If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map may be worth a million. Maps, infographics, and photographs blur the line between information and art, at once documenting the state of the world and presenting it in a visually dynamic way.
Unlike photographs, however, no map can claim to be a direct portrait of reality.
Every map, no matter how simple it appears, is shaped by the viewpoint and the choices of the person who made it. On top of that, every person who reads a map will interpret it differently than the next. Our interpretations of maps are influenced just as much by our perceptions and personal experiences as by what is actually on the page. For this reason, understanding subjectivity has become an important part of both geography and cartography.
Frank Jacobs has seen his share of subjective maps. For seven years, he has managed the Strange Maps blog, which features maps “too strange for the school atlas.” Each blog entry dissects the stories told—and sometimes hidden—by the featured map. For more than a year, Jacobs also blogged for the New York Times, a series called “Borderlines.”
Jacobs’ collection includes provocative and mind-bending maps of all types—cognitive maps, historical maps, cartograms, you name it. He has featured everything from ancient maps on cave walls to remotely sensed satellite maps, and no two pieces in his collection are alike.
Subjectivity and personal interpretation play huge roles in analyzing each map—and also help determine which maps Jacobs’ readers find interesting.
“We have this intimate relationship with maps,” he says. “That’s partly why we see things like accidental maps. People see maps in spots of paint on the sidewalk, or they empty their coffee and in the bottom of the cup, they see Africa. It’s almost like seeing Jesus on a piece of toast. People see the shapes of countries in all kinds of objects.”
Jacobs says the long history of cartography has led people to trust maps as a source of information about the world.
“We have this very visceral and primordial connection to cartography,” he says. “As a species, we made maps even before we invented writing. It’s our first language. In that sense, some aspects of cartography are innate—our ability to locate ourselves in space and to transfer that knowledge to and from maps.”
However, no matter how “innate” the human relationship to cartography, no map can present a completely unbiased picture of the world.
“A map is always a bit of a lie because there is always something that is not on the map,” Jacobs says. “For instance, the typical map is flat while the world is round; there’s already one whole dimension that’s missing. When you read a map, you’re ingesting the point of view of the mapmaker. A map is not as blindly objective as a photograph; it’s an artifact that has been crafted to tell you a story.”
No category of maps exemplifies this better than maps used for political propaganda. Throughout history, maps have been used to shape public opinion in support of a particular political message.
“There’s a great map that was published in TIME magazine during the Cold War, and the title is ‘Europe As Seen From Moscow.’ The map is centered on Moscow, but the perspective is such that Western Europe on the horizon looks much smaller, and Eastern Europe, which was communist at the time, looks much larger. It looks almost inevitable from the map that communism will run over Western Europe,” Jacobs says. “The point was to magnify the imminent threat of communism.”
How To Be a Critical Map Reader
So, how can you learn to see through the little white lies in every map? According to Jacobs, the first step to becoming a critical map reader is to always question the intentions of the mapmaker.
“The main question that you can ask with any map is, ‘Why?’ Why did someone make this? What’s the point? What’s the story and who is telling it?” Jacobs says. “Every map is an attempt to convince you of something; it’s like an argument. It’s in your best interest to know who is trying to convince you.”
Beyond the decisions of individual cartographers, it’s also important to question the accepted practices that have become common across almost all maps.
“The fundamentals of mapmaking are conventions, and these conventions were set by someone because they were convenient for that time and place,” Jacobs says. “The fact that north is up and Europe is in the middle of most maps are just some of these conventions.”
To start dissecting conventional standards, take a look at maps that present the world “upside down,” show Asia in the center, or use different map projections. Maps like these offer different ways of understanding the world and a new perspective on the way different spaces relate to one another.
“Take any map that surprises you, that seems somehow ‘strange.’ Why does it stop you in your tracks? What is different about it? Can you relate why it attracts your attention to who made it, and to what purpose?” Jacobs says. “If cartography is the art of wrapping up a story in a map, then map reading is like a journey of discovery for that story.”