History Through Rose-Coloured Glasses

November 12, 2014

Rarely have there been so many meanings so definitively associated with the same colour.

From the innocence of childhood to the sexy, all-night glow of Las Vegas neon, pink has a colourful and controversial history associated with noble and common, demure and gaudy, masculine and feminine. And it wasn’t even known as “pink” (in English) until the late 1600s, centuries after its purported opposite — blue — really arrived on the scene, both linguistically and in the popular consciousness.

Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV

Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV

Some have argued that pink’s “golden” age was in the eighteenth century, when it was the mode for high-fashion ladies of the French court. At that time, of course, they were among the only people who could afford the expensive dyes that coloured the fabrics they wore. Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV, popularized pink amid a bevy of other pastels that were favoured in the Rococo period.

Pink continued to be associated with the rich and royal until the twentieth century, when chemical dyes allowed for its more widespread use in clothing that could be washed repeatedly without the colour fading or washing out. It was also around this time that pink transitioned from being largely a pastel hue associated with the innocence of children to a more bold, exotic shade. The new dyes allowed for the creation of deeper and darker versions of pink that spread around the world in the fashions of the 1920s.

The new and the neon

Buildings started to be sheathed in rose around the same time. In the 1920s and 30s, at the height of the Art Deco movement, vivid colours emerged as an alternative to the drab sameness and deprivation of depression-era interiors. A splash of bright paint could change the tone of a whole room. And with a focus on modern, technologically-enabled streamlining of form, the architecture and products of this age contrasted both with the ornate and intricate styles from earlier in the century and the contemporary countertrends of European functional Mies Van der Rohe-style block modernism.

Pink on pink at the Hotel De Anza, a classic example of Art Deco in San Jose, California

Pink on pink at the Hotel De Anza, a classic example of Art Deco in San Jose, California

Art Deco was colourful and accessible — and immensely popular. This was particularly the case in America, where, as architectural historian Robert M. Craig puts it,“Art Deco was jazzy, bright, sexy, loud, and visually appealing.” It was everywhere: from department stores to movie theatres to the new motels that had sprung up all over the country to provide for a growing motoring class.

Pink walls and pink fashions were a way to stand out and be noticed, and thus the colour was increasingly used in advertising, from splashy storefronts to the neon signs that dominated the landscape starting in the 1920s. In this way pink came to be associated with both the egalitarianism of commerce and material things: stylish perfume bottles, vacation homes in South Beach, new living room walls. Marilyn Monroe wore a notorious pink dress on the cover of the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Elvis’s famous pink convertible, purchased in 1955, was seen as the height of post-war luxury and is featured at Graceland.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (in pink) -- Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie poster.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (in pink) — Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie poster.

Flight of the pink flamingos 

Pink is everywhere in California, as it is in many places where there are beaches, single-story construction, and a touch of the exotic. It is the colour of soft sunsets (because of Rayleigh scattering, in which only the longer rays on the visual spectrum, in the red-yellow colour range, reach the eye), and flowering plants. And in its heyday in 1950s, it represented the triumph of modernism and new frontiers.

Then its meaning shifted again. From being the bright colour of the future, it became the gaudy holdover from a bygone age. The lights of Las Vegas started to look a bit too commercial, too fake. Pink houses now stand out, “island[s] of whimsy in a sea of drab conformity,” and as such aren’t always viewed positively by the neighbours. Gradually pink started to represent the Miami Vice-like excesses of the 1980s or the wastefulness of neon tube lighting, first patented almost 100 years ago.

Nothing symbolizes the pink backlash more than the popular conception of lawn flamingos. Elegant and exotic, flamingos can be found across the globe in warm and wet areas, from India to Chile. The first pink lawn ornament was created in 1957 and was a smash hit. But by the late 1960s, the negative image of the plastics industry and the “unnatural” look of giant pink birds on the lawn led to a spiralling decline in their popularity. Now, of course, they are popular again, an ironic wink and nod to the kitsch of an earlier time.

