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April 22, 2004

Betsy Reese (Map Curator, Collier Science Library)
"The Secret Life of Maps"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Betsy asked us to consider several questions:

  • Do cartographic maps serve various political, social and economic interests?
  • What is represented on a map and why?
  • Do a map maker's beliefs about the world influence what is portrayed on a map?
Her own immediate answers (illustrated in a power point presentation), were that--although there are cataloguing rules for all kinds of material--we are mistaken if we think that maps which "get us where we want to go" are telling us the truth. We take their accuracy for granted, and frequently use them metaphorically in that sense (the graduation speaker, for instance, who lays out the "road map of our lives"). Betsy was here to tell us that maps
  • are selective
  • have a purpose, and
  • their quality is related to that purpose.
  • Each map is not just a reduction, but a distortion, of what it represents.
Betsy provided a number of examples, and participants added others. How much can we "trust"
  • a map of directions, scribbled for you by a stranger on the side of the road?
  • a map of D.C. that is really a disguise for an advertisement of various tourist sites?
  • a stylized subway map (which does not show the actual geographical distance between stations)?
  • a contour mapping of mountains?
  • maps that try to represent 3-dimensional surfaces in two dimensions, curved spaces in a plane?
  • a children's puzzle that identifies each state w/ a single, stereotypic characteristic?
  • the use of color to show cancer rates (based on what percentages?)
  • representations, in the brain, of parts of the body that are related to the density of sensory endings, rather than to the actual size of bodily structures?
  • Bill Crawford's map of "The Islands of Puns and Free Associations" (which has all the visual attributes of a map, but no internal correspondence between the various word plays represented)?
In sum, every map has to give up something to get the attributes it aims for. For instance, a world map can not show both shape and size accurately; the Mercator, Cylindrical and Peter's projections all have various (ultimately unsatisfactory) ways of addressing this problem. Looking at the world from one vantage point, we lose the advantages of another. (To illustrate this point, Betsy read us a poem about a dream of the "world turned upside down," ending with "It's all right. I'm still on top.") The map producer wants us to think, and each representation invites us to attend to certain aspects and neglect others. This suggests the importance of getting students to think critically about using this material, to question the correctness of their readings.

We spent some time describing to one another the various difficulties that go into making different kinds of maps. We observed that

  • it is impossible to create a map that is correct at every point (it is, for instance, possible to represent NYC as lying close to California, in terms of political alignment; this projection will, however, distort their geographical relation)
  • the development of Graphical User Interface (GUI), which turned computers from a niche tool into a general purpose tool: users no longer had to learn to speak computer language, but could negotiate a set of visual images by pointing and clicking
  • the possibility of creating "Maps of Affection," which would impose certain nodes (of information transmission? of sexual relationships?) on one another
  • maps can take the form of the sorts of "trees" used to represent web links
  • the representations used on maps draw on "things we know" (highways, for instance, are frequently used on the maps we consult; such a representation might be unreadable to someone from an area without highways)
  • no map of the earth can have a single scale, since a 3-D curved surface represented in 2-D cannot be consistent in scale throughout (scale=the relation between distances on the representation and in what is being represented)
  • you can map from any dimension to any other dimension, but however you go about creating a map, some relations will be preserved, some distorted.

We then spent a considerable amount of time trying to define what a map is,

  • starting w/ the outliers: when does a representation cease to be a map?
  • can a poem (a "compression" of an idea) be called a map?
  • a map is a representation of some location, with data on it
  • the locations on the map need to bear some "reasonable relation" to the whole being represented
  • a map is "continuously bi-focal"
  • a map always "wrecks some information" in order to represent other data
  • the notion of "mapping" in math--a function "going from one thing to another thing" is (not?) applicable here
  • distances between points on a map represent some quality of relationship, but they need not be physical or spatial distance
  • maps are a record of the pathways of linkages between nodes
  • a map is a graphical representation of relationships which will highlight some concepts and fail to represent others.

Betsy closed the conversation, as she began it, by inviting us to "stumble down into" the map room in the basement of Collier Library, where she is working with a student to catalogue (among other things) the 3-5,000 maps which Bryn Mawr receives each year as a repository for the U.S. Geographic Information System (GIS).

The last in this semester's series of conversations will be led by Paul Grobstein (member of the BMC Biology Department and Director of the Center for Science in Society) on Thursday, April 29: "Information Update: Searching for the Third Law."

Mass and energy were the primary concerns of science, and the source of its primary engagements with the larger culture, through the 19th century. Deterministic equations related to mass and energy became symbolic of this period; however, the first and second laws of thermodynamics--"laws" that constrain but do not prescribe patterns of change--may well prove to be the most significant legacy of that era.

Moving into and through the 20th century, there has been an increased interest in a variety of spheres in "information," an attribute that appears to some degree to be independent of matter and energy and that is not explicitly addressed in the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Much of the conversation in the brown bag series this semester has, directly or indirectly, reflected an ongoing broader scientific and cultural effort to make sense of "information" and situate it appropriately in relation to older understandings.

In trying to bring together a variety of threads from this semester, Paul will pick up on a paper he published in 1988 (http://serendipstudio.org/complexity/hth.html), which suggests that there "are rules and principles which govern information acquisition, transmission, and storage in whatever context it occurs," and consider progress that has (and has not) been made since then. He will argue that "information" is indeed a distinct commodity in the sense of obeying rules specific to itself, that this is consistent with a materialist posture and does not require dualism, and that a characterization of rules of information is needed not only to understand physical and biological systems but the meaning of both "information" and "meaning" as well.

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