Sorry Google, I don’t like your maps. Either I’m presented with half a nation on my screen, or I’m zoomed in on just a few streets that leave me divorced from the wider urban setting. You claim pale orange shading denotes “areas of interest”, but that’s only if you find shops and hipster cafes interesting. And there’s no magic in your rigid blue lines that tell me how to get from A to B. They drag me along main roads and motorways, leaving the wiggly road less travelled entirely unexplored.
Digital mapping doesn’t spark my imagination, let alone joy. While it certainly makes navigating the world easy, it does so without any sense of achievement or satisfaction. Worse, the world’s mystery has been erased. Travel has always been about the thrill of wondering what lies around the corner, but now a tap on my phone informs me that what I’ll find is a hair salon and a Holiday Inn. These days, gadget in hand, Western Cape is no more unknown than my nearest Westfield shopping centre.
Oh for the old days, when you unfolded a paper map and felt as if adventure was being unleashed. When you flattened out the map’s creased edges and surveyed your destination like a general gazing from a hilltop, ready to conquer the world. You had to work out which roads to take from a tangle of possibilities. It was a route based on what might be attractive or interesting, not merely efficient.
You scrutinised contours and symbols to work out whether you’d be travelling over a mountain range, through a coniferous forest or past a battle site. You decided on your own areas of interest, aided by hints from some culture-friendly (and blissfully shopping-indifferent) map maker about the location of ruins, museums and buildings of historic interest.
Then off you went and, no matter how good your old-fashioned map, got hopelessly lost. Driver and map-reader would be driven to the edge of divorce. You’d navigate entire city ring roads three times before spotting the right exit. On foot, you’d stand at urban intersections peering at street names while trying to orient your map and prevent it blowing away in the wind. It was wonderful.
In pre-digital times, getting lost wasn’t something to fear. Getting lost was a given, and at times welcomed. Besides, you had only an imprecise notion of where you actually where. Map accuracy was not pinpoint but approximate. Certainly, nobody else knew where you were. In the 21st century, the exhilaration of being off grid is lost.
I miss the pleasurable state of being somewhere else, beyond contact. Today our location is precisely defined and shared with all our connections, not to mention with Cambridge Analytica. Even when we’re sitting in an airplane we’re tracked on a satellite map across the tamed surface of the planet.
No doubt I risk being dismissed as a Luddite; a medieval monk wringing his hands at the passing of illuminated manuscripts. Not so. I don’t oppose useful technologies, and rely on Google Maps as much as anyone. But I can still find paper maps – like illuminated manuscripts – objects of beauty and romance. Certainly, I’m not nostalgic for a simpler era because, when it comes to navigating, the simpler era is now.
Following a fold-out map was never simple. You got lost, you argued. A vital intersection vanished in the crease, and when you fell off the edges you were into the unknown. But map-reading was a shared experience. You studied maps with fellow travellers, you decided together where to go, you navigated as a team. If you were on you own, you opened a map on a street corner and soon someone was offering you directions.
Digital maps provide no form of shared experience. No communication is necessary, unless you feel the urge to curse at the disembodied voice that squawks from your car console while refusing to understand your instructions.
Maps are inspirational. Have today’s young travellers ever hefted an atlas and marvelled over pages filled with wonderful names? The Rwenzori Mountains, the Orinoco River, the Valley of the Kings. An atlas was one of my most precious childhood belongings, in which a finger could trace travels across entire continents via the Trans-Siberian Railway or Route 66.
Fold-out maps were equally addictive. My father kept boxes of them in a cupboard, plundered before every trip. Before we drove across Europe we would study Michelin maps and wonder how scenic the “parcours pittoresque” would be and exactly what “curiosite” a black triangle symbol indicated. British Ordnance Survey maps were extraordinary, seemingly marking every bridge, church tower and tree in the land.
Unfolding maps seem to broaden horizons while tapping on a phone seems to narrow the world down. Digital accuracy and its zoomed-in focus has trumped the imagination. You won’t see an interesting corner of your map by following your GPS. You won’t perceive the stretches to be quickly driven across, and those in which you want to linger. You’ll certainly miss scenic byways. The old-fashioned map brought a sense of venturing into the unknown.
Traditional maps are slowly vanishing. Geoscience Australia stopped printing topographic maps last December. The geological departments of many US states have done the same, although some of the world’s best maps – such as Britain’s Ordinance Survey and America’s National Geographic hiking maps – are showing signs of a rebound.
Google claims it is on a “never-ending quest for the perfect map” of the entire globe. On the plus side, it abandoned the Mercator projection in 2018 and now shows a properly proportioned three-dimensional globe, at least when you engage its global view. But maps produced by Google and Apple are far from perfect. Critics point out that digital maps are much more about where to go than how to get there, that map making has become a monetised process favouring digitally savvy hotels and restaurants.
Maps have always been biased, of course. On “world” maps, Ancient Greek cartographers put the Mediterranean at the centre; Jerusalem was the focus for medieval Christians; early Muslim cartographers placed south at the top of the page. Most current maps are imperial remnants that put Europe top and centre. In China though, East Asia is in a prominent position and the Atlantic split at either side of the map. Take a look at the world map on the United Nations flag, which shows an azimuthal polar projection, a sort of bird’s-eye view from above the north pole. Happy days, Australia is on the top right.
You might remember the Peters projection, which became prominent in the progressive, anti-colonial and socially aware 1970s. It maps the relative sizes of continents more accurately than the Mercator projection (Africa looks bigger, and North America less prominent), though at the cost of distorting shape.
Looking at maps reminds us of the mutability of cartographic conventions over time. Fold-out maps demonstrate to the thinking viewer that our ideas of the world are coloured by social and cultural expectations. Will we ever be presented with such an insightful notion again? Unlikely, because digital maps, constantly updated, provide us only with the present moment in all its purported accuracy.
Digital maps are simply dull, too. Old maps are inaccurate, but never just transmit data. They aim to convey something either about their maker or user, and are influenced by the cultures in which they were produced. They chart politics and power.
Most of all, they are beautiful. Whether you look at a medieval Mappa mundi, an old Dutch trading map or an outline of the London Underground – all are leaps of map making imagination and designed to be marvelled at, not just blindly followed.
Maps are idiosyncratic. They have personality. They recognise that humans dreamt of dragons and unknown lands. The “historical site” on a fold-out map could surprise you with a palace or a hut. What do digital maps make you dream about, except where to find your latte or take your Instagram photo? Where’s the surprise? The mystery is vanquished, and only hectoring advice remains.