Gentlemen prefer … pink?

This was not, however, the greatest reversal in the popular perception of pink. It is perhaps surprising today to imagine that pink was for most of its history considered a very masculine colour. Contrasted (as it always is) with blue, pink was seen as more stimulating and active, appropriate for clothing young boys, and the soft daintiness of blue more appropriate for clothing young girls (think: Cinderella’s dress at the ball). It remains a symbol of strength to this day in Japan, where it is associated with cherry blossoms, said to represent fallen warriors.

In nineteenth-century Britain, when military might was shown with red uniforms, boys wore pink as a kind of lesser red. And let’s not forget that the standard map of the British Empire is coloured pink, symbolizing the strength and breadth of British power, from the Cape to Cairo, and Whitehorse to Wellington. The old pink maps cemented the idea of empire in the popular consciousness of the time, creating what Linda Colley, (my favourite) scholar of the British Empire, has termed “a sense of absolutely uncomplicated, uncompromising power.”

Imperial Federation Map of the British Empire, 1886

Imperial Federation Map of the British Empire, 1886, by John Charles Ready Colomb

Pink now, of course, is considered near-exclusively feminine. It is often used idiomatically to refer to women’s or gay rights issues, as in “pink-collar” work, or “the pink economy.” And it has been helped in this image by marketers for almost seventy years, who both helped to shape tastes in colour and hew to common perceptions of them. Pink was a target during the 1970s with the feminist backlash against the confines of gendered clothing. As women started to dress in a more unisex and stereotypically masculine way, pink was eschewed. As an interesting overview in the Smithsonian notes, there was a time in that decade when even major retailers such as Sears Roebuck didn’t sell pink baby clothes, for girls or boys.

Living in a material world

2011 Color of the Year, "Honeysuckle"

2011 Color of the Year, “Honeysuckle”

The shift toward the ownership of colour could be said to have begun with the Pantone Institute’s codification of colours for matching purposes in the late 1950s. In recent colour analyses of brands, pink is considered warm, sensitive and nurturing, commonly used in products or campaigns targeted at women, such as Cosmopolitan and Victoria’s Secret. And that most enduring lightning rod of femininity, Barbie, naturally has her own shade. Barbie pink (Pantone 219C) has been associated with everything Barbie from the very beginning, including a fuzzy pink bathroom scale released in 1965 that was permanently (and controversially) set to 110 lbs.

Love in pink. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris Goldberg.

Love in pink. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris Goldberg.

And yet pink remains an aspirational colour, just as it was when Madame de Pompadour wore it at the French court. In 2011, Pantone chose Honeysuckle (18-2120), a bright variation of classic pink, as its Color [sic] of the Year, citing its “confidence, courage and spirit to meet the exhaustive challenges that have become part of everyday life.” It is a colour for the zeitgeist, a necessary perk in the dark days of our latest recession, with its many pink slips. According to Leatrice Eisema, Pantone’s Executive Director,”In times of stress, we need something to lift our spirits. Honeysuckle is a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going – perfect to ward off the blues.”

So often viewed in opposition to something, pink can nonetheless be understood as a world unto itself. Whether seen as high or low, kitschy or elegant, soft or strong — or all of the above — it seems doubtful we’ve reached peak pink. Who knows what it will signify next?


Nations of Extroverts and the Friendliness of Americans

February 3, 2014

Picture this: a bus full of people, mid-day on a Tuesday. A passenger with a seeing-eye dog chatters away about her experiences to the lady beside her, who also has a dog. She then asks a family visiting from Italy what sights they have seen in the area. Further back, two men joke about how their knees are too old to bend sufficiently to fit into the seats. When one gets off the bus, he shakes the other’s hand, saying “Pleasure to meet you!” An elderly couple asks a young, pregnant woman about her children and say “God Bless!” to every passenger that exits the bus.

