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New maps required

Amongst the boxes in the attic are the remains of my collection of maps.

The collection was still-born; I moved from regarding maps as useful art to understanding maps as ideology. If you look at an Ordnance Survey map you understand that what it maps is what the state needs to fulfill its primary function of control.

When you criticize maps as ideological you risk getting a snarky response about ‘try navigating without them.’ In fact of course, navigating with them can be dangerous – try going cross country with an AA roadmap, for instance, and you’ll discover that while it’s quite accurate about where roads go, it tells you nothing about the bits between roads. And that’s not a defect- it’s how the map was designed, because to the AA and their customers, only roads matter.

When the world changes, the things that matter on maps change too.The use we make of maps changes, and suddenly, the most reliable map becomes obsolete. Take sat nav as an example. It uses the information on pre-existing maps to create a route, and gets it wrong when a variable that can’t be easily mapped, except in real time, like weather or tides, interacts with features that are on the map, like fords or causeways.

The language of mapping has crept into a wider, more sociological context.We map stakeholders, influence and power. The problem is when maps become obsolete, or when the things they leave out become significant, like fords and causeways that become impassable when the weather or tides change.

The maps of power and influence that worked in the Blairite era, the era of consensus neo-liberalism, are suddenly beginning to look unreliable. The weather has changed and, one wonders, maybe there are tidal forces at work too. New maps are required, and new cartographers too, which probably explains quite why there is so much outrage in the mainstream media that the Labour Party refused to listen to its description of the political geography of the leadership election. Journalists like to imagine themselves as political cartographers, but in a changing world they start to resemble the kind of helpful person who begins directions with ‘If you turn right by where Mrs Brown used to live, oh yes, Mrs Brown, she was a lovely lady…’

My favourite map related joke involves a man from Carmarthen who, when asked for directions to Aberystwyth, said ‘If you want to go there I wouldn’t start from here.’ For the commentariat, the fear is that that man is their future, providing useless advice based on outdated understandings of the world.

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This entry was posted on September 18, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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