One world, 7 billion different maps

“Sometimes we see, one day, some day,

In a London street, in an

obscure café,

A face we have known…”

Kathleen Raine, Thaumas

Inspired by watching the excellent BBC Two series, The Secret History of Our Streets I’ve been thinking a lot about maps and places, and their relation to the people who live within their confines.

Taking as their start point Charles Booth’s colour coded social maps of London – created from surveys conducted over the course of seventeen years from 1886 – each programme looked in detail at one street in particular that featured in the original maps; showing how the fortunes of the streets and their people had changed in the intervening years and decades (there’s a room in the Museum of London wallpapered with some of the maps, which is well worth a look if you are nearby).

The producers wanted to allow the people of each street to tell their stories in their own words. This made for an often moving, beguiling and utterly enthralling series, that contained moments of sheer joy, despair and most emotional points in between.

The series was a useful reminder that maps are never definitive. They simply capture one reading of a moment in time.

No map ever tells the truth, or at least, not the whole of it. All are ultimately mere representations, designed with a particular point of view.

Gutter. Osnaburgh St London NW1

What if we could make a different kind of map? A uniquely personal map, which was totally faithful to our own lives and experiences of the world. A map that didn’t simply record the layout of landscapes and cities, but reflected in its shape and structure their relative importance to us.

The idea of the ‘soft city’ as opposed to the ‘hard city’ of physical geography has long appealed to me. Jonathan Raban’s 1974 book about the relation between the imagined city and the physical city of the built environment is a fascinating examination of what it means to find and create your own place in the city and the world:

In those dazed moments at stop-lights, it’s possible to be a stranger to yourself, to be so doubtful as to who you are that you have to check on things like the placards round the news-vendors’ kiosks or the uniforms of the traffic policemen. You’re a balloonist adrift, and you need anchors to tether you down…at moments like this, the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form round you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a position on a map.” Jonathan Raban, Soft City, Hamish Hamilton, 1974

Nicholas Royle’s novel The Matter of the Heart touches on the ‘Soft City’ with his notion of ‘Emotional Routes’: discrete ways around a city, adopted by individuals, based not on the best or fastest ways to travel between places, but on areas and streets that are meaningful to them, so that when travelled along they deliberately take in and pass through places that resonate with the emotional charge of past encounters, events and situations.

Exploring similar territory to Royle and Raban, Sam Thompson also writes about the shifting, protean nature of cities in his novel Communion Town – recently long-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize: “Have you noticed how each of us conjures up our own city? You have your secret haunts and private landmarks and favourite short cuts, and I have mine, so as we navigate the streets each of us walks through a world of our own invention. And by following you into your personal city, I can learn a great deal of what I need to know.”

This sense of self-creation isn’t confined to urban environments, as Robert Macfarlane notes in his most recent book The Old Ways, when he says of the poet Edward Thomas: “He understands that reading and walking expire into one another, that we carry within ourselves evolving maps of the world which are, as Wordsworth put it, ‘[o]f texture midway between life and books’.”

The artist Stephen Walter has also produced some very interesting work in this area, which through painstakingly detailed commentary, notes and drawings, maps out different cities not as birds-eye views of grids and street plans, but as cultural and personal constructs. His maps of Liverpool and London – The Island – are delightfully intricate in their exploration of what makes each city and its areas distinctive.

As soon as the very earliest cities came into existence, people tried to interpret and understand them creatively, through art and writing, and empirically through statistics, records and maps.

Now, digital and mobile technology has made locating ourselves in the world easier than ever. Through the web millions can access maps that deliver ever-more detailed layers of information about their streets, cities and states.

This means that we are no longer reliant on hefting massive, atlases on to tables to look at the world; we don’t have to struggle with folding paper maps on windy days, or attempt tricky one fingered page turning as we scramble through battered, outdated A-Z street maps.

A smartphone in your pocket gives you the means to view a variety of different types of map and geographical data with a flick of a finger (provided there’s network coverage where you’re standing). While in car Sat-Nav systems allow users to have a recorded voice guide them to their destinations – although a rather worrying number of drivers have made the news by trusting the technology too far and forgetting to also consult the evidence of their own eyes.

