Thinking Outside the Map

“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”

“About six inches to the mile.”

“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, 1893


“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

–Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, 1893

Nothing beats the experience of directly interacting with the outside world. All five senses are involved: we see, we feel, we smell, we hear, and we taste our way through our world.

However, sometimes it’s necessary for us to create abstractions of reality. These abstractions simplify things, letting us focus on the information that’s most important for the task at hand without sacrificing understanding. Removing the extraneous elements helps us to cope with complexity. Think of a short story told to teach an important lesson; a simple diagram drawn to explain a complex system; or an elegant map created to demystify confusing geography.

By definition, maps are abstractions of geography. For centuries, these abstractions have proven to be invaluable to humans: information stored in map form has helped us communicate geographically and make better decisions. Maps have certainly played a key role in the advancement of humankind.

As fellow Esri Insider blogger and map-lover Bern Szukalski pointed out in his recent post “There’s Something about a Map…”, maps have a number of advantages, such as:

  • Maps are portable and reliable.
  • Maps are not dependent on other technology.
  • Maps are a platform for communication and collaboration.

Maps are both useful and wonderful; they can be highly utilitarian and amazingly beautiful at the same time. They have proven their usefulness, but they are not without their limitations. Many maps are context-specific. For example, a map of the subway system can be completely useless once you step out of the tunnel and try to navigate the remaining half mile to your destination on foot. Maps also have extent and scale. If you need to see an area just outside the map border, or need a higher level of detail for a particular area, then you need a different map.

A tube map is invaluable, until you step outside of the tube. Source:

While maps are still the dominant medium for sharing geographic intelligence, their usefulness has become strained as the world around us continues to increase in complexity. Enter geospatial technologies, which give us exciting new ways of abstracting and interacting with geography, allowing us to step outside of the limiting paradigm of a map.

With GIS we are not simply replacing paper-and-ink-based maps with maps on computer screens, but we are evolving and extending the definition of what “maps” are and how we use and interact with them. At our fingertips we have both vast collections of data describing our world at tremendous levels of detail, and the tools to quickly and easily create a virtually limitless number of custom “maps” for a multitude of purposes. The screens of our computers, smart phones, and tablets become windows in to the wonderful world of geography, giving us access to the real-world platform beneath our feet. This concept of geography as a platform is creating a revolution in how we understand our world and plan for the future, all while avoiding the “paradox of the complete map” that Lewis Carroll so eloquently described back in 1893.

Matt Artz

About Matt Artz

Matt Artz joined Esri in 1989. In his current role as GIS and Science Manager, he helps communicate the value of GIS as a tool for scientific research and understanding. He writes extensively about geospatial technologies and manages the GIS and Science blog. Prior to joining Esri he worked as an Environmental Scientist at a large science and engineering consulting company, on such diverse projects as highway noise modeling, archaeological impact assessment, and chemical weapons disposal. His educational background includes an M.S. degree in Environmental Policy and Planning and a B.S. degree in Anthropology and Geography.
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  1. azolnai says:

    Great story as usual, Matt. Is the London Underground map not a topological map? That displays the connections useful to a passenger, but with no relationship to the actual locales… Geologists would say: useful from a ‘worm’s eye view’ but not from a ‘bird’s eye view’…When I moved to Calgary, W Canada from France, I thought the roads maps were also topological maps… Until I learned that roads did follow section lines, even the corrective double right angle turns to jog and follow the convergence of longitudes!