This is a typical bus ride in San José, at least in my experience riding public transit. Far from scowling at the lack of elbow room, passengers seem to use their proximity to other travellers as an excuse to strike up a new friendship, or at least pleasant conversation for the duration of the ride. On my way back from a book club once, a man told me about his opinion of every Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje book he’d read after finding out I was a recent transplant from Canada.

It’s all very unusual for me, and left me wondering: why are Americans so friendly? Several transplants I know from Europe think it must be false, that a waitress in a restaurant can’t genuinely care whether you liked your cajun pasta or had a good day – but is it?

To get a sense of whether there might be a national character at all, and if that might explain my transit experiences, I looked into what is often referred to by psychologists as the “Big 5 Inventory” personality test, or “five-factor model,” which measures the following traits:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

My hypothesis was that Americans might, on a stereotypical, national level, score highly on the extroversion and agreeableness scales. Many have noted that at least two thirds of Americans are extroverted (see, for example, Susan Cain’s excellent book and TED talk on Introversion), and high levels of extroversion have also been correlated with traits such as assertiveness and individualism, other behaviours oft noted as common to Americans.

I wasn’t the first to have this idea. I recommend watching this short video, which maps out the Big 5 by nation:

It’s a fascinating study, and largely confirms that Americans are likely to be, on average, more extroverted than people from other nations, and more agreeable. They are also more calm and “hardy” than the average, and able to withstand setbacks, and are extraordinarily conscientious and disciplined.   These would all seem to be important traits for immigrants seeking to build new lives and a new nation.

The French, to take a comparison, are among the most introverted nations on the map. They also tend toward disagreeableness and prefer stability and routine to variety and new experiences. (Interestingly, they are very organized and conscientious, even more so than their German neighbours, which may surprise some in European politics.) An individual with these traits would undoubtedly find the can-do friendliness of the stereotypical American quite unpleasant, and the American, in his turn, would find the reserved Frenchman similar to the fellow below (which I found while searching for “American perceptions of French people”):

Image

It would also seem that my experiences in Argentina were not abnormal: Argentines, according to this video, also tend to be disagreeable, yet quite calm and emotionally stable, enjoying variety. This would explain the tendency we noticed to shrug in an irate fashion and bemoan the state of the economy with no expectation of it changing, then stomp off to dance a tango.

It may also be possible to explain the friendliness of Americans as a lack of the formality and respect for hierarchy that characterizes many Old World nations. There is no easy correlation with any one five-factor model trait here, but it would make sense that a society founded on principles of extreme meritocracy would support individuals bypassing the usual deferences common to aristocracy and other Old World power structures. If all men are created equal, why not say hello to those tourists on the bus?

A side note

Their friendliness doesn’t spare Americans the derision of the world in other areas. Keying in “why are Americans so…” into a search box does not yield very friendly autofill results: “stupid” and “ignorant” are the most common hits.

This perception might also be explained by the Big 5 model. In the “Openness to Experience” dimension, Americans score at a fairly average level. Examples of this trait include being “intellectually curious, open to emotion, interested in art, and willing to try new things.” (Denmark scores highest on this trait. Might explain Lego, The Little Mermaid, and vikings.)

Certainly, Americans are inventive and curious. However, many have also noted a national pride that can extend to an inward focus, a lack of interest in or awareness of the world outside its borders. The persistent and oft-debated data point of fewer than a third of Americans having passports would support an argument for isolationism.

Why bother to travel, though, if everyone will only respond to their friendly overtures with disagreeableness and scorn? Fortunately, there is a place where, according to this map, the locals are even more friendly, sympathetic, and kind, perhaps so much so that they’re willing to forgive some old bad blood and show American tourists around…

Russia.

Have fun at Sochi.


Coffee vs. Alcohol: A better brew?

February 28, 2011

Almost everyone enjoys a good brew, but some brews are more acceptable than others, it seems. Around the world, coffee consumption has far outstripped that of alcoholic beverages, with around 2.9 pounds (or around 30 litres) of coffee consumed per person, on average, in one year. Compared with an average consumption of 5 litres per person, per year of alcohol worldwide, it seems we are much more inclined to be hitting a Starbucks than a bar on an average day.

