In the age of Google Maps, the term “cartographer” can sound outdated. Not only do we know what our planet looks like (hello “Blue Marble”), but we have also optimized how to go from here to there without ever really knowing where we are exactly.
Even so, our own coordinates have always fascinated us, as evidenced by Phaidon’s new book MAP. From the political (“Palestine Index to Villages and Settlements, Showing Jewish-Owned Land”) to the otherworldly (“Table of Asterisms,” a Hindu astrological chart), from the ancient (the Mesopotamian “Plan of Nippur” from c. 1500 BC) to the contemporary (the 2015 “Velib Docking Stations Map” that displays data about London’s bike-share scheme), the selections in the book reveal the infinite forms that maps can take, the diversity of information and perspectives they can convey, and their essential role in understanding our world.
Travel + Leisure spoke with John Hessler, a contributing editor for MAP as well as the Specialist in Modern Cartography and Geographic Information Science at the Library of Congress. We discussed about the vibrancy of the map-making business, the exciting new developments in his field, and the challenges he faces even in the information age.
How did the book come about?
The book was the brainchild of Phaidon. Phaidon approached a group of about 10 experts from various fields with 500 maps and asked us to cull the list down to the most important and interesting. I was a consulting editor. In these discussions, a basic question constantly came up—what is the definition of a map? Are artists’ maps really maps, or are they pieces of art? Cartography is on the line between design, science and art. We attempted to include a diverse group of maps. We wanted to arrange them not thematically or chronologically, which has been done so many times before. We agreed on a format of one map per page so that two maps always face each other. The two maps are in dialogue. Some of the pairings are obvious. Some are somewhat vague and ask the reader to consider the commonalities and contrasts.
Do you have any personal favorites of the included maps?
I’m a modern cartographer. I’ve written a lot on historical cartography. Right now, we’re going through a golden age of cartography. We have all these tools—geosimulation, big data, computers—which come to bear on our problems.
What’s especially new and exciting to me is the pairing between “Visualizing Facebook Friends” and “Mapping the Brain” by the Human Connectome Project. These maps get to the social network world and the network in our brain. The brain map was very special, and it was a matter of much discussion between myself and the editors. Was it really a map? We finally decided it was. The Facebook map tells us something about our current world. You see no base map or piece of cartography underneath. When you look at it, you’re only seeing connections between Facebook friends. It looks like you’re seeing the entire world but some parts are missing. China, Russia, and Sub-Saharan Africa are totally neglected. You begin to see how Internet freedom is displayed, and economic issues come into play. I’m also very attracted to artists’ maps and maps that have particular design. Ai Wei Wei and Maya Lin’s contributions are both very compelling.
Speaking of artists’ maps, there are many examples in the book of artists who have reinterpreted the form in their work. What do you think attracts them to the concept of maps?
When you look at the variety of artists who have used maps in their works, from Maya Lin to Jasper Johns to Ai Wei Wei, you begin to see how cartography, although limitless in its ability to convey, has formal models and limits that one must use. In Japer Johns, the form [an altered map of the United States] is very particular. When you look at the map of China by Ai Wei Wei or Maya Lin’s Blue Pass Lake, you see spaces they chose to represent that are very important in their lives.
We all move around. We’re all affected by space. Artists see cartography as way to reduce complex experiences to formal constraints within which they can express themselves. You can compare it to painting—it’s artists seeking to express complex feelings in a simpler medium.
You travel a lot. Where in the world have you been that you’ve found most difficult to describe using a map or any visual representation?
Most cartographers travel. You have to have a view of the world. You want to see it up close. We have cartographic minds, looking at new places and wondering how we can represent them. How can you reduce a place to a 2-D visualization or surface that people can understand? My most challenging project right now is mapping the glaciers in the Alps. They’re difficult to see from satellite imagery. There are very steep areas and cliffs that are impossible to map from space. You have to get on the ground and map the space. The temporal dimension is also difficult. The glaciers change quickly. It’s difficult to map things that aren’t static. Take epidemics, the movements of Syrian refugees and the crisis in Europe, or global warming changes. Things are changing so rapidly. Once you make some representation, it’s already obsolete.
You teach a class that calls the mapping of the brain “cartography’s final frontier.” Can you explain why you feel this way, and if there are any other developments you see on the horizon for cartography?
It’s the final frontier because it’s the ultimate mapping project. There’s nothing that cartographers or people interested in mapping have done that’s been as complex. We’re a long, long way from understanding the special structure of the brain and how it operates. We’re using the best technology we have, but it’s not enough. The rest of the planet has been mapped using GPS and satellite to extreme accuracy. What’s left now is mapping how humans act in space. The social network. Tracing the Ebola epidemic. Mapping using time as a dimension. Yet none of these have complexity of mapping the human brain. It’s a difficult process.
Technologies are improving. We have a process called diffusion MRI. We’re trying a remote sensing of our consciousness. Just think about the sheer complexity of the billions of neurons in brain. We’re trying to get a resolution. One of the difficulties in originally mapping the surface of earth and terrestrial bodies was finding adequate technologies. Now we can get extreme accuracy. We just don’t have technology at the neuron, fiber level right now to do the same for the brain. At the moment, we’re mapping pathways. In the same way that when satellites are focused they give us information about our environment, the mapping of brain is shows us how we operate. Think back to the Internet—mapping it when it was new was impossible. No one understood it. Once technology grew, we got a better handle on how it operates and grows.
The mapping of the brain has a lot in common with social network mapping or the mapping of people’s cell phone connections. Maps today aren’t concerning themselves with distance but with connection. You can get to a Facebook friend in the speed of light. The idea of distance has evaporated. In its place are concepts of network and connection. That’s what cartographers are more interested in now.