this is aaronland

wild fires of joy

a (dog-eared) history of the world in 12 maps

It's been a while since I've done this, publishing the passages underlined in a book I've read. One reason is that I've been reading books I've borrowed from friends or the library which is a pleasure I don't feel like abusing by interjecting myself, literally, on to the pages of shared book. The second reason is that the mechanics which make publishing dog-eared passages easy no longer seem worth it. I wish that weren't true.

I have a commute again and I make a point of using that time to read. A friend recently asked me whether, and where, I was broadcasting the books I was reading. The answer is nowhere, really. It's not because I don't want to. In 2013 I was able to print a 600-page book of all the interesting bits of books and articles I'd read that year. I enjoy sharing this stuff and the thing that made it possible was reading everything on a Kindle (and having enough technical know-how to extract the things I'd highlighted from Amazon's servers).

Somewhere between then and now I began to see reading on a networked e-book device not first as a private affair and only secondarily as something I chose to share with others, including Amazon. Perhaps it never was. It's easy to believe that Amazon has always been analyzing and leveraging and monetizing the reading habits of Kindle users. They are good capitalists that way and at least they don't make any pretenses about it.

Still, I keep coming back to something Karen Levy said at beginning of 2015:

...we act as though if we are able to develop a technical means around a user's consent then we have a right to do whatever we want.

I guess every new technology has its bait and switch period. The period before social norms catch up and adapt to change, where the initial promise starts to pale next to the abuse and malice that any new tool also makes possible. That's certainly what a lot of the internet has felt like for the past decade. It is as if a group of people sat around the table discussing Google's famous maxim to not be evil and then wondered: But wait... how much money could we make if we were evil?

I would genuinely enjoy reading books on an electronic device, like a Kindle. There is a lot to recommend them. I would gladly pay Amazon for their devices and the books to read on them but I would like the transaction to end there. I am not interested having any vendor, whether it's Amazon or a book publisher or an author, looking over my shoulder while I am reading, particularly not when the benefit of that activity seems to be in the service of everyone except me as a reader. This is not a critique limited to Amazon. For example, it could (should) be applied equally to the recent crop of newsletters-as-a-service providers.

I look forward to a time when we can establish, and honour, some boundaries around what the internet makes possible and for whom. But enough of all that.

A few years ago I was given a copy of Jerry Brotton's A History of the World in 12 Maps and I only recently got around to reading it. What follows are passages and quotes, grouped by chapter, that I highlighted along the way. In these choices it's easy to see a reflection of many of the interests and motivations and concerns in the on-going work with the Who's On First gazetteer project.


It is a timeless act of personal reassurance, locating our selves as individuals in relation to a larger world that we suspect is supremely indifferent to our existence.


The library was indeed a vast repository for the collective memory of a classical world contained within the books it catalogued. It was, to borrow a phrase from the history of science, a center of calculation, an institution with the resources to gather and process diverse information on a range of subjects, where charts, tables and trajectories are commonly at hand and combinable at will, and from which scholars could synthesize such information in search for more general universal truths.

Although Greek mapmaking remained based on mathematical and astronimical calculations, Herodotus raised the issue of how it gathered, assessed and incorporated the raw data gathered by travellers in the creation of a more comprehensive map of the world.

With this cooperative spirit came new ways of seeing maps as repositories of knowledge, encyclopedic compilations of information, or what one classical historian has called a great inventory of everything.

The map, as Christian Jacob has argued, becomes a device for archiving knowledge about the inhabited world.

In one of the earliest and more daring syntheses of geography and imperialism, the orbis terrarum came to define the world and Rome as one and the same thing.

The Geography was an immense data bank, compiled by the first acknowledged armchair geographer, a motionless mind operating from a fixed centre, processing diverse geographical data in to a vast archive of the fixed world.

We tend to think of mapmaking as a science of spatial representation, but Ptolemy was proposing a world measured not according to space, but by time.

These tables enabled mapmakers to plot the positions of every known location upon a map with utter simplicity, and by refusing to place explicit boundaries upon his oikoumene, Ptolemy encouraged future mapmakers to plot ever more locations upon the surface of their world maps.


Tu could be both word and image, and often combined graphic visual representations with written, textual descriptions (including poetry) which were seen as complementing each other. As one twelfth-century scholar put it images (tu) are the warp threads and the written words (shu) are the weft ... To see the writing without the images is like hearing a voice without seeing the form; to see the image without the writing is like seeing a person but not hearing the words.