Global average alcohol consumption

Global average alcohol consumption

Coffee is also a critically important trading commodity, second only to oil in terms of dollar value globally. I won’t get into the cultural influence of Starbucks, Tim Hortons and the like, but the impact on consumers and on the business world has been significant – much more so than any individual brand of alcohol in recent history.

Coffee is a relatively modern beverage. There is no Greek god of coffee, like there is of wine (though if there were, no doubt he would be a very spirited half-child of Zeus who enjoyed bold flavours, waking up early, and being chipper). The first evidence of coffee drinking as we know it today is generally placed in the fifteenth-century Middle East. Evidence of wine and beer consumption, in contrast, dates to 6000 BC and 9500 BC, respectively, or even earlier. Yet for such a young contender, coffee’s rise in popularity has been impressive.

No doubt in part this rise in Europe related to the appeal of the exotic, like the chocolate and other goods that originated in Turkey or other Arab countries. It is also likely that, like sugar, coffee was just tasty and appealing in its own right, and those who tried it liked it and wanted more. And certainly there is the social aspect, the rise of coffeehouse culture across France and Britain in the eighteenth century, which brought together politics, business and social interaction in a public forum as never before. The purported offspring of the coffeehouses, such as the stock market, French Enlightenment ideals, and even democracy, were significant. In a TED talk I watched recently, author Steven Johnson slyly remarked that the English Renaissance was curiously closely tied to the changeover from imbibing large amounts of depressants to large amounts of stimulants with the rise of the coffeehouse (go figure).

The best part of waking up?

Today, it seems that coffee has generally been linked to a host of other caffeinated beverages that are considered “good” (such as tea and cola) and alcohol has been linked with commodities that are “bad” and “unhealthy” (such as drugs and cigarettes). Why? Perhaps it is because colas, tea and coffee are unregulated, entirely legal, and (to a point) even considered safe for children, while the opposite can be said of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.

Is the association fair? Hardly. While the dangers of addiction may be greater for the latter group, and public drunkenness more severely chastised than public hyperactivity, coffee and sugary colas (as fantastic as they are) are hardly the healthiest choices of beverages.

I suspect it is something else, something in the inherent nature or promotion of coffee that makes it seem less threatening than alcohol. Coffee suffers from none of the religious ordinances forbidding its consumption the way alcohol does (though, interestingly, coffee was also banned in several Islamic countries in its early years). Is has also never endured the smug wrath of teetotalers or wholesale prohibition.

Alcohol is generally placed into the realms of evenings and night-times, bars, and sexy movies, while coffee is the drink of busy weekday mornings, weekends with the paper, and businesspeople. Both are oriented toward adults, but coffee is in some ways more socially acceptable. Consider the difference between remarking that you just can’t get started in the morning without your coffee versus saying the same about your morning shot of whiskey. Similarly, asking someone out for a drink connotes much more serious intentions than asking someone for a coffee. And vendors are catching on: in Britain, many pubs are weathering the downturn in business caused by the recession and changing attitudes by tapping into the morning market of coffee drinkers.

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (courtesy of ChartsBin)

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (graphic courtesy of ChartsBin)

I wonder if the trend toward increased coffee consumption is in place of alcohol. I also wonder if it mirrors the general cultural shift toward an American orientation. The global dominance of Starbucks and other coffee shops seem to me to be supplanting the role of the local pub or licensed hang outs of the old world with a chirpy kind of Americanism and a whole new roster of bastardized European terms and ideas like “caramelo” and “frappuccino.” The New York Times backs up the idea of American dominance, noting that the U.S. makes up 25% of global coffee consumption and was a primary instigator of the takeover of coffee shop chains. Yet coffee is also extremely popular in Europe (especially in Scandinavia, as fans of Stieg Larsson would be unsurprised to discover) and even Japan.

