I’m pretty relentless about adopting new technologies and usually unregretful about the ones left behind. In particular I have grave doubts about whether the “book”, I mean in its paper form, has or even deserves a future. But there are two sides to this story.

Two maps

Here we have two cartographic renditions of more or less the same piece of the planet; one via Google Maps on a Nexus S, the other on page 101 of the Ninth Comprehensive Edition of the Times Atlas of the World.

The picture fails to convey the immense size of the Atlas; after dinner this evening, five people shared it comfortably for a lesson in New Zealand geography. It’s opened rarely enough that a heady ink-and-paper aroma drifts up off its pages when you turn them. The amount of information squeezed into a two-page spread like this is staggering; Edward Tufte has argued that quality cartography is without equal in visual information density.

I may be sort of paying homage here to publishing-as-it-was, but the question occurs to me: Is this impressive-looking book actually considered good? The useful-but-too-short Wikipedia entry suggests that yes, it’s not bad, and that this Ninth was the last edition which was not completely produced by computer cartography. It links to the book’s own site, which unlike the book is ordinary and information-thin.

I love maps; always have. And I use the electric maps on my phone and computer a thousand times for every time the Atlas leaves the shelf. But still, it seems like it would be terrible if it weren’t there.


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From: Kamil Kisiel (Sep 10 2011, at 01:16)

Sea kayakers (and presumably sailors etc) still prefer paper charts over GPS for this exact reason. It's much harder to get your bearings and get a sense of the scale of an area when you are looking at it on a tiny LCD screen. The screen also lacks the ability to convey enough detail when zoomed out to a useful level (say, 1:40,000).


From: Dave Pawson (Sep 10 2011, at 02:29)

So Tims sitting firmly on the fence on this one?

A time and a place for each?

Deciding which format for each use case is a more useful debate IMHO?

reference? Electronic.

Serial read... either.

One off read, electronic (bulk)

Reference where you want to cut and paste.... which form of electronic?

Endless options.

I think the fence is a good place to be!



From: Dave Walker (Sep 10 2011, at 07:00)

As a fellow cartographophile (is this the correct term?), I agree - a well-drawn map is a beautiful as well as a useful thing, and it's often fascinating to look through old maps of a given place to see how it has changed over time. Maps not only serve as a window into history, the history of cartography and the instruments used in compiling map data is itself a subject worthy of interest.


From: John Cowan (Sep 10 2011, at 07:35)

This looks like a case for a really big (say A0-sized, 1 square meter) color flexible screen. It would cost a pretty penny, but you could get *every* atlas on it, and a lot of other coffee table books (art, natural history, lolcats -- why has no one come out with _The Art of the Lolcat_?)


From: jim Harvie (Sep 10 2011, at 08:05)

Incredible piece, and for you long. Is it rude of me to demand more?

I detect that you feel conflicted. You should not.

Old technologies do not die, like McArthur they just fade away, and that okay. They were hard, and all worthwhile things will always remain so, because the easy is seldom the best, which also is okay, because there will only be one of them for each of us, and best is alway (or should always be) the goal. And it is not inconsistent to want democracy and ubiquity, and that demands ease of use.

You embrace the new, as we all do I think, because it makes your precious time less wasteful, it makes ease a part of your life and that might be dangerous but not bad.

Nor is it a bad thing to leave the book behind. We have to be careful with the light we use, on our electronic devices, for those delicate youthful eyes some of us may bemoan, because they use these new technologies with so much more ease than us.

That their is an ease in attitude, a so what, this is what I expect attitude, is not a bad thing either.

Which, sadly, leads to the conclusion that, hey its all good.


From: dan (Sep 10 2011, at 11:00)

Has anyone else noticed that books with maps at the start tend to be interesting? Is that just me?


From: Mano Marks (Sep 10 2011, at 11:08)

There is a wistfulness I find I have when I look at paper maps. I love them, the artistry of them, the expressive power. I have a collection of old maps that tell us, firmly, concretely and unchangingly how the cartographer viewed the world. And paper is physical, in the same way the world is.

But I think we no longer view the world in a firm, concrete and unchanging way. It is constantly changing and our maps do as well, updating themselves with more recent data, more improved designs, different ways to look at things. And I occasionally find myself pinning for the permanence of a physical map, the sense of this is how the world is and this is the scale.

On a side note, I wrote a post at the end of 2009 about mobile maps and physicality. http://randommarkers.blogspot.com/2009/12/mobile-maps-and-physicality.html There's something different about mobile devices from the computer screen, that sense of interaction, of moving the thing and carrying it with you that does harken back to paper maps.

But little matches the beauty and scale of the paper map. We could do it. Put that thing on a 30" monitor and you have the scale and beauty. But holding it in your hands, that's another thing.


From: Ian (Sep 10 2011, at 15:00)

I've heard it said that soldiers have a saying:

A map with a bullet hole in it is still a map. A computer with a bullet hole in it is a paperweight.

I don't think paper maps are going anywhere anytime soon.



From: Greg Lehey (Sep 10 2011, at 18:16)

There are two aspects to this issue. One is the romance of printed maps, which has its place, but it's not going to keep people producing maps. The other is the quality: present-day web applications, very much including Google Maps, are nowhere near as detailed or accurate as good printed maps. That will change, but it doesn't seem to be happening as fast as I would expect. Until the web comes out of denial about the good aspects of traditional printing, books and printed maps will have their place.



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September 10, 2011
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