Mapping Mistakes


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Johan.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you are an explorer.

You set sail off the North West coast of Australia, headed for the island of New Caledonia. Along the way, you’re meant to spend a night at Sandy Island, a strip of land of about 45 square miles that floats in the Coral Sea. Maybe you’ll crack open a coconut, parlay with a native, have a little rum, who knows!

But when you arrive at the coordinates you find nothing except shimmering ocean 4,600 feet deep. A survey of the surrounding waters confirms that Sandy Island is gone.

Actually, Sandy Island never existed at all. It is a “phantom island;” an island that cartographers placed on maps for centuries but that was never actually there.

Perhaps you pictured yourself, the explorer, in an old-timey sailor’s hat, with an eye-patch, a wooden leg, maybe even a pirate’s flag on your mast, but the real-life “un-discovery” of Sandy Island wasn’t made in the 1800s. It was made in 2012, by a University of Sydney research team.

“Somebody, presumably in the 19th century, just made the island up,” says Dr. Jerry Brotton, Professor of Renaissance Studies in the Department of English at the Queen Mary University of London. “But somebody puts it on, and somebody else goes “oh of course there’s an island there!” Then it gets reproduced, then reproduced, then reproduced. That’s the power of the map.”

Brotton is the author of six historical texts including two exploring the nature of maps: The History of the World in Twelve Maps and Great Maps: The World’s Masterpieces Explored and Explained.

A friend of Brotton’s who was living in East Berlin before the wall was taken down told him how he used to listen to the West Berlin radio in secret. He happened to have a map of the territory, so when announcers referred to specific places he found them on it.

When the wall fell, Brotton’s friend walked through West Berlin as if he’d lived there his entire life. A West Berliner even asked for directions to some place and he was able to explain exactly how to get there. He told Brotton it was in that moment he was no longer an East Berliner, but just a German.

“Maps construct and create peoples’ identities and world picture,” Brotton explains. “I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the things that make us human, not unlike language or music.”

Brotton continues to point out that the subjectivity of maps is often overlooked, perhaps because they are so central to the understanding of our environment. As was the case with Sandy Island, people assume that because it is drawn on a map it must be correct.

That’s not to say they are always inaccurate, but intrinsically maps can’t ever be 100 percent objective. The New York Subway Map, for example, is actually mis-proportioned so that it can be read more easily.

So, while we have maps of the scarcely populated corners of the world, they likely depict only part of what is really there. No, we’re not talking dragons or hidden realms, but a map that exactly reflects reality would have to be drawn to a 1:1 scale, which means it would be the same size of the world. That’s pretty impractical.

Rather, maps (like all history) tell us a story about both their creator and audience, and they become even more subjective when their focus is not avenues and streets but cultures and connections.

Artist Nina Katchadourian makes these kinds of abstract maps. In one of her series, she found shapes mimicking earth’s land masses in the way moss grew on rock. She attached lettering to the shapes she thought most recognizable and created photographic “moss maps” of countries around the world, like Taiwan, the UK, and Hawaii.

In another series, she deconstructed a New York Subway map and folded each colored route into a thin paper thread, then held them as a mass in her hand to make them look like “just another piece of tangled trash on the ground.”

“As a designer or map maker you have to think about how people interpret, or, culturally who is your audience,” says multimedia programmer and designer Sha Sha Feng. “Even though you try to present the information equally you can’t… because you’re trying to tell a story.”

Interested in how people who created them saw their own maps, Feng started the project Map about Maps, where she interviewed artists, traditional mapmakers, and technologists to see what their definitions were.

Feng also co-founded the organization DIVAS for Social Justice which works with marginalized communities to create maps depicting cultural information. For example, their project “Perspectives on Alcohol in East New York” is a digital map of the proximity of alcohol advertisements to schools, examining the effect of the ads on youth binge drinking.

“Technology has made it a little easier for us to show information,” Feng says, having used Google Maps for most of her projects.

But even Google Maps is interpretive. In the early stages of development, Manhattan was well documented while some neighborhoods in Brooklyn didn’t show up.

Google Maps happens to be the last of Brotton’s 12 featured in his book A History of The Word in Twelve Maps. He explores the technology through interviews within the company as well as small business owners who want to be featured on Google Maps. His revelation is that even Google has a mapmaking agenda.

“When they bought the software–the Keyhole Viewer, which would eventually form the basis of Google Earth–they had no idea what they would use it for!” Brotton says. “And then they suddenly sort of realized that it was an adjunct to search, and that 40 percent of all searches were geographical.”

Again, he points out, that this is the power of maps. It’s extremely central to the way in which Google’s revenue works around advertising because companies want to be on the map. It is subject to bias.

That bias extends further. Whether by design or coincidence (but, come on, it’s probably design, this is Google we’re talking about) there is a list of places that are blurred out on Google Maps, including government agency locations, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program Center, several high-powered CEO homes, a National Park in Chile and more.

Now that is the power of maps.

If you feel like donning that eye patch and setting sail for uncharted territory, start with exploring these curious locations.

Let us know how it goes.