Tag Archives: cartography

Here at the End of All Things

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad, based on cartography by Dyson Logos.

Adrian Daub | Longreads | August 2017 | 20 minutes (5,033 words)

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“The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars […].”

— Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”

I spent my adolescence around maps of places that didn’t exist. An older cousin read The Lord of the Rings over the course of a hot summer when I was nine, and I watched in fascination as he traced the Fellowship’s progress across the foldout map that came with the book in those days. This, I decided, had to be what grown-up reading looked like.

Maps were my entrée into geek life, and they remained the medium through which geekdom moved: beat-up paperbacks handed around between school friends, boxed sets at the local game store — we probably spent about as much time poring over maps as we did reading or dreaming up the stories that took place within the worlds they represented. The science fiction we read did without them, but any cover featuring a dragon, a many-turreted castle, or a woman in a leather bra suggested you’d find a map the moment you peeked inside the book.
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New York City’s Final Frontier: Underground

Stuart McAlpine via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Doing construction in New York City is dangerous and expensive. Cut the pavement in the wrong place and crews can rupture gas lines. Hit a water main, short a backup generator. These sorts of mistakes cost the city $300 million each year. Worse yet are natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy — where floods caused a three-day blackout and left two hospitals without power — and threats like buried chemical tanks and national security issues. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Greg Milner follows the people who are creating the city’s first three-dimensional subsurface infrastructure map to create a safer city that can self-regulate and grow more efficiently, and where agencies and private utilities can coordinate. In a very real sense they are pioneers, of a frontier that lays below our feet. Detailing pipes, cables, sewers, wires and electric lines, even soil types, the map will be the first of its kind, and if it works, it could make New York a model for the world’s future smart cities.

Because of data from satellites, we can now map the world down to about 6 inches. We’ve almost reached the point Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which cartographers built “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” But the world beneath our feet remains shrouded in darkness. “Light and radio waves don’t go through dirt like they do air,” says George Percivall, chief technical officer for the Open Geospatial Consortium, which is helping to develop global standards for underground mapping. “The next frontier, in both a literal and figurative sense, is underground.”

New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one. The individual details of the vast underground are hoarded and guarded by the various stakeholders. Con Edison has its electrical map; the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) keeps track of water and sewer pipes; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) could tell you where the transit tunnels are; and so on.

Imagine the city as a living organism, a body consisting of various systems—respiratory, nervous, skeletal—that share the same space and even intertwine. Now imagine surgery performed on that body by a surgeon who knows the location of only one system, who looks at the body and sees only blood vessels or bones. This is the odd condition of New York—a body subject to what, viewed through a wide lens, looks like perpetual triage. Each year, for repairs or to facilitate construction, the streets are sliced open 200,000 times—an average of almost 550 cuts per day, or 30 per street mile every year.

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Practical Cartography: I Am Mapped, Therefore I Am

Cantino's map, one of the most important pieces of 16th century cartography. (Image in the public domain.)

Lois Parshley’s wide-ranging, fascinating story on mapping the unmapped — from black holes, to the bottom of the sea, to the populations of the Congo and Haiti — looks at not just the science of map-making, but the morality.

“I like maps,” Gayton says. “But really what I care about is equitable distribution of health care. As long as 1 billion people don’t have it, sooner or later it’ll come bite people in rich countries.” He scoffs at the idea that there are no blank spaces left on Earth. “Anyone who says the world is mapped, ask them to show you where the population of Congo are living. Ask them where the villages are. If they can do it, please let me know.”

To Gayton, it’s not an idle distinction. “When you have a place like South Sudan, where millions of people live and die without ever figuring in a database anywhere, their names will never be written down. There’s not a lot of dignity in that—to not be on the map is quite a powerful statement of uncaring.” That’s what Missing Maps is about. “We still don’t know who they are, but at least we know where their house is. At least the map actually contains them, rather than a blank wash of green,” Gayton says. “I tell people at mapathons sometimes, ‘That house you’re tracing right now, that hut—that’s the first time in the history of humanity someone cared enough about them to take note.’” Things don’t exist because we name them, but giving them a name engenders new meaning. At its most basic, to exist on a map is to have value.

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Charting the World in a Single Short Story

By Alvesgaspar Wikimedia Commons

I don’t care that the earth’s shadow eclipses the moon, said the Admiral. I have seen terrific irregularity with mine own eyes, and have been forced to the sensible conclusion that this earth is not round as some wrongly insist, but the shape of a pear or violin.

A thousand years before the Admiral made his daring proclamation and charted his course on this violin-shaped earth, people thought it was flat like a discus. Until the Greek Cartographer spoke out, claiming it was round like an orange. He’d drawn standard aesthetic divisions on his planisphere, a flattened version of his rounded earth. The first set of lines he called “latitude.” But his finest moment, his greatest act of self-control, had been to leave parts of his map blank. The Cartographer was later forgotten, his map lost like dreams that are lost upon waking, lingering only as faint unglimpsable residues. Seafarers, with no reliable guide by which to brave the open Ocean, paddled and were wind-scooted along the landlocked, salted waters. For navigation, they dead reckoned and used wind roses—radiating lines of sixteen focal points, ornate foliations that indicated air currents but varied according to the size and dimensions of the map, so that no two maps, even of one place, were ever alike. The Cartographer was eventually remembered, but by then the forgetting had been sustained so long that no one could read Greek. The epic after the Cartographer’s planisphere reigned and before it reigned again—forgotten and then discovered but unreadable—was known as the Great Interruption. It lasted one thousand years.

-From Rachel Kushner’s story “The Great Exception,” one of three short stories in the slim volume The Strange Case of Rachel K published by New Directions. In her introduction, Kushner writes that the story was the result of reading an “an enormous book on the history of so-called civilization, a work of seductive details (the Peruvians believed the world was a box with a ridged top, the Egyptians that it was an egg)…”

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