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Weekend Reads Maps

Why a 70 year-old short story goes to the heart of modern map making

Today is the anniversary of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ death in 1986.


So why are we commemorating that on HERE 360? Because among Borges’ writings is a fascinating one-paragraph story about maps and mapping.

It’s called On Exactitude in Science and was published in 1946. It takes the form of a literary forgery, supposedly a quotation from the fictional Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

This is the whole piece

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography

The empire created maps so exact that they were the size of the empire. In the days of paper maps, that wasn’t a great plan.

Everyone wants more detail to be available in their maps. But the practical consequences of doing that can make those maps unusable.

Or they would. What stops us drowning in ever-more high-definition maps is that we’ve pretty much mastered the art of storing vast quantities on information on devices that fit in your pocket. Or connecting them in real time to even more vast information stores in the Cloud.

But the problem of how much to show and how much to leave out remains very real. How much detail is practical on a smartphone screen? On an in-dash panel that car drivers need to be able to digest at a glance? On a watch face?

Exactitude in Science continues to battle with Legibility in Design to this day. But happily, at HERE, the Disciplines of Geography are as alive as ever.

image credit (stamp): Neftali / Shutterstock.com

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