Maps and the 20th century: Where to draw the lines? | New Scientist
OUT of the scores of maps on display at the British Library, one in particular should snare the attention of President-elect Trump. It shows how in 1864 a section of the Rio Grande that marks the US-Mexico border changed course due to flooding, pushing the 600-acre Chamizal tract and its people into another country. Where to build that wall?
Eventually, Mexico got its land and people back. But most visitors to Maps and the 20th Century will readily agree that “the map is not the territory” – a dictum coined by the engineer-philosopher Alfred Korzybski. We know that history, ideology and changing scientific norms have always shaped those deceptive but indispensable charts that frame space and freeze time.
The Chamizal dispute, however, suggests another, more unsettling variable: one that exists not just in cartographers’ heads but on the shifting earth. Maps of the receding Breiðamerkurjökull glacier in Iceland helped sound the alarm on climate change as human agency began to modify the mappable terrain. These days, even the territory itself may not count as solid ground.
This isn’t the first time the British Library has plundered its four-million strong map and chart collection for exhibitions that warn us not to treat the cartographic orthodoxy of the day as gospel truth – be it the Mercator Projection, Ordnance Survey or Google Maps. One 2001 show had the sternly didactic title Lie of the Land. The latest exhibition confines itself to the 20th century, with an especially strong sample of the maps that provoked and accompanied two world wars and the cold war that ensued.
Inspect the beautifully crafted, 3D relief maps of the Western Front that Haig’s staff pored over during the first world war and you shudder. Back in their chateaux, staff officers sought to bypass gradients, slopes and woods while missing the perils of level open ground – barbed wire, mud, trenches, exposure – as that required imagination rather than a clear sight of the charts. The map was not the territory: countless thousands died as a result.
“The art of Biography,” rhymed the English humorist Edmund Clerihew Bentley, “Is different from Geography. Geography is about maps, But Biography is about chaps.” From the Nazi map of the US that identifies states with high German immigration as propaganda targets to the early infographic that plots income-distribution in 1966 Los Angeles by neighbourhood, we never forget that chaps make maps for and about other chaps.
Within their folds, or across their pixels, human and physical geography converge. Advances in technology will never banish the shaping spirit of the cartographer. A 1990 satellite-generated depiction of “Earth from Space” consists of thousands of separate images woven into an artificial tapestry: just as much a fiction, arguably, as the Navy League world map of 1901 that coats most of the planet in imperial scarlet.
Curator Tom Harper’s selection reminds us that the satellite and digital imaging behind the maps in cars and phones now has a decades-long history. GPS began in 1973. Its early documents can look quainter than any medieval fantasy: the frail lines of Bell Labs’s 1995 map of global internet traffic on one day are as lonely as the course of Columbus’s caravels.
When maps advance the propaganda aims of corporations or of states, decoding them is a relatively simple task. We quickly get the point, even before an evil giant spider straddles Europe in both British (1915) and German (1941) colours. More nuanced, and troubling, thoughts arise when a genuine quest for as much accuracy as instruments and techniques permitted drives map-makers to either flatter power – or stiffen resistance to it.
No item at the show moved me more than the minutely detailed plan of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp sent by the Jewish Agency and Polish government-in-exile to the UK’s Foreign Office in 1944. It was created in support of the vain effort to secure Allied bombing raids on the railway lines that fed the extermination camps. This was topographical exactitude in the service of humanity.
Less nobly, the Abadan oil-refinery map of 1949 – with the Iranian plant plotted down to its last fence and tree – was created not to win a political argument but the cold war itself. Pretty often in the exhibition, cartographers are shown to yoke science (sound for the time) to selfish ends. Take a Rwandan mineral-deposit map from 1963, with land carefully punctuated by symbols of the wealth beneath: from Fe and Sn, even some Au, down to the Co that powers the phone that stores your maps – and stoked the wars of Central Africa.
Inevitably, the categories can overlap. Better, perhaps, to get lost amid the cartographic cornucopia than try to follow a fixed path like the earnest pipe-puffing ramblers on the covers of inter-war OS maps. The leaps between culture and context yield mind-stretching views, as when Harry Beck’s “electrical circuit diagram” of the 1931 London Underground shares a space with a mattang, a navigational stick chart from the Marshall Islands. This time-honoured seafarers’ aid not only locates islands with a schematic audacity to rival Beck, but even indicates ocean swell.
Just like the European traders and commanders who landed on their palm-fringed shores, Pacific islanders took a strictly practical view of mapping the seas. The features that mattered either helped people cross them, or threatened to shipwreck their craft. Only towards the end of the 19th century did the emerging science of oceanography allow us to pore over the submarine world with the same awe inspired by a contoured map of the Himalayas or the Alps. A 1960s chart of the Atlantic Ocean sea floor shows the spine of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge snaking along the seabed from Iceland to the sub-Antarctic Bouvet Island – at about 15,000 kilometres, it is part of Earth’s longest mountain range.
Closer to home, Harper’s insistence on maps as “agents of change” and vectors of power allows startling glimpses of ourselves as others see us. Luftwaffe bombing charts of Liverpool may seem fairly familiar; less so a map of the post-war Abercrombie Plan for London. And whatever happened to those projected “major airports” in Romford and Orpington?
As late as 1990, authorities in the Soviet Union compiled classified military maps of the UK based on their standardised grid, “Sistem 42”. The section devoted to the UK’s south coast supplies another, stranger identity for the resort of Brighton’s posher neighbour. Under Soviet eyes, sedate Hove has mutated into glamorous and sinister “KOB”.