Maps


We all understand that no map is the territory it portrays. Whatever the chosen projection, glaring differences remain between what can be drawn and what's being represented. Prague famously proclaims that there are no accurate maps of the place, and that getting lost is the only way to learn how to navigate the city. Their map explicitly misleads. Not to be perverse, but to help map readers better cope with the inevitable.

If only every map-maker was this thoughtful. It seems to me that every map suffers from the same shortcoming as Prague's. Whether it's a hastily-drawn scribble intended to guide someone to the neighborhood deli or some laminated intended-to-be permanent portrait of a city's streets, it's wrong, and wrong in some indefinable but none-the-less situationally significant aspect. The value of each incorrect projection ultimately depends upon the perspective of the user, not the accuracy of the map.

And there's no better perspective for any map user than the one reminding themselves that the guide they are following is wrong in some indefinable way. This to avoid over-dependence and to help each remain open to accepting the unavoidable misunderstandings encountered when following any map.

Mercator's Projection still says more about Mercator than it says about the world it projected. It extended more metaphor than accuracy, allowing relatively easy understanding and even easier misunderstanding. Bucky Fuller noted that on a sphere, there is no up and down, only over, yet we speak of North just as if it was up, and South, as if it was down, subtly classifying everyone who falls beneath us in a metaphor we created in the first place. How likely are we to catch on that our projection created the world we imagine we inhabit?

I've been reflecting on my relationship with maps as I learn to get around in a new city. Fortunately for me, my primary map is explicitly limited; it's missing significant parts of the territory I traverse. Traveling beyond the mapped area, I notice myself unplugging from my dependence on presumed predictability and relying upon my own senses and sensibilities, which prove remarkably reliable. There are no mountains here to provide permanent position for triangulation, and the sky hangs low over this pancake terrain. The sun is no reliable assistant, either. And, so far, I have no felt-sense jist of this place, making me a frequent fool to my intentions. I don't, for instance, know whether an on-ramp will be to the right or the left, so I stay in the middle until I can visually verify which, then squeeze into the proper lane, looking every bit like I'm taking cuts in line. Next time, if I remember, I'll know what my map could never disclose.

I am learning when I can depend upon my printed map and when I cannot. But there's no way that I can imagine to slip-stream this frustrating process. I am developing a relationship with this place, both hindered and helped by the kind assistance of McGraw-Hill, Google Maps, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority. I can only blame myself for the many misunderstandings, but there's really no blame to assign. I suffer from another case of the normals, hopeless-feeling at times, but not terribly serious.

I was wondering how any map-maker might more accurately represent how the street grid is actually used. There are eight-lane freeways here that have less utility than the two-lane side streets paralleling them. Where are the secret passages, the chutes in this Chutes and Ladders game? These, I realize, could never be represented on any but my own personal map. If the secret short-cuts were well known, they would provide no more respite than any eight-lane moving parking lot.

So we live and we learn, hoping to take advantage of what others have learned before us. And we will and we do learn from our living. We learn that our maps are wrong and, if we are very fortunate, that this little feature of life couldn't matter less. Yes, you'll find yourself going way out of your way at first, when your map demonstrates another limit to its reliability. You might notice yourself redrawing that part to replace line and color with cloud. Try again and maybe you'll resolve the disparity between what you expected and what you experienced. Or not. Just don't give up too soon. One or two or three or four experiences might well convince you that you cannot get there from here, but you probably can. Whether you feel stupid or smart when you finally figure out what the map-maker intended you to figure out in the first place is entirely in your hands.

Just remember, that map, that process, those instructions, even these directions are wrong in ways that no one could possibly predict beforehand. Keep trying.

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