Is this another case of American cultural colonialism, whereby traditions from Europe are adopted, commercialized, and re-sold to captive populations who want to tap into small piece of American corporate and social culture? Or is the global interest in coffee indifferent to American opinion?

Reading the tea leaves (coffee grinds?) to tell the future of consumption

Will coffee culture continue to increase in popularity, eventually supplanting the role of alcohol in social meetings? Two factors are worth considering here. The first is that while demand for alcoholic beverages in the developed world is shrinking, there is a growing interest in all kinds of alcohol (and especially wine) in emerging markets. Take, for instance, the rise of wine as a drink of choice and status symbol in China and Hong Kong as expendable incomes have grown. A similarly proportioned increase in coffee consumption there could be monumental – will it occur?

The second factor is the great cost of producing coffee. Putting aside the fact that most coffee is produced in comparatively poorer countries than those that refine, sell, and consume the finished product, the environmental cost is staggering. Waterfootprint asserts that for every 1 cup of coffee, 141 litres of water are required (mostly at the growing stage). Compare this figure with 75 litres for one similarly sized glass of beer and 120 litres for the average glass of wine and it would seem that a rise in coffee culture at the expense of alcohol could be disastrous for the environment.

Do the above statistics figure largely in the minds of those who drink any of the above beverages? Likely not. But all might – and likely will – in time affect production, and the economics of supply and demand will come into play, changing the equation once more and making it even harder to determine which is the better brew.


Valparaíso: A Tale of Two Cities

December 30, 2010

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

At least, that’s how it felt upon arrival in Valparaíso after a few wonderful days in Santiago. Chile’s two main cities seemed as different as could be. After stepping off the bus in Chile’s “cultural capital” and seeing what greeted us there, we almost got right back on again.

Valparaíso is a port city, historically one of the major stops en route to North America, and still an important departure point for merchant ships, the Chilean navy, and cruises of all kinds. It has hustled and bustled for hundreds of years, and the streets are full of markets, young sailors in uniform and colourful people. They are also full of dirt and refuse of all kinds, and the stench of excrement (human and animal) hangs in the air. For the duration of our 2-day stay, the air was always filled with the sound of ship’s foghorns, people shouting as they hawked their Christmas wares, dozens of dogs howling and barking as they jockeyed for position in the city’s canine hierarchy, and car alarms screeching for what seemed like hours on end.

Valparaíso in all its glory

As we wandered around the winding, cobbled, hilly streets (some at close to a 40° angle or so), at first with our luggage, we attracted the stares of almost everyone. They would look me up and down as if they couldn’t determine whether they first wanted to rape or rob me. There was always the feeling of looking over your shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed by thieves, even in daylight, and of needing to have one hand on your possessions at all times. In the old town, we imagined that we would discover the bars, clubs, and restaurants that all the guidebooks had promised would be thriving and open until late, but by 10:30pm all we found were dark and deserted streets and shuttered buildings bearing “cerrado” (closed) signs.

Everything was run down. I shall have to brush up on the requirements and imposed limitations of bring a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the whole of the city has been designated as one. Perhaps they seek to preserve its “character” and prevent developments that would require building homes that don’t look as though they’ve been torn down and rebuilt five times, and are in the process of crumbling away before one’s eyes yet again.

I immediately noticed the numerous street dogs, which in Santiago had been ubiquitous but also seemingly pure bred and healthy if not totally clean. In Valparaíso, there were many more, and they all seemed to limp, a fact that did not reassure me considering the apparent lack of traffic lights and the exceedingly fast pace of the cars around the blind-cornered streets. My concern proved justified, as it was only the timely intervention of Hubs that prevented me from being hit by a bus travelling at about 100km/hour through a pedestrian crossing and ending up like the dogs – or, more likely, much worse off.

We didn’t love it.