Both the Chinese and Korean experiences created maps that were concerned with so much more than accurately mapping territory: they were also effectively plotting structured relationships.


In the end, the name America endured, not because of any agreement as to who discovered it, but because it was the most politically acceptable term available.

By the late nineteenth century the provenance and originality of rare books and antique maps had become a lucrative busines, particularly in North America, where philanthropists began to endow museums and cultural institutions in an attempt to turn the study of American history into an internationally respected discipline.

Naming a new region America in 1507 was a highly provisional decision, and dependent on the ability of the printing press to circulate sensational but unverified news of the 'discoveries' of Columbus, Vespucci and others.


If this fragmentation was seen by some as progress, it also reduced mapmaking's ability to transcend worldly conflict and intolerant attitudes in favour of a larger understanding of secular and scared space. As David Harley has ruefully pointed out, the Renaissance tradition of geography as everything understood in terms of space, of Cosmos, got squeezed out. As cosmography withered away, geography was forced to buckle down, administer empire, map and plan land uses and territorial rights, and gather and analyze useful data for purposes of business and state administation.


On the new Dutch maps, far-flung territories no longer simply faded away on the margins, nor were the world's edges fearful, mythical places full of monstrous people to be avoided wherever possible. Instead, on maps like Petrus Plancius's map of the Moluccas (1592), the world's borders and margins were clearly defined and identified as places for financial exploitation, with its regions labelled according to their commerical interests. Every corner of the earth was being mapped and assessed for it commerical possibilities.

Up to four assistants were then employed to execute handdrawn charts on parchment - drawn by hand rather than printed to try and prevent their details being easily circulated on the open market, and on parchment because of its durability on the long sea voyage. Making charts in this way allowed for a quick and ingenious method of updating the original charts. These would be revised by pricking out new coastlines or islands with a needle and then placed on top of a blank sheet of parchment and dusted with soot. Once removed, the specks of soot left on the new sheet of parchment through the needle pricks could then be carefully joined up by Blaeu's assistants to form a new and more accurate representation of coastlines.

Having failed to complete his project, but tailoring so many copies of its first part for individual recipients, Blaeu inadvertently sparked an entirely new approach to atlas consumption: what became known as composite atlases.

Rather like Blaeu's own atlases, the customized examples were endlessly extensible and potentially infinite: only the collector's death signaled their completion.

The emergence of these composite atlases was a symptom of the dilemma experienced by mapmakers and printers and the end of the seventeenth century: the sheer amount of geopgraphical data they possessed had never been greater, and the print technology at their disposal had reached such a level of speed and precision that it could reproduce such information in the finest detail, but no one was clear how it sould all be organizaed and presented.


It was not in modern terms a national survey based on comprehensive topographical details, but a geodetic survey which produced a positional illustration of places significant to the requirements of state planning.

Under Cassini III's guidelines, geography would now become a routine and continuous activity sanctioned by the state, its practioners operating within the strict guidlines determined by the authorities. The age of the learned savants uniting the arcane wisdom of astronomy, astrology and cosmography in the creation of their maps was coming to an end. Geographers were slowly but surely turning in to civil servants.

Of equal importance to the work in the field was the paper trail it created; from the land to the study, Cassini's engineers were instructed to write up their observations and translate them into handdrawn sketch maps, correct them where necessary and then dispatch everything to Paris for another round of verification. Cassini III insisted that when the map was drafted, in was returned to the local diginitaries involved in initially checking the relevant topographical data. The geometrical part belongs to us, proclaimed Cassini; the expression of the terrain and spelling of the names are the work of the lords and priests; the engineers present the map to them, profit from the information they provide, working under their orders, making in their presence the corrections to the map, which we pubish only when it is accompanied by certificates confirming the veracity of the information recorded. It was an essential element in ensuring accuracy, but it had another consequence too: however reluctant the provincial nobility might have been to verify the observations made by the unwelcome engineers, they were now becoming part of the fabric of a national survey. Up to this point, local knowledge had been ignored in favour of the pure geometry of the triangulated framework of the survey; Cassini III now ensured that the visualization of the imagined community of France included the knowledge of those who lived and worked within it.

Mapmaking might have become a science, but Cassini was also anxious for the public to regard it as an art.

