How We Communicate Geography

With maps, of course.

So, just what is a map? And why is it important in understanding geography?

Maps are visual representation of what we see around us. They show spatial relationships between things (transportation corridors, destinations, physical features on the landscape, etc) and, more importantly, maps show the connections between all these things.

Why should you care?

Maps have never been as widely used as they are today.

Seriously.

Maps are being used in just about every niche and function you can imagine.

Taking a trip on a bus?
Map on subway in downtown Santiago, Chile
Map on subway in downtown Santiago, Chile

Your city has probably installed map panels at popular junctions or on the bus itself.

Playing a video game?
From www.thesixthasix.com
From www.thesixthasix.com

There’s probably a map included to help guide you through the game. See that tiny map to the right of Spiderman? Can’t be flying through the streets unless you know where you are at and where you are going!

Trying to find that great, new restaurant?

header-androidYour phone has a map application that will get you there in just a few screen taps.

You use maps to navigate through your life. Don’t you think it might be important to know a bit more about them?

History of Maps

You might be shocked to find out that maps as we know them today are a relatively new thing to humans. Prior to the late 1200s, maps were…well, they were all over the map. Depictions of the world around us varied widely and you probably wouldn’t have recognized them as maps (nor were they called that).

T-O or Mappa mundi map. From www.eaudrey.com.

Proper land surveying techniques were developed independently in many regions of the world and the maps that resulted from those efforts are definitely recognizable. However, like most information, maps were often hoarded by the educated and powerful. Accurate spatial information meant knowing where resources were and how to transport them, and it meant knowing where your enemies lived and how to access them. Keeping that information secret determined who ruled the land.

It wasn’t until the Europe’s Age of Discovery, and the invention of the printing press, that maps became more common place and standardization in visual representations were adopted.

Snapshot of a standard DeLorme street map.
Snapshot of a standard DeLorme street map.

Today, with the proliferation of the internet and smartphones with map applications, accurate spatial information is literally at our fingertips and comes in forms we might not be expecting.

Click on map for an interactive experience!
Click on map for an interactive experience!

Maps of the Future

Many of us (okay, only me) still like physical maps printed on paper with ingenious folds. We spread them out on the kitchen table and pore over the details, learning interesting names for physical features or realizing how close that creek is to our own backyard.

But more and more people today are using a different kind of map. With smartphone and other mobile devices, we now have the entire world in the palm of our hands.

Just who knows what the future holds for maps? Maybe one day we’ll all just insert a map-chip into our brains and know where everything is (even ourselves – yikes, getting a bit “big brotherish”, eh?). Or maybe you’ll just create custom maps based on the places you go every day.

There’s no way for me to predict the future of maps because the field is wide open to innovation. It always has been and will continue to be so in the future. What I do know is that maps will stay with us for the long haul because they link us to the world.

Will the map become the place?

Read/listen to Del rigor en la ciencia by Jorge Lius Borges. English version here: On Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges.