The Map That Wrote Itself
In December 2010, Facebook released a new map of the world that was as astonishing as it was beautiful. It was both instantly recognizable — the standard projection produced by Gerard Mercator in the sixteenth century — and yet curiously unfamiliar. It was a luminescent blue, with gauzy lines spread over the map like silk webs. What was odd about it? China and Asia were hardly there, while East Africa seemed to be submerged. And some countries weren't quite in the right place. For this wasn't a map of the world with Facebook membership overlayed, but a map generated by Facebook connections. It was a map of the world made by 500 million cartographers all at once.
Using the company's central data on its members, an intern called Paul Butler had taken their latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates and linked these to the coordinates of the places where they had connections. "Each line might represent a friendship made while traveling, a family member abroad, or an old college friend pulled away by the various forces of life," Butler explained on his blog. Facebook had about 500 million members at that time, so he anticipated a bit of a mess, a crowded mesh of wires (like the back of those early computers) that would culminate in a central blob. Instead, Butler recalled, "After a few minutes of rendering, the new plot appeared, and I was a bit taken aback. The blob had turned into a detailed map of the world. Not only were continents visible, certain international borders were apparent as well. What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn't represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships."
It was the perfect embodiment of something Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg had told me when I interviewed him the year before Butler created that map. "The idea isn't that Facebook is one new community," he had said, "but it's mapping out all the different communities that exist in the world already."
The digital revolution — so neatly encapsulated by that Facebook map — has transformed mapping more than all the other innovations of cartography's centuries. With our phone maps in our hands and Google Earth on our computers, it is increasingly difficult to recall how we managed without them. I seem to recall we used to buy maps that folded, or maps that once folded when they were new and then never again. Or that we used to pull down shoulder-dislocating atlases from shelves and thumb through their indices, and perhaps wonder at how many Springfields there were in the United States.
That these simple pleasures are becoming distant memories is no small change. For physical maps have been a vital part of our world since we first began finding our way to food and shelter on the African plains as hunter-gatherers. Indeed, Richard Dawkins speculates that the very first maps came about when a tracker, accustomed to following trails, laid out a map in the dust; and a recent finding by Spanish archeologists identified a map of sorts scratched on a stone by cave dwellers around fourteen thousand years ago. Dawkins goes on to speculate as to whether the creation of maps — with their concepts of scale and space — may even have kick-started the expansion and development of the human brain.
In other words, maps hold a clue to what makes us human. Certainly, they relate and realign our history. They reflect our best and worst attributes — discovery and curiosity, conflict and destruction — and they chart our transitions of power. Even as individuals, we seem to have a need to plot a path and track our progress, to imagine possibilities of exploration and escape. The language of maps is integral to our lives, too. We have achieved something if we have put ourselves (or our town) on the map. The organized among us have things neatly mapped out. We need compass points or we lose our bearings. We orient ourselves (for on old maps east was at the top). We give someone a degree of latitude to roam.
Maps fascinate us because they tell stories. The ones in this book tell how maps came about, who drew them, what they were thinking and how we use them. Like any map, of course, the selection is highly selective, for a book about maps is effectively a book about the progress of the world: sturdier ships in the fifteenth century, triangulation in the late sixteenth century, the fixing of longitude in the eighteenth, flights and aerial observation in the twentieth century. And then, in this century, the Internet and GPS — and perhaps, through them, a second reshaping of our own spatial abilities.
For the Internet has effected an extraordinary and significant change. Before astronomers faced the gallows for suggesting otherwise, our earth stood firmly at the center of the cosmos; not so long ago, we placed Jerusalem at the center of our maps; or if we lived in China, Youzhou. Later, it might be Britain or France, at the heart of their empires. But now we each stand, individually, at the center of our own map worlds. On our computers, phones and cars, we plot a route not from A to B but from ourselves ("Allow current location") to anywhere of our choosing; every distance is measured from where we stand, and as we travel we are ourselves mapped, voluntarily or otherwise.
Earlier this year, a friend of mine noticed an odd thing on his Blackberry. He was walking in the Italian Alps and wanted to check out contours and elevations. When he turned on his phone his Transport for London bicycle app was open: a handy tool where you put in a London location and it tells you how many bikes are available at each docking station. It was less useful in Italy, or so he thought. But, in fact, the app was still working and the map over which Transport for London had overlaid its bicycle info actually covered the entire world. The bikes were only the start of it. It could plot a route to Ravello, Cape Town or Auckland. Wherever he went, my friend was the map, the pivot around which the world diligently spun. And the app was no doubt tracking him, too, so that someone knew which Italian mountain he was on, as well as who was riding the bike he had docked the day before.
How on earth did we get to this point? This book is intended as an answer to that question, but it could also be viewed as a journey around an exhibition. It is by necessity an imaginary show, for it contains things that would be impossible to gather in one place: long-destroyed impressions of the world from Ancient Greece, famous treasures from the world's universities, some jaw-dropping pieces from the British Library and the Library of Congress, rare items from Germany, Venice and California. There will be manuscripts, sea charts, atlases, screen grabs and phone apps. Some exhibits are more important than others, and some are just displayed for amusement. The range will be extensive: poverty and wealth maps, film maps and treasure maps, maps with a penchant for octopuses, maps of Africa, Antarctica and places that never were. Some of the maps will explain the shape of the world, while others will focus on a street or on the path of a plane as it flies to Casablanca.
We'll need a lot of space for our guides: boastful dealers, finicky surveyors, guesswork philosophers, profligate collectors, unreliable navigators, whistling ramblers, inexperienced globe-makers, nervous curators, hot neuroscientists and lusting conquistadors. Some of them will be familiar names — Claudius Ptolemy, Marco Polo, Winston Churchill, Indiana Jones — and some will be less well known: a Venetian monk, a New York dealer, a London brain mapper, a Dutch entrepreneur, an African tribal leader.
You hold in your hand the catalogue to this show, and it begins in a library on the coast of Egypt.
From On The Map by Simon Garfield. Copyright 2012 by Simon Garfield. Excerpted by permission of Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.