On Human Cartography

At the instigation of my colleague Tim Wallace, the UW Cartography Diaspora has been lately abuzz with a debate on the role of art and science in cartography (particularly web cartography). Today’s post is my contribution to the discussion.

For some background, I recommend you first read through the comments of my colleagues on the subject:

Tim Wallace: “Web Cartography in Relation to Art & Science
Tim Wallace: “On Art & Science in Web Cartography
Andy Woodruff: “Apart from being dead, Art and Science are strong in web cartography

Tim has challenged several of us to respond to him in writing, so more of my colleagues may be chiming in later. I’ll add their posts here as they come up.

Onward to my own comments…

I’m going to stray a bit from where my colleagues have focused and talk about art in cartography generally, not just where it fits in web cartography, because that’s what caught my attention initially. For me, this whole debate started like this:

Tim: “…my commentary is on the displacement of art in web cart[ography].”

Me: “If art’s being displaced from web cartography, that makes it not cartography anymore.”

Caveat: Tim may have been talking about horse carts and I just assumed he meant cartography.

Among all this discussion of “what is the role of art in cartography,” my proposition is this: cartography is a form of art. Art is not simply a component of cartography, alloyed with a liberal dose of science or technology or hackery. Art is what cartography is made of. It belongs on the same list as sculpture, as poetry, as painting.

Mandatory Venn diagram

What of science? Doesn’t a lot of that go into mapmaking? We cartographers use fancy digital tools that can calculate and render smooth bezier curves or instantly translate a color from an RGB space into CMYK process colors and determine how much ink to lay down based on print materials and coatings, etc. We also use math to analyze and manipulate our data: map projections, interpolations, calculating buffer zones, etc. Does this make cartography a science as well as an art? Not necessarily.

A ceramicist relies on redox chemistry in order to produce colorful glaze patterns, firing everything in carefully controlled kilns to ensure that they achieve a desired appearance. A metal sculptor welds and files and cuts with various modern technological implements. A painter employs different varieties of paints, blended with precision in modern factories. Does this mean that all of these pursuits rely on both art and science, sitting at the intersection of those two august concepts?

The argument that cartography is, or involves, science boils down to two things: tools and data. Cartographers use tools and techniques that were developed through scientific experimentation and research. But so do other arts. The synthetic painter’s brush didn’t invent itself. The other half of the argument is that cartographers use math and science to manipulate data. Again, that doesn’t make us unique. The data are our clay, the raw material input that our art requires. We manipulate our data the way a sculptor shapes their medium of choice into a final expressive work. I might use some mathematical formulae to transform a dataset, but a ceramicist will use a modern human-built kiln to change the chemical properties of their clay into something more desirable. Both require education and experience, and an understanding of the raw materials and how they are best manipulate.

If cartography is both an art and science, so is sculpture. So is painting. So is photography. So is architecture. It goes on. We cannot declare that cartography is both an art and a science without claiming the same for many other fields. If we’re all willing to do that, then, yes, I agree cartography is an art and science. But if sculpture is “just art,” then so is cartography.

There may be a science to the tools or the data or the materials, but the art is in what the artist does with those inputs. That is where cartography lies. Cartography is about creating something out of spatial data, just as painting is about creating something out of pigment and canvas. Art is in the doing.

Back to Tim’s prompt. If art is missing from web cartography, or is at least not as present as we’d like, it’s because art requires people. What’s really missing from web cartography, and a lot of digital cartography generally, is humanity. Cartography is a fundamentally human practice. Machines don’t need maps — they can understand their environment through a series of databases and formulae. They don’t need a visual expression of space to help them interpret and interact with places, the way that people do. For most of human history, the maps people read were made by fellow human beings who drew everything out by hand and with at least a modicum of thought to how it looked. Every mark on the page involved a decision and an intent; an artist making use of the inputs at hand to try and evoke the desired reaction from a reader — maybe to create an understanding (this is where the river is), a judgment (the country across the river is a threat), or a feeling (worry that said country is going to harm us).

Now, however, we have machines that make the maps for us. Through automated or semi-automated processes, people are involved less and less in the creation of the final map. Click a button and the computer will place everything for you, and color it, too. Most of the marks on the final page can make it there with no active human decision behind them. No more intent. No human brain considering how the typeface or the line color or weight will affect a fellow human reader. There is less art now because there is less humanity. Machines do not express, or create, or understand how to evoke a reaction. Machines do not make art.

When humans made maps for each other, the cartographer had at least some understanding of how their work might influence a reader’s thoughts and feelings,  by virtue of being the same species. But now the creator of the map is part digital, a human-machine hybrid, and that connection with the reader is fading. So many maps today are unattractive because they are alienating, because they were not made by people, but by insensate machines. There is no sapience behind the lines they draw, no appreciation for mood, for aesthetics. The machine does not desire to make you think or feel or learn anything in particular, as the artist does, and this is the heart of what is wrong with so much of cartography today. Only humans can make maps for other humans. Digital tools are all well and good, but they must remain just that: tools, in the hands of a human capable of wielding them wisely and with a purpose.

Therefore if there is no art in web cartography, it is no longer cartography, because cartography is an art. Instead, we are seeing something new, the rise of the map made without humans. That’s a recent development, and it certainly has its own value as far as things like production speed, accessibility, and cost go. But the lack of human intent, of art, means that it is a fundamentally different thing than cartography. Related, to be sure, but separate. I’ll leave it to someone else to think of a name for it. Just like I wouldn’t call it art when an automated algorithm paints a painting based on a digital photograph, it’s not cartography when a server tosses together a map based on a spatial database. Any art that inheres in that process was left there in the form of the lingering human intelligence of the programmers who helped the computer figure out how to make the map/painting, and that’s usually not too much. There is no art without creative intention. Therefore there is no cartography without a human creator.

In the end, I and the other bloggers involved in this discussion are neither right nor wrong. There are a lot of different ways to think about cartography; this one is mine, based on my self-image as a spatial artist. I don’t think any major decisions need to be made about what cartography really is. There are just different models that help us all figure out what it is we’re doing, and how to do it better. In an increasingly digital world, this is how I am personally trying to articulate the relevance of my role as a human cartographer.

EDIT: A tweet from @shashashasha points out that I neglected to say anything about that other tricky term, “design.” To me, design means making decisions based on goals. It’s again about using our human brains to see something we want to do, then making cartographic choices to get there. The random and the organic are undesigned. Where there is intelligence and intention, there is design, which ties back into most of what I said above.