THE MAP IS NOT THE TERRITORY

BY DEBORAH PICKETT

Growing up on my parents' farm in Monbulk, there was a lot of time for solitary activities. Sitting in the back of the car on the long commute to . . . well, everywhere, I became good friends with the street directory tucked into the back of the seat in front. Soon, this love affair grew to embrace all maps. I consumed every map I could find, even drew my own. Particularly prized were the rare maps that encompassed enough of Melbourne to depict the road I lived on, Coulson Road. Having my home street on the map was a reminder that these maps depicted something real

But it dismayed me to discover that these maps, of supposedly the same place, did not agree with each other. Not just little things, like the radius of curvature of the bends in my street, but facts that were, to my experience, not in dispute. One map showed my road having a dead end; this was obviously wrong, because I'd been to the end of Coulson Road, and there was another road there. Another showed a track crossing over Coulson Road, joining it to adjacent parallel roads. [1] If that track were there, I'd have had a shortcut that saved twenty minutes off the walk home from school, so there was incentive to find this nonexistent track. I never found it. That is how I learned that the map is not the territory.

How could the creators of the map make such mistakes? It never occurred to my child's mind that Coulson Road was so insignificant that no cartographer had visited it to check. Instead, they'd probably just copied an earlier map, which, in turn, was copied from an even earlier map. At the end of the chain was likely a surveyor's chart, created before any of the roads were built, where both Coulson Road and the phantom track existed as equals, both potential paths yet to be constructed. The later transformation of one from potential road to actual road went unnoticed by the mapmakers; it took an observation by someone who lived there to collapse the waveform into Road or No Road. How quantum.

Copying from earlier maps is a tradition that is almost as old as maps themselves. Maps exude an air of authority with their crisp lines and fine detail; it's only natural to borrow some of that authority when you make a new map. Besides, there's nothing worse than a map with an empty space on it. Empty spaces exude uncertainty. Better to fill it with a confident compass rose, or a body of water that—if you want to be technical—isn't actually there. It was just such a speculative body of water that turned California into an island in the sixteenth century. I bet it wasn't until some seafaring captain tried to circumnavigate California and kept inexplicably running aground that this error was finally corrected, more than a hundred years later.

Ideas like the Island of California have staying power, even when they are inconveniently not borne out by reality. Consider the medieval T-and-O map. Many early maps of the flat earth neatly divide the continents into a semicircular Asia and equal pie wedges for Europe and Africa, with the Mediterranean, Black and Red seas propped between them in a giant straight-edged blue T, all ringed with an Oceanic O. Such schematic maps are woefully unrealistic for navigational purposes, but the symmetry and attractiveness of the design was inescapable, and much copied.

Despite the obvious inaccuracies in medieval maps, they are not strictly fakes, because they lack deliberate deception. Later, in the Renaissance, and especially the subsequent Age of Exploration, the thought of deliberately putting incorrect information on a map fell out of favour, when a greater need for maps to reflect reality emerged for commercial reasons. The world was being carved up among seafaring nations; what better way to prove your claim than a map that can be verified by those who come along after you? Some of the most beautiful, precise maps are from this time. Simultaneously explored by the French explorer Nicolas Baudin and the British explorer Matthew Flinders in the early nineteenth century, the coastlines of Australia in their respective maps are carbon copies but for the language of the place names. There was no place in these maps for fakery.

Having achieved perfection, the value of a perfect map plummeted. Soon came the knockoffs, which could be hawked for less than the original. Now the accuracy of a map compared with the real world worked against cartographers. How do you prove that someone copied your map when your map, and theirs, is indistinguishable from the real world? Tactical dishonesty. When you make your map, add a fictitious feature no one will notice: perhaps a small dead-end street or a hill that isn't there. Give it a plausible but unusual name. Then wait, and look in the same place on your competitors' maps. A careless plagiarist will dutifully copy your trap street.

