Autumn 2006

Getting lost on the critical path

Else/where: Mapping - New Cartographies of Networks and Territories

Edited by Janet Abrams and Peter Hall
University of Minnesota Design Institute. USD49.95

If you buy this book – and you should – turn first to Ole Bouman’s short essay on the role of mapping in a period of history in which fixed geographies are being overwhelmed by flows of people, materials, information and processes. Bouman provides two important signposts for the unwary reader: that ‘designers who aspire to remain forceful actors . . . simply cannot ignore the new representations of reality’; and that (here be dragons) ‘sometimes, with today’s dynamic maps, you can end up thinking that you can understand everything without being able to change anything.’

Comprehensiveness is not always a virtue in a map or, for that matter, in a book, and Bouman’s sentiments are worth toting around this broad survey of ‘new cartographies of networks and territories’. There is lots of evidence within the book that mapping, defined here loosely as ‘gathering and arraying data in visual form’, is a powerful means of coming to a collective understanding of reality, but there is as much that demonstrates its potential flaws.

The limitations of visual representation (or, rather, of mapmakers) become apparent in the sections on networks and conversations, which illustrate attempts to plot and make sense of global political and economic networks, the transit of data across the internet, or the tone, topic and flow of social interactions mediated by technology. Else/where: Mapping reveals that, whereas the abstractions we use to represent relationships, dimensions and properties in the physical world are universally understood and ingrained in our consciousness, the visual language of intangible landscapes is immature. The claims that Brian Holmes makes for Bureau d’études’ maps of world governance and networks of influence, for example, are exaggerated. ‘The effect,’ he says, ‘is one of arresting detail, compelling the eye to a seemingly endless iteration of links. But if you draw back, this extraordinarily complex map reveals rounded, almost cosmological forms, small enough to be seen in a single gaze.’ And yet this is a badly designed map.

No matter how much well researched data the Map of World Government contains within its frame, its narrative is unclear, the scale wrong, the detail obscured by arcane pictograms and its visual intensity diminished by over-reliance on text. It leaves its reader powerless. As in quite a few of the maps of networks and conversations here, the mapmaker has allowed the urge to map everything to suffocate the delivery of meaning. Not really a map, this creation lives far down the continuum that stretches from map, via diagram, to mere list of things, because it fails to exploit the power of visual representation to make a direct connection between the data and the brain.

A good map does more than say ‘these are all the things that are here’; it enables its reader to plot a critical path or course of action; it scales effortlessly between landscape and detail as the diagrammatic representation and the object fold directly into each other. A fine example of a map of a logical landscape is Smartmoney’s Map of the Market, which uses area to signify the size of market capitalisation, and different intensities of red and green to signify sector and stock performance. The map gives an instant visual cue to the location, intensity and significance of events and scales through into detailed information on individual stocks. It tells a simple but ever-changing story well and it doesn’t try to tell too much. This is a well designed map.

Bouman and the editors of Else/where: Mapping point to mapping as a process or technique that has become a critical part of the act of designing. They also demonstrate that the designer has a central role in contemporary mapmaking, with or without the cartographer. This opportunity arises out of the limitations of words in coping with the strangeness, complexity and flux of modern life. As a means of establishing context and direction within unfamiliar frameworks of communication, commerce and knowledge, pictorial visualisation extends the territory of design.

We see this clearly in Ben Fry’s interactive visualisations of the human genome, which, although quite incomprehensible to any layperson, have enabled geneticists to communicate effectively through a common visual language. ‘Fry’s interactive visualisations – which allow data comparisons from multiple viewpoints – have already proved incredibly useful in helping to digest the data. These kinds of visual representations become “memes” – cultural units that spread very rapidly when they click for people,’ says geneticist Eric Lander. ‘There’s just no substitute for visualising data: you see patterns . . . that you won’t be aware of in any other way.’

This is one of two sides of the story of new cartographies. Here, mapping is a means of observation, analysis and synthesis of ideas that draws on different practices including design, architecture and engineering. The product is either a part of the design and prototyping process or an end in itself.

The other side of the story is at least as powerful, a dramatic and unfolding revolution in mapping technology driven by geographic information systems, satellite positioning, the internet, mobile phones and radio frequency identification devices (rfid). These tools create the potential to map and trace almost any human or artefact, material or digital, in real time, no matter how fleeting or mobile its existence, as well as to provide any kind of supplementary data to describe its properties. The survey tool, the database, the map, its maker and its reader have converged into a single point of reverberating and resonant information. Suddenly there is a concentration of power and value in the map that might equal that which it possessed in the Middle Ages, when a good map was a source of strategic military and economic advantage and the preserve of kings.

The second story is big and new and is touched on in Else/where: Mapping (by Steve Dietz, for one) but it is one of many storylines in this ambitious book. Being a story of convergence, it fits awkwardly with the separation of the book into sections on networks, conversations and territories. This structure is curious and contributes to the feeling that the book lacks a coherent thread – its own ‘critical path’. For if, as the editors’ introduction states, ‘mapping is the conceptual glue linking the tangible world of buildings, cities and landscapes with the intangible world of social networks and electronic communications,’ why have these been separated out again in the ordering of the chapters? It is very possible that purpose rather than subject would have been a better ordering principle. Once again, Bouman explains why: ‘There is a sense in which every design – whether it is called a masterplan, a blueprint or a floor plan – is a map. Now that the ordering of man and matter has become part of the movement of patterns of information, knowledge and capital, architects must change their maps to conform to the new reality.’

Else/where: Mapping contains a fascinating collection of new kinds of maps of new realities and lots of ideas about mapmaking. It is where all of the interesting stuff is, but with no centre or cohesion. Tucked away within its pages is the germ of a critical discourse on mapping that is driven from the point of view of design rather than cartography, but the images are detached from ideas and it is hard to pick out arguments in a densely layered collage of polemic, instruction, reportage, interviews and conversations. The design follows the same additive philosophy and is by turns intrusive and vague, ostentatiously layering the impedimenta of academic publishing across the page but denying the reader legibility or orientation (Where are the urls? Who are the contributors?), or, despite the wonderful front and end matter pictures by Laura Kurgan and Jeremy Wood, any real sense of space or pace and drama. Else/where: Mapping feels like an unformed beginning to something that might be important but couldn’t quite make up its mind whether it wanted to be a book or a website or the conference that would have enabled its participants to draw in the datum line. Our guess is it will end up as all three.

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