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.

17 thoughts on “On Human Cartography

  1. This seems like a silly debate. Cartography is like writing. Some writing is scientific, and some is art, some is both, and much is neither.

      1. Actually, Daniel, I went to Macalester. Silly debates are more like my shortbread and butter tablet.

        1. I, likewise, went to an elite liberal arts institution. But, then you and I went to a large public university.

  2. I think you sound afraid of science, Daniel. I think this argument is valid, but science does not soil your art, just like writing a scientific paper with good flow and an artistic flair for communication only enhances the paper.

    1. Not afraid, per se. Maybe I’m just going through a swing of the pendulum, rejecting my background in the sciences while I explore a whole new side of my brain that I didn’t have much access to in the past.

      Actually, in secret, it’s just that I like picking an extreme position and arguing it =). But you do have a fair point.

  3. Interesting ideas, although you seem overfond of extremes. I feel compelled to point out that machines do not, in fact, create maps of any kind (just as pens do not). The server performs the same basic function as the atlas – it simply delivers the maps that humans have produced. If you are correct (I’m not saying you are) and current map production is losing its humanity, it is not the machines you should be blaming. There is no point at which machines make aesthetic cartographic choices. All of those decisions are made by humans – the machines just do what they’re told.

    And frankly I find this whole art/science debate to be ridiculous and pretentious. There have never been clear lines between ‘art’ and ‘science’, not in any discipline. There is a science to dance, just as there is art in chemistry. Any attempt to narrowly define a discipline or to force a discipline to exist only within arbitrary distinctions stands very little chance of producing art or anything else of value.

    Art is remarkably devoid of rules, and it is not achieved through pursuit. It is a by-product of self-expression.

  4. Very well put Daniel, there has been a lot of noise in this debate recently (as you mention) but I find your perspective here very interesting, and compelling. Unlike you however, I do view the “art & science” of some crafts as a spectrum and can see that although many arts utilize scientifically derived tools or processes not all are on the same foot in terms of the application of scientific knowledge. Not even all cartography is on the same foot in this sense, but by and large what I feel people mean by”art & science” in map making refers to that aspect of application of knowledge as well as use of tools and data. In this sense, yes, many of the other arts should be categorized as an “art & science”. In particular the examples you mention; sculpture, photography, architecture. Is this real science? Not really, I think it just reflects a way of expressing our understanding of the certain complexities involved in some crafts, some creative processes. There is a connotation in the term art that’s suggests a visceral process, disconnected from planning and precision. Adding science to our descriptor adds back that suggestion of a deep knowledge base from which the artist draws in their work.

  5. I am one human behind Google Maps. One thing that is not pointed out is that web cartography has a new challenge of being global both in audience and subject. Given this new scale, one must mix art and science. Its not possible without computers.

    (I realize this is an older post but I found it via the recent Axis Maps post.)

    1. Hi Scott,

      I wonder, though, if the challenge for web cartography is, in fact, new. Printed maps intended for a wide audience have been around for a long time in such things as reference atlases and in the work of international organizations (NATO, for example, developed standards for map symbols that could be used for cooperative mapping efforts between all its member states). The range of scales offered is new, to be sure, and involves new challenges. But the idea of making something for everyone has been around for a while, I think. While it’s not my particular area of research, I imagine there’s quite a bit of published literature on the subject, given the focus in past decades in cartographic research to find universal design constants.As to how this new version of a general global map requires more science to be mixed in, I’m not sure as I see the connection. Computers are necessary, to be sure, but I don’t think they’re science; they’re tools. This may simply be a matter of perspective.


      1. I think the audience is new. Sharing a single map with people all over the world is new as far as I know. I agree that there were atlases for a wide audience within a single market such as the US but doubt there were atlases sold worldwide.

        I wholeheartedly agree that computers are tools for the creation of art and that web cartography is not void of artistic influence. However, the output of these tools is much larger than anything before it and therefore not every part of the map can be evaluated and influenced by an artistic eye. Science is the experimentation of style. One first hypothesizes a design concept, implements it, then evaluates it against a set of known locations but not all of the map (maps if you include zoom levels.) Science is the part that generalizes design to areas not touched by the artist.

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