Mapping in Three Dimensions

It’s standard fare these days to think of maps as political tools, each with its own particular bias or bent. From Mercator’s projection to Greenwich Mean Time, what we see in maps is often exactly what we have been conditioned to see by generations of cartographers and a tradition of Western mapping that prioritizes specific views, divisions, and perspectives. J.B. Harley, a preeminent scholar of maps, characterized cartography as a language, with the cartographer in a significant position of power over the viewer. Yet maps are changing. No longer static lines on a canvas, they can now be seen and experienced with modern tools like GPS and Google Maps. In this first post in my series on modern mapping, I’m going to zero in on a specific element of maps and how we read them that is changing rapidly: perspective.


A delightful aerial view map of the St. George Campus in 1932 (From the University of Toronto Archives)

Consider: when you think of a map, you likely think of an aerial, “bird’s eye” view of a terrain, probably subdivided by political boundaries into nations, states, provinces, or other political entities. Land is probably marked as green. Water is blue.  It’s probably centred on Europe or North America. This marks you (and me) as a student of fairly recent Western-style cartography. The method of representing the world through political divisions dates to the era of the rise of the nation-state, but the predominance of the aerial view is also a legacy of the nineteenth century and grew with the rise of scientific cartography. Imperial cartographers, often at the forefront of discovery and seizure of territory, derived much of their feeling of superiority over the populations that inhabited the lands they discovered from what they perceived as their more advanced cartographic knowledge.

To geographers who could explore, measure, name and represent large areas of land in two dimensions, ownership was the logical next step, and a natural right. Organizing territory in this way made sense, and particularly reinforced (for example) the British obsession with characterizing and arranging things. Their power was often exerted even by the act of mapping itself.  Imperial mapmakers used tools and methodology that colonial populations rarely understood, which in the minds of cartographers clearly legitimized the modernizing imperial mission. To the British, a nation that could not identify its own resources, borders and population through mapping could legitimately be colonized by one that could, as various historians from Ian Barrow to Anne McClintock (of Freudian Imperial Leather fame) have explored.  To map using scientific methods was to differentiate colonizer from colonized and project Western “progress” onto the landscape – and its peoples – through logical and rational classification and categorization.

The Great Trigonometric Survey of India

A view of India while undergoing the "Great Trigonometric Survey" in the 19th Century, at the zenith of British Imperial scientific cartography (from the Utah Education Network)


The irony, of course, is that science has caused the imperial map of two dimensions to become almost obsolete for practical purposes. Of course, people still pore over maps, hang them on their walls as artefacts, and even sometimes use them to find their way, but the way we actually use maps has shifted.

Native populations in what would later become colonial territories (for example, in Africa) had their own ways of categorizing and describing territory. Boundaries ran along tribal lines, and were dynamic and flexible as tribal lands changed. Rivers – often unexplored to their full extent, in the absence of a British fixation with discovering their mouths and sources – could have a variety of names as they passed through different stages of their existence, from a spring to rapids to a wide oasis on a dry savannah that changed with the season. Geographical markers made sense and were referenced in terms of local context and use, not neat aerial classification at a high level. Above all, land was experienced in three dimensions, as humans really see it, not as birds do. Native peoples were closer to the lands they lived on without the distance of science, and experienced its fluctuations and nuances deeply.

Today we appear to want maps to be more this way. With distance may come power, but with experience comes understanding. I was repeatedly tripped up by a new GPS system last weekend that depicted the area I was driving through in three dimensions. Apparently this form of navigating is far more popular than a bird’s-eye view equivalent. Drivers can feel more a part of the territory through which they are driving – and there is the added benefit of a textual overlay with street names and important markers.

Mapping UofT in Three Dimensions

Mapping UofT in Three Dimensions

And there is little distance at all with applications like Google Earth and Google Maps. With Street View, people can experience geographies without ever having been there. They can effect an instant déjà-vu and familiarize themselves with territory before arriving, enabling familiarity without experience. Mapping has returned to three dimensions.

But what are the costs? I can’t help but think of two articles I read in the last year, one of which described the “barbell” effect of living in a city, where we tend to know the areas in which we live and work, with little knowledge of the neighbourhoods in between. The other referred to the rise of GPS as sounding a death knell for getting lost, a tragedy because it forestalls ever getting to know an area to which we are not explicitly travelling. (Clearly this author had never experienced a faulty GPS that landed him in a sketchy parking garage 40 minutes from the movie theatre he had intended to visit, as I have.) Nonetheless, being lost can be an experience of discovery. But how often do we look to explore areas on Google Maps with which we aren’t already familiar?

We now have a scientific three-dimensional view, in some ways the best of both worlds. But it may be that we lose the overall sense of continuity that a scientific, small-scale map brings while also losing the sense of connectedness and local context that comes with intimate knowledge of a certain small piece of territory.

I started this post talking about bias and manipulation by cartographers. With the variety of perspectives we can simultaneously employ now, much of that manipulation has disappeared. What we choose to see and seek out is now up to us, and the bias has become less the cartographer’s than our own. We’ll learn in time which one obscures more.

This post is part one of a three-part series on the past, present and future of mapping. Stay tuned.


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