To be fair, I am sure it was not as dangerous as I felt it was. I am sure that for locals, and some tourists who are comfortable with the language and have experience with similar places, it is charming and unexpected. It appears that we care not for Chilean-style “character.”

And were some high points. The city, taken collectively, is a visual treat. Houses of every conceivable colour seem to climb on top of each other as they ascend the hills in a jumbled mess. From our hotel window we could see thousands in every direction.

We visited La Sebastiana, one of the houses of celebrated Chilean poet (and Nobel Prize winner) Pablo Neruda, which was set high in the hills and looked over the whole of the city, still relatively undeveloped in a vertical sense, so the Pacific glimmered from every window. It is a quirky place, full of his collections, passions and obsessions (many of which I share, coincidentally): wall-sized maps, crime novels, fancy tablewear, stained glass doors, and naval paraphernalia. His convivial personality seemed to jump out of his possessions, and they told the story of a man who fully appreciated the good things in life, from material objects like comfortable chairs to entertaining his many friends, or drinking the superb Chilean wine he would give to foreign dignitaries when he was stationed in France as an ambassador. He invented a drink that he described in the style of a military battle, with some ingredients there merely as camouflage, others as thundering cavalry, and still more cast in the role of the conquered army. I don’t think I have ever felt as much that I would love to be someone’s friend after looking through his house as I did with Neruda.

La Sebastiana, Neruda's delightfully quirky house in Valpo

We also spent a lovely day in the neighbouring town of Viña del Mar, and the contrast couldn’t have been greater. Beautiful gardens, clean streets and a nice beach, where we spent a quiet day (giving me my second sunburn of the trip – ouch!). The metro that took us there was cheap, spotlessly clean, comfortable, and fast. (Incidentally, it was, ahem, light rail.) We were amused to see that the practice of adolescents kissing ferociously in public parks extended the whole country, as young people are less likely to move away from home at an age young enough to indulge in such pleasures in private. We norteamericanos must seem quite cold, in comparison.

And, best of all, we had a homey retreat, just in time for Christmas. Our lovely B&B came with a kind proprietor who baked us cake and gingerbread cookies, and we watched Christmas-related Disney movies with her young child as we waited for midnight to come so they could open presents. The owner got us some too – magnets to remind us of our stay. As we descended the cobbled streets with our bags yet again, this time at 7:15 on Christmas morning on our way to the bus station, they were absent of anything but the dogs. The early morning sun shone almost horizontally and lit up the streets, and our suitcase wheels were loud in the holiday-induced silence. It was almost a different city entirely. Character comes in many forms, and it is the people that make (or break) a place – or do both simultaneously.


Silence and Schematics: The Things You Don’t See

December 16, 2010

In my last post I wrote about context and perspective in mapping, and the biases that are inherent in the information presented in different kinds of maps. Biases, of course, can be dangerous because we generally trust the information maps give us. They are more powerful for their apparent objectivity. The science behind them is sound, we think – after all, cartography is based on empirical data.

But just as maps can inform us, they can also make us ignorant – of context, of specific details, and of what we don’t know – even while they’re giving us other information. It isn’t just what we see in the frame that matters, but also what we don’t see, what’s left out. In conveying information, art can be as important as accuracy, and sometimes even more so.

Most early maps contained a lot of information. When little was known about the area beyond what had been explored, cartographers would create a sense of danger and excitement by inserting allegorical images, fantastical creatures, or mythical mountain ranges. They would decorate the frames with pictorial Biblical references, or symbols of their nation’s prowess at exploration and conquest.

A very busy map of Africa from the 1600s

In the above (relatively complete!) map of Africa from the 1600s, note the prevalence of mountain ranges and large rivers (that don’t really exist) and the animal drawings used to take up space. Also note the many decorations of ships in the ocean around the frame (side note: web address watermark not included on the original). What is silent? The cartographer’s ignorance – about the interior topography and other geographical markers. But a casual observer then would not have known this.

