The map as metaphor

John Markoff wrote an article in the NY Times “The Cellphone, Navigating Our Lives”. He calls the cellphone “the world’s most ubiquitous computer”, since the 4 billion subscriber mark has been reached recently – or even a while ago according to another research agency. Although it is a fact that most of these 4 billion people do not use smartphones able to do more advanced computing task, it is indeed an interesting thought to consider the mobile device as the actual incarnation of the ubicomp vision, as has already been argued by Bell & Dourish (pdf file: ‘Yesterdays Tomorrows’). Markoff argues that it is no longer the desktop that is the main metaphor for organizing information but the map:

With the dominance of the cellphone, a new metaphor is emerging for how we organize, find and use information. New in one sense, that is. It is also as ancient as humanity itself. That metaphor is the map.

The question is: Is the map indeed a universal metaphor? Do people in other cultures have the same ‘natural’ ability to understand a birds-eye view from above of space, territory, and routes? This was a central question in the initial phase of Esther Polak’s NomadicMILK project in which I participated in the beginning (see also Tijmen Schep’s recent post). During our first fieldtrip we found out that nomadic Fulani herdsmen indeed draw rudimentary maps in the sand with a stick to depict routes and POIs (places of interest like waterholes, etc.). According to Markoff the map indeed is universal. There is even a biological basis for understanding the world through maps, he says. In the article Google chief executive Eric Schmidt states: “Humans evolved with amazing navigational abilities in our brains from an evolutionary perspective. [...] The correlation between the map on the phone and the internal map in your head is a natural way to navigate all kinds of information”.

This raises concerns for outsourcing this ability to our technological devices. According to a neurobiologist quoted in the article we may lose our ability to navigate. Examples abound of course of people who do incredibly stupid maneuvers relying solely on their TomTom (This post by Martijn de Waal and this post deals specifically with this issue, and this post describes a great example of such a stupidity). But if indeed the capacity for navigation via maps is biological, there may be little reason for concern. Moreover, if indeed we are now not only using maps for spatial navigation but also for organizing information, then we might become even more trained in spatial depictions of knowledge through maps.

The article also discusses some of the privacy issues that may arise from this location-aware services. Will we become easy targets for marketeers now that they know where we are at what time?

2008-09-15_11-35-05001.jpg 2008-09-15_11-36-04001.jpgThis idea of the map as an emerging metaphor has been playing in my mind for some time, and I’ve started to look for evidence that people are indeed thinking in terms of maps. Many online examples, but what about other depictions? And does the metaphor also become a medium? Not so long ago I saw this painting on a construction site’s boarding in Amsterdam (Czaar Peterstraat). It was apparently made for a neighborhood street party. I found it intriguing that this event was announced by means of what looked like a map. It resembles the well-known London underground map. So perhaps then there are cultural connotation attached to maps, implicit qualities that refer to living in urban conditions: ‘metropolitan urban-ness’, ‘flow’, ‘transport’, ‘crossroads’? I believe this point of cultural qualities of maps should not be forgotten in stories about the map’s universalities. It may be true that we have an inbuilt capacity for mapping, just exactly how we do this is a matter of cultural learning.

(story found via @Rhymo on Twitter – thanks!)

== update ==

A recent study about chimpansees navigating the rainforest seems to corroborate the theory that ‘mapping’ in indeed an innate capacity in higher primates:

New research suggests the great apes keep a geometric mental map of their home range, moving from point to point in nearly straight lines.

“The kind of striking thing when you are with the chimpanzees in the forest is that we use a compass or GPS, but obviously these guys know where they are going,” says Christophe Boesch, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

With the aid of GPS, he and colleague Emmanuelle Normand shadowed the movements of 15 chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire’s Taï National Park for a total of 217 days.

In a given day, a single animal might visit 15 of the roughly 12,000 trees in its 17-square-kilometre range, Boesch says. “They are kind of nomads.”


Michiel de Lange
Michiel de Lange (1976) is a part-time Lecturer in New Media Studies at Utrecht University, and a researcher and adviser of new media and urbanism. He is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and holds a PhD in philosophy (2010) with a dissertation about mobile media technologies and urban identities. He collaborated in a locative media art & science project ( He worked for Knowledgeland, a Dutch think-tank that aims to strengthen the knowledge-based society. Here he worked on several projects at the intersection of ICTs and the city, e.g. co-organizing the Creative Capital conference. He also volunteered and worked for Cybersoek, a computer neighborhood center in Amsterdam. He is advisor e-culture at Mediafonds. Michiel is on Twitter and LinkedIn.