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can maps change the world?

Earlier this year, I took a course in History of the Book. At that time, I was thinking of books as privileged vehicles of information. Somehow, our culture of literacy in words provides a primary position to books. In the same context, it favors words as the main means of representing meaning. This feeling became more acute in the recent decades, when suddenly some prophets started to predict the apocalypse of the bookish culture and the arrival of the new Dark Age illumined only by the computer monitors.

Closer to the end of this year, I am taking a course in History and Cartography. Suddenly, I’ve started to realize that books are not holders of a monopolist status in the production of knowledge and maps are not only pictorial illustration of books. Moreover, most of the readings from this course started to address the same questions, as I’ve seen in History of the Book. For example, such questions as: What is the role of printing in the development of maps? Are maps powerful in themselves or are they powerful in the hands of some agents? How standardization affected the image and the power of maps?

Last but not least, this post was inspired by an article in Daily Mail. Written by Peter Barber, Head of Map Collections at the British Library, the article “Ten of the greatest: Maps that changed the world,” describes ten maps, which according to the author “transformed the way we view the globe forever.”

Roger Chartier in his cultural history of the French Revolution has a chapter in which he explicitly asks: “Do books make revolutions?”  While Chartier’s answer is more complex, partly it can be resumed as: “Books might not make revolutions but they change our perception of revolutions.” So, to a certain extent, both Barber and Chartier value the contribution of  maps and books to the knowledge architecture of the contemporary world.

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This week I commented on Rosendo’s architectural reconstruction.

I must acknowledge the fact that this assignment has been the most difficult but at the same time it has been the most useful, at least for me. First of all I have learned the lesson that architectural reconstruction requires the same skill to select the important things and to represent them. It is not necessarily precision and realistic representation that matter the most. It is rather the schematic thinking and the weighting of gains and losses that are primary.

In matters of gains and losses, I have to say that after many hours of trying to create a perfect copy of my photo, I decided to ask myself what is the most important element of my photo and how the architectural reconstruction can help me to put this element in perspective. So, here is the photo of the sugar factory from Rybnitsa:

At the first side, it is clear that the whole complex represents a rather eclectic group of buildings. In the front is the newest building, or the one which was recently renovated. Then, in the back of this building there is another construction, which looks unfinished but at the same time judging by the wooden annex on the top, it has stayed unfinished for a long time. Finally, there is the pipe-a crucial element of any factory. In the case of this photograph it is even more important, because it has an inscription, which reads “1913.”

Someone would expect that 1913 is the year when the factory was founded, but it is not the case. This factory was founded in 1898. Nevertheless, the fact that this year was inscribed on the pipe, means that it is important for the local community. At the same time, from 1913, Rybnitsa has experienced several political regimes, which often were conflicting with each other. Each political regime is very careful with celebrating certain dates and erasing others from the public memory.

The fact that this inscription was not erased from this pipe may suggest that the event that happened in 1913 was internalized by all the political regimes. At the same time, I cannot exclude the fact that this date was added later than 1913. So, it is not yet clear to me what has happened then, but it is clear that this date is important for this place. For this reason, I decided to illustrate the central place of this date in my architectural reconstruction:

As you can see, I recreated the building from the front of the photograph and then I drew the pipe. Although it is realistic, the building serves more as a point of reference and as a metaphor for all the buildings of the factory. By contrast, I drew the pipe from scratch but I tried to represent the texture and to match the numbers with the font from the photograph. So, I can say that my architectural reconstruction is a hybrid of realism and modernism.

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This week I commented on Rosendo’s post about imaginary maps and his final project

phantasy cartography

Ricardo Padron’s piece on “Mapping Imaginary Worlds” made me think about several things:

  • cartography is much broader than a simple academic discipline
  • cartography is not a craft or a drawing skill
  • mapping is not just “drawing maps”; mapping is also about making an argument and what is more interesting is that this argument can be very beautiful
  • mapping is also about making our way in the world; this way can be a physical landscape but it may also express some abstract concepts such as: emotions, ontological and epistemological issues, scientific notions, literary landscapes
  • the most important conclusion is that all maps are in fact maps of imaginary worlds. All maps are abstractions. An author selects some elements of the landscape according to his objectives. Thus, there can be bad maps of physical landscape and wonderful maps of imaginary worlds.

Finally, cartographers can use patterns of imaginary worlds to express real physical landscapes. For example, take a look at this map of St. Petersburg (source: http://teachingmissjen.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/stpetemap.jpg):

If you’ve read Dostoyevsky ‘s “Crime and Punishment” you can almost see Raskolinikov wondering through the streets. You can also use Illustrator and transform this city into another imaginary world.

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This week I commented on Dan’s post about modern cartography.

There have been several major events in the twentieth century:

  • World War I, World War II and Cold War
  • the culmination of colonization and the start of decolonization
  • the beginning of a space age, with the first launching of a satellite and with the landing on the Moon.
  • the emergence of two superpowers: US and USSR (with the former to stay as such until now).
  • the technological revolution with the rapid development of the new means to distribute information: radio, TV and computers.

All these events not only changed the face of our planet, but they also changed the scale of cartography. The fact that the major conflagrations have got the status of “world wars” is in itself revealing of the changing cartography. If at the beginning of the century, there still were large blank spots on world maps, (especially Africa, Australia and Arctic region) then at the end of the century there were only minor unmapped territories. From artifacts of colonization maps became markers of decolonization. It was often the case that the same maps, which were used by empires to colonize a territory, were used by former colonies to mark their own identity and national territory.

As an illustration of how world wars changed the American cartographic thinking, I would mention Susan Schulten’s article on Richard Edes Harrison’s maps. In fact Harrison reacted to the challenges of World War II and argued that US should be involved in this war a couple of months ahead of Pearl Harbor. The popularity of his maps cannot be explained only by their originality. It is the merit of the twentieth century to provide a favorable technological context, in which visual material could be distributed widely. Even if these maps were not televised and only printed, the wide development of TV provided a favorable framework for the special status of the visuals.

Another war of the twentieth century, Cold War had rather hot consequences in the field of cartography. The development of satellite imagery provided a framework for the reinterpretation of earth’s topography. The surface of the planet ceased to be only a sum of longitudes and latitudes. Then, it became possible to assemble Geographic Information Systems.