Monday, January 7, 2013

Ode to maps

I heard this interview with Simon Garfield on NPR this morning and it got me thinking about maps. Sure, I use Google Maps for directions most of the time, and have borrowed a GPS from time to time, but I actually prefer maps. When I use Google Maps for directions, I almost always study the map before I print the directions.

But I don't like maps primarily for any of the reasons Garfield mentioned. It's not because they're beautiful, although many are, and it's not because it connects me to the past or romance or anything like that. I just like to understand where I am in space, and maps help me to do that.

The few times I've used a GPS, I didn't like it much because although I got where I needed to be, I had no idea how I got there. I just did whatever the voice on the machine told me to. I found that really unsettling and almost unsafe. I like to be able to navigate so much that I actually appreciate when I get lost because then I'll find a new way to get around. I have spent time riding around my neighborhood on my bike, and that came in handy after Hurricane Sandy when roads were closed due to fallen trees and power lines, and I had to find detours to get home.

I just find maps useful. And I worry, a little, that the skill of reading maps is going to fall by the wayside. On the one hand, plotting a route on a map takes time, and it makes sense to use computers to take care of that task. Computers can also be updated regularly with traffic information, road closures, and other factors that determine which is the best route: information that you can't get from a print map. But I always worry just a little when a paper-based skill gets lost, because then we become reliant on computers, which is fine, until the power goes down.

There is real value in maps, and I was a little bit shocked to hear someone who wrote a book about the beauty of maps saying that what will be lost in our computer age is the beauty and romance of maps. Because I'm all for beauty and romance, but sometimes I just need to figure out whether it makes sense to get off the subway one stop early and walk.

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