The Mapmaker’s Conundrum - The New Yorker


  • The Mapmaker’s Conundrum - The New Yorker

    Images and text are drawn from “Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies,” edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist, out July 15th from Thames & Hudson.

    Louise Bourgeois, “Paris Toujours Paris” (Set No. 7, detail), 2006. © Louise Bourgeois. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read. Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation.

    A few years back, when Google’s various cartographic apps became ubiquitous, discussion groups were flooded with accounts of strange anomalies. Buildings, streets or, on occasion, entire cities disappeared; coastlines and mountain ranges warped; highways kinked and buckled; giant lacunae sprung up, sinkholes yawning from innocuous fields and deserts. The cause, of course, was glitch-ridden software and faulty collating techniques. But to dismiss this as a uniquely twenty-first-century phenomenon, a digital quirk, would be to overlook an essential feature of all maps: namely, that they don’t work, and never have. Pick up any textbook on cartography, and the very first paragraph will invariably remind you that the Earth is spherical but paper is flat; and, as J. A. Steers points out in his 1927 Introduction to the Study of Map Projections, just ‘as it is impossible to make a sheet of paper rest smoothly on a sphere, so it is impossible to make a correct map on a sheet of paper’. Maps are not copies; they are projections, ‘means’ (Steers again) ‘of representing the lines of latitude and longitude of the globe on a flat sheet of paper’.

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