Maps Reflect Interests of Their Makers

DENIS WOOD'S book "The Power of Maps" sheds a brilliant new light on our customary experience of maps.

We live in a "map-immersed" society, according to Wood. Maps of every description abound: on matchbook covers, placemats, billboards, the backs of envelopes; on supermarket fliers, in newspapers, in atlases, in tax rolls.

Wood argues the following theses brightly and readably:

* All maps are direct and inevitable instruments of the interests that create them.

* Maps that we are accustomed to thinking of as divorced from special interest - "general purpose" maps in atlases, geologic survey maps - best serve their particular interests to the degree that they succeed in persuading us that they have none.

* Maps, and the interests embodied in them, are interpretable.

* Users of maps, enlightened as to the ways maps mask - and implement - interests, can use and make maps that serve their own interests. Wood's book ends with a series of impassioned examples of maps - "freed from this burden of dissimulation" - able to work as instruments for data processing, reasoning about quantitative information, and persuasion.

Ultimately, map-makers and map-users - all of us - can through maps participate more actively in problem-solving in our neigborhoods, our cities, our countries, our world. "We don't have problems cartographers can fix, we have problems - for example ... illegal drug use (or AIDS or school integration or local self-knowledge or declining biodiversity) - and maps can help solve them," Wood writes. The power of maps is in the work they do: advancing causes, representing points of view.

To reach these somewhat self-evident conclusions with the punch this book delivers, Wood first takes his reader through the bewildering variety in the world of maps, constantly questing and digging: What is the map showing or omitting? Why?

The first taste of his detailed approach comes with his examination of the map of the lot his house sits on. After the recitation of the deed survey ("Beginning at the stake ... thence ...,"), and a reproduction of the map itself from the county registry, he writes:

"But there is no stake, there are no stakes, there is nothing to see; or where there is, all acknowledge that the fence does not follow the property line but veers across it; the only reality is the map...."

The map connects him less to the land itself ("it is the property the map creates") than to an "activity of another world - the past in which control of this land was seized by the English Crown and granted to those who sold or gave it to those who sold or gave it to those who sold or gave it to those who sold it to us."

That the world of the past enters the world of the present, and our living, through the map is a fact that Wood reiterates through example: a coastal marine-navigation chart, a North Carolina geologic map, a map showing destruction at Hiroshima.

From here it's a simple step to note that most maps conceal this phenomenon, and that most map users accordingly consent (unwittingly) to the "pretense that what the map shows us is ... reality," he writes. "No aspect of the map is more carefully constructed than the alibi intended to absolve it of this guilt."

Wood continues with four closely reasoned chapters, which first demolish the map's "alibi," then study the processes (signs) by which maps achieve their (makers') ends. He declines to take the familiar potshots at propaganda, disinformation, and advertising maps - though they fit his thesis.

Instead, he takes on Tom Van Sant's "famous now, famous already" portrait map of Earth, the satellite composite view of the earth entitled "A Clear Day," which you have probably seen, maybe even in the pages of this newspaper.

Wood observes that Van Sant's map is presented as "the acme of cartographic perfection, an image of the world so ... true as to render all the questions raised in the preceding chapters about perspective, authorship, point of view ... hopelessly out of date."

I won't ruin the fun for the reader of seeing how Wood proceeds in 22 pages not merely to cast doubt on, but also to shred any sense of Van Sant's Earth-portrait as in any way more true or less the product of innumerable historical and contemporary choices and biases than any other map. That he does it unmaliciously is part of the delight of this book. But you will never look at any map the same way again.

`The Power of Maps' was published in conjunction with the exhibit of the same name on view now through March 7, 1993 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design in New York City. Call (212) 860-6868 for information.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.