Trap streets are the guilty little secret of cartography. All maps are suspected of having them, but finding a genuine trap street on a real map is fiendishly difficult: the moment that they are outed they are useless, a liability to be removed from the next edition. It pays to keep them obscure. Known examples of fake (but not accidentally so) locations on maps are rare. When they do surface, it is usually in conjunction with a lawsuit, when the copyright holder can prove plagiarism to the satisfaction of a court. Such a case happened in 2001 when the British Ordnance Survey successfully sued the Automobile Association for copying its maps.

An interesting variant is the case of the fictitious towns of Beatosu and Goblu, playfully inserted across the border in Ohio on the official Michigan state map. They were added not to detect copyright violations but as an in-joke by the cartographer, in support of his home state's college football team (‘Go Blue’) against their arch-rival Ohio State University (‘Beat OSU’).

The demand for detailed and accurate maps continues to increase, to the point where until recently only governments and multinational corporations could afford the cost of surveying. Having so few producers of maps allows them to obscure state secrets. Soviet maps of Moscow were deliberately lacking in detail to prevent spies (and, as collateral damage, tourists) from using them. The CIA made and printed a much better map of the city, which it happily sold to tourists for commercial and political gain. But the US was no angel when it came to its own territory: Area 51 was famously absent from most maps of Nevada until declassification of documents in 2013, apparently for no deeper reason than the government wanted it that way.

With the move from paper to screen, and with the advent of satellite navigation, the players have changed only slightly. Maps are still big business. But perhaps not for much longer. Keen to repeat the success of Wikipedia, the OpenStreetMap Foundation is using online crowdsourcing to produce the world's biggest open source map. Everyone is encouraged to copy the map, and everyone is encouraged to contribute to it and correct mistakes. The only restriction is that contributions must have ground truth: copy only from the real world, by mapping only what you have seen in person, for instance. OpenStreetMap is unsullied by the fake honeypots of commercial or government maps.

Crowdsourced maps like OpenStreetMap have democratized cartography, often in odd ways. Because it is made by locals who map what is important to them, OpenStreetMap is, in some parts of the world, better than the commercial equivalent. The level of detail in OpenStreetMap's rendition of Berlin Zoo is something to behold. 

I've done my bit for OpenStreetMap. I've already corrected the bends of Coulson Road. If OpenStreetMap had existed in my childhood I would have mapped what was important to me at the time: the tree my cat Ginger would climb, or the paddock where our horse grazed. I might have even put a honeypot dead-end street, just to see if anyone copied it.

Deborah Pickett's pornstar name is Ginger Coulson.

  1. This track is still shown in Google Maps
The Vinland map [partial image], c. 1400, black ink on animal skin. Image from Yale University and Wikimedia Commons. The Vinland map, discovered in 1957, is purportedly a fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth-century original. If authentic, the map is the first known depiction of the North American coastline, created before Columbus’s 1492 voyage. Most scholars and scientists who have studied the map have concluded that it is a fake, probably drawn on old parchment in the twentieth century.  However, chemist Garman Harbottle, after carbon-dating the parchment map at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in 2002, stated that ‘if it is, in fact, a forgery, then the forger was surely one of the most skillful criminals ever to pursue that line of work’. The map is kept at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Vinland map [partial image], c. 1400, black ink on animal skin. Image from Yale University and Wikimedia Commons. The Vinland map, discovered in 1957, is purportedly a fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth-century original. If authentic, the map is the first known depiction of the North American coastline, created before Columbus’s 1492 voyage. Most scholars and scientists who have studied the map have concluded that it is a fake, probably drawn on old parchment in the twentieth century. 

However, chemist Garman Harbottle, after carbon-dating the parchment map at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in 2002, stated that ‘if it is, in fact, a forgery, then the forger was surely one of the most skillful criminals ever to pursue that line of work’. The map is kept at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Next: Vermiculation by Mike Lynch

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