Off the map: Part of the old Stanley Buildings Kings Cross.

Tap your phone and you can bring up satellite, street and conventional views; do it again and delve into further layers of information, telling you what you can see, do and buy nearby.

And there’s the rub. With all this exciting tech to play with, it’s easy to forget that no map can, or will, show us our world as it really is. All information is partial, somebody else has decided to put it there, or paid for it to appear.

As with traditional paper maps, there are gaps. Few of these represent unexplored territory any more, but they do contain secrets. Click into an online map, choose the satellite view and explore the world. It won’t be long before you encounter a mysterious blur, or unmarked area where a government, regime or corporation has something on the ground that they don’t want you to see. Whenever I note these blanks I think of the traditional line on antique sea-charts: There Be Dragons.

Mapping technology, though, doesn’t have to be one-way traffic, with information controlled by and passed on from producer to consumer. We have more ways than ever to record and share our own movements. An array of digital platforms and mobile apps can help us plan and track a vast amount of personal activities. Runners can plot and analyse every footfall of their chosen routes, tourists can highlight every city they’ve ever visited on a map and upload the pictures; the more social can check-in to almost everywhere they go – from bars and entertainment venues, to airports or the corner shop and broadcast their location to the world.

This gathering and measuring of personal data is known as self-tracking. But for all the data gathering and mapping tools available to us is it really possible to create a map that tells us everything about our lives and our place in the world?

Imagine that we could, that everyone in the world could generate their own map. A map that grew and shrank, advanced and retreated as we lived out our lives.

This map wouldn’t simply chart every building, street and pavement encountered, this map would change according to the weight and resonance an individual gave to a place. Landscapes, places and routes that meant more to you personally would be given greater prominence.

Equally places you had never visited, or didn’t care, for would shrink in relative size, or disappear altogether. This would be an emotional map, a map of the inner world as much the external one.

By this I don’t mean the ability to tag places of significance on an existing map. That can be done, but someone else owns the map and the information on it. This is a fluid map, that morphs and warps with you. It’s your map and no one else’s.

My map would be different to your map and different again from those of our colleagues, neighbours, partners and friends.

In my London map for example, great swathes of the West and South West wouldn’t exist, or would appear only as scattered islands – individual parks and streets adrift in a sea of ambivalence. Some lanes and green walks would become bigger than major thoroughfares. Certain pubs and venues that have closed down or been demolished would be revived. The Astoria would make a come-back. A lot of buildings in The City would shrink, or vanish completely.

Of course my version of London only exists in my imagination, but I love the idea of being able to map it out as if it did in the physical world. What excites and intrigues me is how many totally different maps there might be.

When and where would they overlap? Would any gaps appear if all maps could be overlaid? Revealing parts of London, or the wider world that nobody really cares for.

Would the shape and size of maps differ depending on the cultural background of their creator?

It’s highly possible that something a little like this could or has been developed by someone with the passion to make it possible, or more likely by people who have discovered a practical or commercial use for such a thing.

Ultimately though I like the idea that there can be no one true map of anywhere, but instead countless unique and ever changing ones. There is no definitive map of the world; of London, New York, Istanbul or Addis Ababa, but millions of them.


BBC 2 The Secret History of Our Streets

BBC Radio 4 Series On the Map
Map addict Mike Parker explores modern cartography through different
types of map including: OS, Motoring, digital & social.

The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

Soft City, Jonathan Raban

The Matter of the Heart, Nicholas Royle

Communion Town, Sam Thompson

Self Tracking

Quantified Self

Self Tracking article from Wired Magazine

Stephen Walter


Interesting related material suggested by ‘Lines of Landscape’ blog:

Guy Debord’s Paris Map

And a blog I recently found: Mapping Weird Stuff

A different version of this post can be found on The Literary Platform: How digital is making maps personal, with more focus on maps and self tracking with digital and mobile tech.

4 thoughts on “One world, 7 billion different maps

  1. Pingback: RIP Jonathan Raban | Richly Evocative

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