30 Days – Day #6: Maps

Well, today’s topic is “something that tickles your fancy”, and what tickles my fancy this morning is maps.

We’ll start with a quote that was very nearly the quote I used yesterday, and is something that I willl probably have tattooed on myself at some point in the not-too-distant future. “The map is not the territory”. That’s Robert Anton Wilson, talking there, and it’s a simple a pithy phrase that means in essence that just because we can model, explain, or illustrate something in a particular way right now, we should not confuse our current way of thinking with the truth. There is always more to learn, and if we accept that what we know now is that absolute truth, we run the risk of becoming dogmatic, and ignoring future discoveries.

Which is, of course, why fundamentalists always misunderstand science – they have confused their map with the territory, and have trouble the idea that the map science provides is subject to change – for them the very fact that it’s subject to change means that it cannot be true. So their faith tells them that X is true, while science asks them to give you the comfortable certainty of X for the more difficult uncertainty of any one of a number of other letters.

But I’m digressing. I don’t just like maps as metaphor. I like them as objects in an of themselves. The inamorata knocked it out of the park a couple of months ago, when she bought me a poster of an old tube map, from back before it was the tube, when there were only half a dozen short lines, and it was called “The London Electric Railway”. I went out and bought a frame for it the very next day, and it’s hanging in pride of place in my office. I think that anyone that knows me could instantly understand why it would.

I said a minute ago that I don’t just like maps as metaphor, and that’s true, but I think it’s more accurate to say that I love them because the are metaphors. Maps are a very human thing – a means to reframe the world in a different context, a means to make vast scopes smaller, and more comprehensible. I love them because they same territory can be mapped in hundreds of different ways, and each of them is true, and valid, and will show us something different about that space. Maps illuminate the real and the unreal with equal ease – chart territories both physical an imaginary, or, indeed, the intersection of the two in a marvellous manner.

Maps exist at the point where art and science touch, a space for design and culture. And they’re ever evolving – there is no such thing as a completely finished map, because by the time a map is done, the thing it is mapping will have changed.

One of my favourite ever maps, in fact, is visible incomplete. My Dad owns two volumes of a three volume set of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. If he had all three, in the same nick that the two he has are in, they’d be worth a grand or two. As it is, they’re worth about 20 quid each. But their worth isn’t my point, except perhaps to illustrate why I was allowed to handle them as kid, and have therefore seen the map of the world contained therein.

The first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in 1776. On the map of the world in contains, the coastline of Australia is incomplete, and it is not labelled as Australia, but rather “New Holland”. Absolutely bloody magic.