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The Future of Cartography: A History Book Club Wrap-Up

In our last History Book Club meeting, the group discussed Simon Garfield’s On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks.  The book is a sort of pop-historical introduction of cartography for the layperson interested in maps, but not necessarily making a career out of it.  It is a very fascinating, and what I would think a difficult-to-write book, capturing a chronological history of cartography through a series of well-researched and whimsical chapters that will not make the reader bored.  Exhausted perhaps, but never bored. 

One of the questions posed to the book club was whether paper maps were becoming the floppy disks and VHS tapes of our current generation; in other words, informational, yet outdated.  When asked if they have used an online mapping site such as Google Maps or Mapquest and whether they own a Global Positioning System (GPS) or not, it was nearly unanimous that members of the group have used one or both of these services, despite the fact that the technologies are not perfect and a paper map is still the ol’ reliable.  It seemed that everyone had a horror story using an online mapping service, application, or a GPS and they laugh about it now.  But seriously think about it: you don’t need these services when you are just driving to work or in an area you know; you use it when you DO NOT know where you are.  This is a serious, and in some instances, horrifying situation to be in.  Granted, a road map from 60 years ago will most likely not do the trick today.  However, it is a printed, physical record in front of you that will not disappear once you are out of WIFI range. 

Unfortunately, the paper map is dwindling.  They can be expensive; much more expensive than an app.  You have to get up, go to a store and buy a map and this is SO much more inconvenient than just laying in bed and downloading a map or frantically searching through your mobile device after you have accidently passed your exit ramp that your phone told you to take over and over in that annoying voice.  And, my God, you have to fold the thing up when you are done.  That is simply too much to ask! 

The paper map will continue to be around, as society continues to publish books with the Kindle and Nook present and compact discs continued to be pressed as digital music has revolutionized the medium.  While today’s mass-published road maps may not be a beautiful thing to be treasured and kept for future generations’ enjoyment, the maps created by cartographers hundreds, even millennia ago are simply stunning pieces of art, even if California is portrayed as an island and dragons and other mythical beasts really do not live in the Pacific Ocean.  While one would not use these to navigate today, each map chronologically tells the story and advancement of cartography, exploration and scientific discovery that if not discovered then, would not provide reliable results on your iPhone app today. 

Another question posed to the group was whether cartography was dead.  After all, with the advancement of Google Maps and the explosion of the purchase and usage of GPS and satellite navigating, all of planet Earth has been mapped to the tiniest degree.  So, why do we need cartography any longer?   

While this question is a loaded one, cartography and mapping will always be needed.  It just may be that a shift might be occurring from the concept of ‘cartography’ to the newer concept of ‘mapping.’  Terrestrial maps may not change much from now on beside altering border disputes and fulfilling the political creation of new countries since most everything on Earth has been explored.  

Despite this fact, this does not mean the end of maps; just what is being mapped.  The creation of useful visual representations beyond the means of numbers and graphs provides an educational opportunity for others in fields outside of cartography to “map” their findings for a larger number of people to learn from.  In the same manner that a Spanish explorer surveyed their findings while crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the 1500s, a neurologist can begin mapping the sequence of neurons firing in the brain in a linear, map-like fashion.  Even though it is not land being mapped, today’s professionals can now map their concepts with the same results. 

With the increase and dawn of this new digital age we are living in, mapping might now only be just beginning and going in directions that Ptolemy to even 21st-century cartographers never knew were possible.  Cartographers of land now must have a new role in developing their maps: storyteller.  New and creative maps of the world must show and tell the viewer something beyond bodies of water and mountain ranges to flourish in the future.  Publications like the State of the World Atlas place a map of the world on each page, but also emphasize data on a wide variety of topics such as population density, health issues, and human rights of countries and regions, highlighted by various colors and graphs.  This information goes above and beyond what one can learn staring at a plain ol’ map of the world.  Such a collection of maps can teach the viewer a variety of topics and show what kind of lifestyles, values, and people live in each region.  Cartographers in the future will need to say more with their maps, since almost all already has been discussed and discovered.

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