Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Death of the Map

On Thursday my daughter returned to me the lovely AAA Maps of the cities of the Bay Area that I gave to her when she went away to college seven years ago. They were pristine. She had never opened them. “What do I need a map for?” she asked. “I have a GPS.” So I took them home and offered them to my son, who is about to leave for college, and he declined. “What do I need a map for?” he asked. “I have an iPhone.” My daughter confessed that she doesn’t even know how to read a map. It then occurred to me that I can’t remember the last time I used a map.

I am severely directionally impaired. I could get lost in a mop closet. I once spent 20 minutes trying to find the exit in an apartment building. After visiting my friend Jim at the Fantasy Building in Berkeley, I said good-bye and proceeded to get completely lost trying to find my way out (exactly the same as the way in only opposite). After wandering around in a confused funk, I mercifully turned up back in his studio. He had to accompany me to the elevator. My sense of direction is so dreadful that if Ron and I get turned around while driving and I suggest we go left, he will automatically go right since 99% of the time going in the opposite direction from my idea is the correct choice. But since the advent of Mapquest, I rarely get lost (only when I inadvertently stumble off the Mapquest). And now I have Thomasina, my trusty Tom-Tom (that Ron gave me), who speaks to me in a calming English-accented respectful voice (she never derides me for failing to make a turn). Thomasina usually steers me in the right direction, although there was the time we don’t speak of when she had me turn the wrong way down a one-way street (“take the next left then you have reached your destination”). She is usually spot-on. Between the Mapquests and Thomasina, I’m AOK. But I feel badly about the plight of the map.

It is quite astonishing to think that an entire generation no longer uses maps whatsoever; that I myself have stopped using them. Cartography is an art and a window into how humans view the world. Perhaps one day the AAA maps I have used in the past will grace the walls of a giant map museum. Or not; they aren’t anything special. According to our method of finding our way these days, I suppose we view our world as an electronic network that bridges geography, truncating distance, removing visual evidence of relationships between places, and making journey an abstract quantity.

Here is Ptolemy's Map of the World:

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