The Map as the Original Infographic

Harrison's Map Europe from the Southwest

If ideologies are world views, then maps are, quite literally, ideological since they depict different visions of the world. As frequent users of GPS who take maps for granted as a means of getting from here to there, we probably do not stop to think much about cartography in this way. And if we were to stop and think about cartography, as children of the Enlightenment, many of us would probably argue reflexively that maps are objective representations of the world around us.

But in many ways, maps are subjective because they depend on decisions made by cartographers. Most obviously, mapmakers are confronted by the problem of what to leave in and what to leave out. In the same way that no history can represent the past in its entirety, no map can fully depict a given piece of territory. The decision about what to leave in, of course, is influenced by the use to which the map will be put–but the times and context within which the map is produced also play a role. Since all of these factors constantly mutate, maps change regularly. These changes do not necessarily have anything to do with new knowledge (e.g. the discovery of the New World). To use the analogy with history again, most important changes do not occur because of new knowledge; rather, they occur because existing information is reinterpreted or represented in new ways. This constant change in mapmaking points to the fact that maps—like just about everything else—have a history.

All of these ruminations are a long introduction to the following interesting article that recently appeared in the New Republic:

This article about Richard Edes Harrison’s work highlights the extent to which World War II created a demand among the American public for a new representation of the globe. As the article states, Harrison rejected traditional Mercator projection in favor of representations that restored the “spherical dimension to the map.” Harrison’s maps “emphasized relationships between cities, nations, and continents at the heart of war.” “National borders,” the article continues, “were secondary to regional configurations, and the viewer was forced to reckon strategically with the complex terrain.”

If Harrison’s maps are fascinating, equally fascinating are his critics who charged that his work “was more propagandistic than pictorial and reliable, governed by caricatures of the globe rather than fidelity to latitude and longitude.”  For sure, Harrison’s maps were not “accurate,” and they were subjective in their way. Clearly, his maps were political. The angles he chose and the way in which he represented geography had important political consequences. To take one example, look at the map of “Europe from the Southwest.” It represents, in a way that Mercator projection cannot, the rugged nature of  Southern European geography and graphically explains the difficulties of invading Hitler’s empire from the Mediterranean (a project with which the British were enamored). Moreover, by representing all the theaters of war in his maps as knowable, he maps appeared to promise limitless imperial possibilities to the American public. As the New Republic points out, “in redrawing the map of the world, Harrison contributed to a reconsideration of America’s role in that world.” Before we condemn Harrison (who considered himself an “artist” rather than a mapmaker) as some kind of propagandist, we ought to remember that his way of seeing the world conveyed “an understanding of perspective and direction” that a traditional “two-dimensional sense of geography” could not.

It is in this context that we ought to return to the idea that by leaving some things in and some things out, maps tell a story and push a particular point of view. In many ways, Harry Beck’s iconic map of the London Underground, which first appeared in 1933 (six years before Harrison started making his maps), is immediately relevant.

Beck's Tube Map 1933

If Harrison’s training as a designer led him to portray the world as he did, Beck’s training as an engineering draftsman surely played a role in the conception of his map which resembled an electrical circuit diagram. Beck’s model, which has become the basis for every London Underground map since, did not bother to render distances and geography accurately (the only surface feature retained was the Thames River). In fact, it was utterly useless for navigating London above ground. Rather, the map was supposed to help people navigate the Underground with a minimum of bother, and it served that purpose admirably. Beck’s famous map (like Harrison’s) also worked as propaganda. Its sleekness and simplicity promised easy and efficient travel. It made the Underground, which at this point was about 70 years old, seem modern and elegant. In much the same way that Harrison sought to highlight significant geographical relationships, Beck stressed crucial rail connections. To accomplish their ends, both played fast and loose with a naturalistic or realistic view of the world. In so doing, both pressed home the extent to which maps are nothing more than infographics by a different name.

Such a point may seem obvious, but it is worth stressing because the “infographic” is still something of a new word that has only recently escaped from being considered a neologism (One Thing after Another‘s spellchecker still does not recognize it). As we move through the information technology revolution, we often think that we have produced unprecedented tools to deal with unprecedented difficulties in sorting information. Indeed, we believe that much these days is new or cutting-edge. Yet people have been trying to separate the signal from the noise in graphically striking ways (which is what infographics do) for centuries. Maps have participated heavily in that process. To take one example, Charles Minard (1781-1870), a French civil engineer, made extremely important contributions to this development with a series of maps about economic activity and historical events. His famous Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813 (1869) is widely considered a classic of the genre.

Minard Retreat from Russia

Edward Tufte’s famous work, The Visual Displays of Quantitative Information (1983), claims that Minard’s map “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” It simultaneously captures six different variables: the diminishing size of Napoleon’s army; the longitude of the army; the latitude of the army; the direction in which the army traveled; the location of the army at certain times; and the temperature at certain times and places during its retreat. Contemporaries were most struck by the graphic depiction of the Grande Armée’s destruction in Russia’s frozen wastes. Étienne-Jules Marey claimed the map “defies the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence.”

Or why not look at this map of Civil War-era Louisiana, recently featured in the New York Times‘ Opinionator:

Louisiana Map

The accompanying article does a wonderful job of analyzing and contextualizing this map, used by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commander of the Department of the Gulf:

Only a few rivers and railways were included, while roads as well as any geographical information were entirely omitted. Instead, only parish boundaries, along with statistics about population and agricultural resources were included. Why did the Federal government produce such a map? Because it was determined to exploit Louisiana’s full manpower and economic potential as it “reconstructed” the state in the midst of war.

Infographics, then, are nothing new. If this meandering discussion about maps has any broader significance, it lies in the fact that much of what we see as novel is anything but. Indeed, as Harry Truman once claimed, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”