On maps

When we fold out our maps, to show people where we’ve ridden or to ask directions from, they always elicit surprise about the creased and necessarily worn pieces of paper we carry and why we chose to take them with us on our travels. The maps are immediately of interest as they show the context of one area of topography simultaneously with another and capture much detailed information. Very quickly people start to scan the further corners of the cartography, looking for distant place names and getting a sense of the scale and distances, that the maps are instantly able to communicate.

SatNav in cars, which most people choose to travel in, has completely made physical map reading and the simplest navigational way-finding obsolete. This can be a problem. When electronic devices fail mid point on journeys and people are unable to visually read from their environment which way north or south is, say to get home, they are ‘lost’ in every sense of the word. 

The best description of the perils of this kind of unthinking reliance on digital maps I’ve heard, was at a Cycle Touring Club meeting at York Racecourse in England. On the Sunday there was a service held especially for all the cyclists at York Minister. The Canon delivered a sermon to the colourfully attired cycling congregation about the parallels of the Anglican Christian spiritual journey and the way a traditional paper map encouraged route alternatives, diversions to possibly more interesting places, all unavailable through SatNav way-finding. He said “The SatNav only gives you one path at the exclusion of all others. It offers no alternatives or reasons to detour on your journey. It does not allow questions but only one answer to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’. It offers no chance to look around, to consider other possibilities and even to question why or where you might be going.” For all these reasons this is why we carry paper maps.

2 thoughts on “On maps

  1. Have you read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways? It is magnificent. If you have not read if i think you might both love it. It very much intersects with what you write about.


    Sent from my iPhone


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