Sunday, October 15, 2006

How Do Maps Work?

I was lost in a shopping mall so I found a directory map and there was a big red circle on it labeled, "You Are Here." But what did that mean? I was not even touching the map. Now, if the big dot were on the floor and I was standing on it, it would make sense for the dot to say, You Are Here. But that wouldn't be helpful.

From what point of view was I “here” at the red dot on the map? Somebody who had an impossible view of a transparent mall from a blimp overhead, might be able to identify my spatial location in relation to the shops and corridors around me, and they could take a picture and put a dot on the image and say, "He is here." But that wouldn’t help me.

A map is a view from nowhere. How does one take a view from nowhere when each of us is always somewhere?

A map that includes a representation of its viewer is a paradox, and yet you must have an idea of where you are on a map in order to read it. But you can't be represented on the map and the viewer of the map at the same time.

I don't understand how maps work.


  1. Hmmm... you have some semantic problems here. A map is not a "view from nowhere". Having made a silly assumption you extrapolate from it to assume that it permits you to ask a meaningless question predicated on it.

    A map is a collection of symbols representing the spatial inter-relationships of the objects represented by those symbols, not a view from anywhere.

    Then there's your "you are here" point. Actually, what it says is shorthand for "the location you are currently occupying is represented on this map as this location". That's too much for John Doe, hence "you are here".

    I can't make my mind up whether, for an academic, you have sloppy thinking habits, or you are checking out us dumb clucks out here in non-academia. ;-)

  2. Thanks for the gratuitous insult. I guess some feedback is always better than no feedback.

    Your analysis unwittingly restates the problem without solving it.

    The map represents the terrain from some point of view, right? It is impossible to represent a terrain from NO point of view. Usually the point of view is overhead, looking down at the layout of the buildings.

    If I mistakenly hold a road map upside-down I cannot find my way because I have the wrong point of view on the map. So in this case, I take the map's implicit point of view, from a blimp over the mall.

    But at the same time, I must take the point of view of "guy looking at a vertical display inside the mall."

    Requiring me to take two points of view at once is confusing enough, but I must also translate from one to the other in order to know which way I should walk to get to Nordstrom. How does that work?

    And most confusing is the red dot that says "You are here." I am over the mall in a blimp, inside the mall at a sign, and also somewhere in between the two, magically transforming one point of view into the other.

    Instead of the red dot, why doesn't the map show a little picture of a person reading the map display?

    You know why? Because the map display in the picture of the map display would have to show another picture of a guy reading the map display!

    Hope that helps.