Two years ago, the New York Times ran two articles within a week of one another. The first was about self-referential phrases that reveal the pervasive narcissism in our culture (haters gonna hate; it is what it is). The second was a sentimental reminiscence about the Thomas Guide, a once indispensable collection of street-level maps of Los Angeles that is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the day of the GPS. The author of the Thomas Guide article lamented the loss of this atlas, noting that, “entire generations are growing up cartographically challenged, if not downright illiterate.”
Despite the disparate topics, the two articles merged as one in my mind and added up to a singular critique. The problem, I fear, is not our inability to read a map but rather the problem of our own logic being sufficiently held up by our own logic—a culture in which the self is the primary reference point. Put differently, the problem is that, in our GPS world, we expect maps to function more like mirrors than pictures.
I grew up in a family devoted to car travel; memories of road trips in our Chevy station wagon punctuate my youth. In my memory, all these trips begin the same way: my parents ordering a TripTik from their auto club a month or so prior to our departure. This rudimentary form of GPS would eventually arrive in our mailbox, a fat envelope containing a spiral bound series of state maps demarking our route in yellow highlighter. My parents would sit down at the dining room table with the booklet, spread out the maps of their own, and survey the journey ahead of us. For my mother, the directions were gospel; for my father, suggestive. He would stare at the highlighted segment of roads, and then improvise to find alternative routes to our destination. Ones that might take us closer to a historical site or through a “scenic byway.” To my father, the maps could be both guide and reference.
Relying on paper maps is a habit that has followed me into adulthood. In these digital days, I regard them almost like a talisman. In the window seat of the plane, I routinely flip to the basic country map at the end of the in-flight magazine to make educated guesses about which mountain range or river I might be seeing below. Once at my destination I will seek out the neighborhood street map available in the hotel room binder and roughly commit it to memory before setting out to explore. I know there are better, electronic alternatives, but somehow they leave me wanting. Like my father, I don’t simply want to be told where to go.
Perhaps not surprisingly, my children like maps too. But here’s the thing: the maps they engage are maps that locate them at the center. Maps they access on our phones, or standing over my shoulder as I look up the address of a birthday party on the computer, immediately present them with a solid red dot representing either their destination, their point of origin, or both. Looking at a map without self-insertion is tough for them.
A few years ago, I was looking at an online map of New York, doing some planning for our own summer road trip along I-90, when my six-year-old sidled up next to me and leaned in. Staring at it, he asked with some bewilderment, “Where are we?”
“This isn’t a map of our state,” I explained, “so we aren’t in it.”
“Oh,” he said, “but where do I live? Can you zoom to me?”
I was struck by his request, his desire to see himself. Perhaps this isn’t so different from when I was a child and used the U-shaped southern end of Lake Michigan to find my hometown, Chicago. Maybe there is a part of us that looks at every map hoping to locate ourselves in relation to what’s around us, near or far.
Yet there is this sense I have, when looking at maps on my phone—maps that use GPS to pinpoint the very spot in which I sit—that I am confined by the view presented to me. I want to fold out and out and out a map to see other places with some level of understanding and specificity. But once the map on my phone has locked in on my location, the zoom and arrow functions become crude tools, limiting my lines of sight. I can move over section by section, or I can pull back and lose the detail, but I cannot see the larger territory in a way that helps me learn, a way that puts things together not in reference to me, but in reference to one another. I can’t get my parents’ dining room table view.
I am not alone in this feeling. A good friend moving from Brooklyn to Denver recently went on an advance trip to find a house. At the first gas station she saw, she stopped in and asked for a map of Denver.
“A map?” said the clerk. “Uh, I have my phone. Where are you trying to go?”
This same conversation was repeated at a convenience store, and again at a second gas station. Dina, my friend, reported wanting to scream in mounting frustration, “I have my phone! I just want to see Denver! All of Denver!” All of Denver. She wanted to understand this new place, to see where there were buildings and mountains and main thoroughfares and city limits. She wanted to put into context the names and neighborhoods and streets that her realtor was throwing at her. How to know what any of it means without a map? A map not preoccupied with getting us from one point to the next, but a map that flays open an entire municipality, state, country or continent. A map that charts the territory but does not try to move us around within it. A map, quite simply, that is not about us.
Susannah Pratt is a Chicago-based writer specializing in essay and review. Her work has appeared in Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and 3rd Coast Review. You can find these pieces and others at susannahqpratt.com.
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At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.
I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question. It was an option. Something to consider. I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.