It was considered a great leap forward when in 1759 cartographers – influenced by French mapmaker Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville and the Enlightenment tradition dictating that all maps be empirically verifiable – begun to leave blank spaces if precise information about parts of the areas they were mapping was unclear. The practice served to encourage new forays into the “unconquered” and “uninhabited” areas they depicted to determine, for example, the as-yet undiscovered mouths of rivers or the potential treasure/glory/conquest that lay beyond established borders. But primarily these blank spaces lent increasing credibility to what was shown (whether it was accurate or not), by silencing everything else.

Accentuating some pieces of information over others with emphasis and silence grew in popularity even further as the centuries progressed. The most common world map we see, for example, privileges the northern hemisphere over the southern through the use of Mercator’s projection. It also puts the Western world – whether Europe or North America – in the centre of the frame, relegating all other areas to the peripheries.

"The Queen's Dominions at the End of the Nineteenth Century"

In the map above, the bright red colour of Britain’s imperial territories contrasts with the neutral colour of other lands. Islands of small geographical significance jump from the page with red underlines and heavy black labels indicating that they are strategic refuelling outposts, places that ship spices back to Britain, or simply more territory in red. Mercator’s projection is used to great effect, enlarging North America even above the bounds of the map’s frame, at the expense of the southern hemisphere.

It is all intended to provide a sense of a vast, interconnected Empire. While looking at this, viewers might fail to notice the absence of information not related to Britain’s imperial conquest. About other lands, the map is relatively silent, because they are not the focus.

Maps are now used for all kinds of things – everything from directions to websites or thoughts. The proliferation of maps has tended to swell the number of those used for a single purpose, and the trend seems to be toward more specificity but less context.

Consider subway maps, most of which are a legacy from the modernist era. They fall squarely into the “art” over “accuracy” way of conveying information, and are characterized by highly stylized lines, multiple colours and use of sans-serif fonts. The most famous, of course, is Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground, which dates to 1931. Its genius lies in its abstraction, its ability to draw order in the form of clean and easy-to-read visuals from the confusion and complexity of the actual system. Compare the official underground map with the actual map of the subway stations from above the ground:

Schematic Tube Map, Zone 1

 

Tube Lines Mapped to Actual Geography

It takes a certain genius to create schematic subway map order from chaos; no doubt this is the reason these maps are such iconic art pieces, found on buttons, t-shirts, and posters the world over. It’s fascinating to me that they are so simple and so focused – and yet divorced from the actual geography they represent. Almost every major city is the same.

Paris:

Paris Metro

Paris Metro

Washington DC:

Washington DC Metro

Washington DC Metro

Moscow:

Moscow Subway Map - Like an Alien Creature

Even maps of New York City’s frenzied system are relatively simple. But sometimes accuracy wins out over art. In 1975, the New York City transit authority determined that the map they had been using to that point was too much so, and commissioned something that would line up more with the streets above ground. (You will find a fascinating interview with the designer of the 1979 map, which was only just retired a few years ago, as well as several old subway maps from NYC, here.) Yet even this more “accurate” and “realistic” new map has some deviations from reality: Manhattan, and lower Manhattan in particular, have been expanded to accommodate the landmarks and subway lines that all seem to converge there; Brooklyn and the other boroughs are made relatively smaller than their actual size.
It would seem that for clarity or for a great story, some alteration is always necessary, and a bit of silence too. No map designed to emphasize transit lines could hope to show every street, and of course designers realize this.  People are perhaps more willing to put up with silence and abstraction in maps now because they are used to it, and because maps are not expected to be geographically accurate to be authoritative.  It’s an interesting trend that points to our increasing ability to cope with the abstraction and de-contextualization of cartography, even as the broader minimalist modernism movement appears to be winding down (the ever-popular clean lines of IKEA products notwithstanding). What does it mean for the future of maps? Will the definition of a map become ever-broader as we incorporate variations from site maps to schematics? Or do we need a new name for this kind of information vehicle altogether?

