesia. I wrote about him in “A Vagabond World,” my book on world travel. While negotiating the city of Kupang, West Timor with a tourist map, I consulted the teenager after I became lost on a side street. He did not speak English and I spoke only basic Bhasa Indonesian. He took my green tourist map, turned it this way and that, and finally returned it to me with a shrug. I realized he had never seen a map.

Before then, it had never occurred to me that the map is the purview of an educated class. It is a human construct of a physical space, which effectively (and often unquestioned) dictates the meaning of a landscape. The cartographer’s illusion. The tourist bureau that issued my map of Kupang had one view of the city; city engineers, undoubtedly, had quite another.

To this day, when I think of Kupang, I imagine that friendly green map, despite the unforgettable smell of the open sewers. In my mind it became the city’s logo – in the same way that a map of the lower 48 says “United States.” Each map, designed for a different purpose, creates a different image and feeling in our mind, and deeply influences how we both perceive and engage with a physical space. And while exploring without a map encourages an intimate understanding of a landscape, a well-engineered map establishes a dialogue within the community.

In the case to the Keystone XL, where neither TransCanada nor the Department of State will provide a map, we are placed in the same position as that young man from the Third World: we turn the simplistic company map this way and that, and unable to make sense of it, abandon it altogether.

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