Things started out well this morning. My running partner, the voice in my iPhone, the one I’ve named “Rachel” knew exactly where I was and how quickly I was moving. About 2.5 kilometers in, something went very wrong. Rachel thought I was running around on her. She had the impression I was moving too quickly and was running out of control. Eventually, by the last part of my run, we both had calmed down and were able to start to tell the truth to each other.
This got me thinking about the authorship and constructed-ness of maps, and the necessity to consider them as works of fiction. They are a collection of codes and sign systems, presenting a set of rules, symbols, a framework, a language. Through selection, omission, framing, scale, orientation, naming and indexing, the author of the map presents a selective and distorted view of reality. This distortion is a key characteristic of maps. Monmonier writes “To portray meaningful relationships for a complex, three-dimensional world on a flat sheet of paper or a video screen, a map must distort reality…There’s no escape from the cartographic paradox: to present a useful and truthful picture, an accurate map must tell white lies…Because most map users willingly tolerate white lies on maps, it’s not difficult for maps also to tell more serious lies.”
So, I got home and re-drew the map, attempting to more accurately retell the narrative of my morning run. The pace and the other data seem more believable, or at least in keeping with my regular performance. However, is this more truthful? It’s still a work of fiction. With or without the itinerary, we still need to acknowledge the distortions the map presents.
Maps are a selective and incomplete view of reality. They demand a critical analysis of the powers involved in their creation, the ideologies they reflect, and the relationships they mediate. “Maps are engines that convert social energy into social space, social order, knowledge” (Denis Wood). Mapping is a social act, a commentary on and representation of the social structures it reflects and reinforces.