The message was unmistakable: whatever the terrain, every corner of the kingdom could now be mapped and represented according to the same principles. In a direct challenge to the country's defiant regionalism, the map established that nowhere was exceptional.

The reasons for this shift lay in the transformation of vernacular languages and apprehensions of time. In the West, the rise of what Anderson calls print-capitalism in the fifteenth century gradually signalled the ultimate decline of the sacred languages of imperial and ecclesiastical authority, Greek and Latin, in favour of the vernacular languages spoken by a vast, new potential readership. The subsequent rise of the novel, the newspaper and the railway in Europe created a new perception of simultaneous time, marked by temporal coincidence, and measaured by the introduction of clocks and calendars. People began to imagine the activities of their nation taking place simultaneously across time and space, even though they were unlikely ever visit or meet more than a tiny fraction of the places and people of which their nation is composed.


In contrast to the Ordnance Survey's difficulty in providing standardized maps of England's complex and entrenched system of land ownership and management, the English East India Company assumed it would be much easier to survey overseas possessions like India by using new scientific methods and simply ignoring local methods of mapping and owning land, notwithstanding the country's size.

In the words of Matthew Edney, the survey's most distinguished historian, the surveyors did not map the "real" India. They mapped the India they perceived and that they governed, and as a consequence created a British India.

In attempting to unite physical geography with human (or what he called political) geography, Mackinder acknowledged the rival claims of history and the now wildly popular study of geology. Physical geography, he argued, has usually been undertaken by those already burdened with geology, political geography by those laden with history.

In pushing geography's case even further, Mackinder argued brusquely that the geologist looks at the present that he may interpret the past; the geographer looks at the past that he may interpret the present.

...the map is here thought of as a subtle instrument of expression applicable to many orders of facts, and not the mere depository of names...


The ease with which political power used cartographic expertise is a recurrent theme of twentieth-century history.

As one commentator wrote during the Second World War, in propaganda maps such as these, geography as a science and cartography as a technique become subservient to the demands of effective symbol manipulation.

...Harley voiced his frustration with many of the academic cartographers of today, who operate in a tunnel created by their own technologies with reference to the social world.

Harley's contention was not, as many of his critics claimed, that all maps like, but that they contained historical conventions and social pressures than produced what he called a subliminal geometry.

...Can there be a cartographical ethics? If maps can never be neutral, and are always subject to the power, political authority and ideology, then is it possible for academic and professional cartographers to develop and sustain an ethical position in relation to their work?

The broader problem that the controversy inspired was how to produce an ethical cartography once the profession accepted that all maps were partial and ideological representations of the space they purported to depict.

...a more attractive symbol of the political issues at stake for development agencies than any other cartographic projection currenty available.

...ever since Ptolemy, individuals and organizations have used world maps for their own symbolic and poltical ends, regardless of the cartographer's claims to comprehensiveness or objectivity.

The eighteenth-century belief in the ability of mapmaking to offer transparent, rational and scientifically objective images of the world exemplified by the Cassini surveys, had slowly unravelled from the late nineteenth-century onwards, as the political dictates of nationalism, imperialism and a range of ideologies appropriated cartography to produce persuasive but selective maps designed to legitimate their particular poltical versions of the world.


Maps offer a proposal about the world, rather than just a reflection of it...

The relationship between a map and these assumptions and preoccupations is always reciprocal, but not necessarily fixed or stable.

When the sheer scale of implementing such a project still requires some form of state of corporate funding, it is difficult to imagine it could escape the perennial political or commercial manipulation that has so often tried to impose a single image upon the sheer variety of the earth and its people. But to answer no appears to endorse a partial vision that turns its back on both the inevitability of globalization and the possibility of celebrating a common internation humanity through geography.

The book was published in 2012 and the final chapter (Information) is, for its time, an unsuprisingly enthusiastic embrace of all things Google and in particular Google Earth. It is also notable for the absence of any mention of OpenStreetMap (OSM) but as the title suggests the book's focus is twelve distinct maps, not a baker's dozen. Also, in 2012 you might have still been forgiven, but only just barely, for doubting OSM. I don't want to take away from Google Earth's achievements but a short seven years later the chapter reads like a cautionary tale about recording history too soon.

Finally, it is hard for not to see the present-day conversations and concerns around machine-learning in all of this. In many ways neural networks and training sets and biases are just surveys and map projections by another name.