This post is part two of a three-part series on the past, present and future of mapping. Check back for a wrap-up later this week.


Mapping in Three Dimensions

December 14, 2010

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.


What Passing-Bells: Why I Remember

November 10, 2010

Local news sites are reporting that only 10% of Torontonians are wearing their poppies this year. Canadian designers are proposing new twists on the old red design that appeal more to young people, arguing that Remembrance Day risks being “lost” in a society where Gen Y apparently can’t identify with its purpose. There are fewer and fewer veterans from World Wars I and II every year to serve as a visual reminder of our military past (and present). Has Remembrance Day run its course?

This question was brought up in my presence recently, and I surprised myself with the vehemence of my reply: no. It is a very real and very necessary act of reflecting on our national history – but has implications for the present as well.

I am admittedly sentimental. I am in favour of more reflection in general about where we’ve come from and how it influences where we’re going, as nations and as individuals. And I find myself drawn to the turn-of-the-century age of our history more than most – the Ralph Vaughan Williams hymns, the neo-Gothic wrought iron and stone architecture, the sense of old boy imperial camaraderie, the Rupert Brooke poetry, and so on. But Remembrance Day is about much more than that.

With two global wars in which our nation’s soldiers are fighting, several others in which they are keeping the peace, and an untold number of skirmishes appearing daily in the news, war is an ever-present concern, not a ‘memory.’ Though many of the veterans of the First and Second World Wars have now died, there are new veterans every year, and they are physical reminders of how important it is to call attention to their sacrifices and the sacrifices of their families, even if only once a year.

This is especially true in a country like Canada, which has relatively recently styled itself a peace-loving, liberal refuge – a national self-image quite different from what it was 100 or even 50 years ago. It is necessary sometimes to call attention to the gritty underside of democracy, and the constant vigilance it requires to create and uphold, a struggle we see play out daily on the other side of the world. We are too comfortable assuming it has no relevance to us, that we were born free and needn’t concern ourselves with anyone else’s chains.

Some people oppose what they see as a militaristic strain in the ceremonies that celebrates war. I see Remembrance Day as the opposite: a sad commentary on the continuing tragedy begot by national hubris. Nations at the end of the nineteenth century were trumped-up on their own importance, caught in a feedback loop that emphasized their own moral and military superiority and desperate to prove themselves the greatest of all peoples. There are loud echoes down to today. War is as much about pride as it is about land and resources. At a time when economies and cultures are cloistering themselves in robes of protectionism and the comfort of historically-derived principles at the expense of dialogue and cooperation, the sharp reminder of the destruction of insularity and war is particularly potent.

I usually attend the University service because it is a sad reminder that many of those who fought – and died – were men and women younger than I am. The newspapers refer to them as a generation that had to grow up quickly. No doubt. Most of us never have to come face-to-face with our most basic values surrounding life and death. Most of us never have to choose between killing someone else and being killed. Most of us don’t face adjusting to life after combat, the surreal juxtaposition of normalcy at home and the violence of memory. But in war these decisions and adjustments are made every day.

History can often seem removed, and the further back it is the less we are able to empathize with and understand those who lived it.  Its personages seem to stride in, fully formed, painted in bold colours as heroes and villains. We need Remembrance Day to show us that these heroes were made, not born. They were as much the architects of their lives and destinies as we are. They were – and are – us.

We live physically and morally comfortable lives. They died, often in agony and discomfort, so we could continue to do so. We promised we would remember. It’s the very least we can do.

MARGINALIA:

  1. OpenFile is a local news source that reports on what readers request. Their special feature on Remembrance Day includes articles and interactive features about Toronto’s military history and veterans, including a Google map overlaid with poppies representing Toronto’s fallen soldiers from WWII and where they lived. It’s worth a look. (thanks, Gareth.)
  2. For those who are literarily inclined, or who were wondering where the first three words of this post’s title originated, I have linked below to some of my favourite war poems:

(I would welcome additional links to your favourites in the comments section below.)