The View From Nowhere

by Misha Lepetic

“Well, I haven't been there yet, and shall not try now.”
~ Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Switzerland_3-1024x604Marlow, the protagonist of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, remorsefully blames an old obsession with maps for his eventual captaincy of a ramshackle steamship, set on a doomed mission up the Congo River. But Marlow was irretrievably fascinated by the blanks on the map – those were the places that were worth going. These days, when we look at a map, we expect objectivity and specificity, or to put it bluntly, the truth. Our sense of entitlement has only grown with the thoroughness in which maps have enmeshed themselves into our daily lives, whether it is via the GPS devices that guide our cars, or the maps on our smartphones that help us walk a few blocks of a city, familiar or not. We may forego the flâneur's pleasure of asking a stranger for directions, but where a certain calculus is concerned, it seems a small price to pay for getting us, without undue delay, to where we need to be.

There are no more places where cartographers must write terra incognita, or where myths and rumors were recruited as phenomenological filler. For just as nature abhors a vacuum, a map is a canvas that demands to be crammed with seemingly confident observations, and it would appear that every nook and cranny of the planet has already had some physical characteristics reassuringly assigned to it. Thus when maps fail us, we are left to decide whom to blame – the map, or ourselves.

I will give you a hint: we never blame ourselves. Rather, it is the map that is inadequate. But what this really implies is our refusal to abandon the conviction that there will be some future map that will capture the truth. Correlating directly with its pervasiveness, it becomes too easy to pass over the obvious fact that, like anything else, the practice of cartography is a fundamentally social practice. Consider not only how immersed we are in maps, as with the example of GPS, but also how extensively, constantly and surreptitiously we ourselves are mapped. Every time you allow an app on our smartphone to “Use Your Location,” indeed with every swipe of a credit card, you are effectively performing an offering of yourself, or rather some quantifiable aspect of yourself, to some kind of mapmaking project, the vast majority of which you will never be aware, let alone see. We are, in fact, subjects of a distinctly cartographic flavor of what Michel Foucault called clinical gaze.

When we are thus swaddled in information that provides so much convenience and in turn seems to ask so little in return – in fact, what is merely a bribe, but an exceptionally effective one – the occasional failure of maps can be galling (or sometimes entertaining). Because we are convinced that a better map is always already right around the corner, this anxiety does not last. But what comfort is there when we are confronted with things that resist mapping?


The classic thought experiment here is Benoît Mandelbrot's seminal 1967 paper, published in Science, “How Long Is the Coast of Britain?” For the present purposes, I will only describe Mandelbrot's premise: the measurement of an irregular natural surface such as Britain's coastline is dependent on the unit of measurement. So if we were to use a yardstick with a unit length of 200km, we might conclude that the length of the coastline is 2400km, whereas if our yardstick were 50km, we would assert a length of 3400km. Indeed, as the unit of measurement approaches zero, the observed length of the coastline approaches infinity.

For Mandelbrot, this is a mathematical problem, and he uses the example to posit a method for approximating length. Eventually these and other investigations would lead him to elaborate the theories of self-similarity for which he is justly famous. But in the introduction to the paper, Mandelbrot writes:

The concept of ‘‘length'' is usually meaningless for geographical curves. They can be considered superpositions of features of widely scattered characteristic sizes; as even finer features are taken into account, the total measured length increases, and there is usually no clear-cut gap or crossover, between the realm of geography and details with which geography need not be concerned.

One of the advantages of Mandelbrot's mathematical approach is that it allows him to elide that essential question: Where is the “clear-cut gap or crossover”? For mapmakers, identifying that gap or crossover is at the heart of cartography. It may well decide the ultimate utility of a map to someone navigating a route in the physical world. And this is a decision that must be made by people. It is not enough that the map is right; it must also be right in the right way.

Sebastian_Münster,_Illustrations_of_monstrous_humans_from_Cosmographia_(1544)I want to be clear that I am not talking about what is commonly called ‘usability', or the loose set of principles that designers use to make legible their interventions in the world. ‘Usability' is a red herring, in the sense that the process of dressing up cultural artefacts, whether physical or virtual, for ‘usability' occurs only after the decisions of what should be ‘usable' (ie, legible) have already been made. To invent a brief and perhaps absurd example, consider a highway map. If we are driving, we use such a map to get from A to B, where points A and B are reachable by car. Thus, highways and side roads will be prominently featured; other geographic features such as elevation may or may not be relevant. But cartographers also locate significant landmarks to inspire detours (for an Information Age example, see Rand McNally's TripMaker), thereby implying that these are good things that belong on a map. On the other hand, these same maps will never include locations that we may want to avoid, such as Superfund sites. It is not difficult to imagine that a family with young children would want to know about – and avoid driving through – regions thick with pollution from, say, coal-fired power plants. We may initially react to this by saying “But these things do not belong on a map.” Well, why wouldn't they? If instead our design brief were to create a map that would allow us to determine the healthiest route from A to B, our highway map may look very different indeed.

The decision to not include such items is intrinsically ideological and, as we will see below, also explicitly political. It is only through repeatedly being shown what a map is that we come to believe what a map should be. We are rarely told what a map is not. But at each turn we are assured of the objectivity that is at the heart of the enterprise.


Objectivity, understood as a sort of neutral omniscience, was tartly characterized by philosopher Thomas Nagel as “the view from nowhere.” But having nowhere as one's originary viewpoint is akin to being lost inside one of Mandelbrot's endless, scale-free fractals. It is also irreconcilable when we attempt to, as we must, relate our knowledge of the world to the world itself (although for Nagel, reconciling the two is precisely what is needed to create an individual's worldview). Thus objectivity, or at least the set of social relationships and productions of knowledge that we ascribe to the idea of objectivity, is in fact a moral stance. Why?

Like anything else, objectivity has its own history. In a fascinating paper called The Image of Objectivity (and later a much more extensive book) Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison unpack this “panhistorical honorific [bestowed on] this or that discipline as it comes of scientific age.” For them, the workings of objectivity are most apparent when manifested visually, specifically in the way atlases of many varieties – anatomical, botanical, X-ray – have been created and consumed over the centuries. These are not works of neutral omniscience, but artefacts that tell us “what is worth looking at and how to look at it.” And to say that this is a moral practice is not far-fetched. They find that

…objectivity is a morality of prohibitions rather than exhortations, but no less a morality for that. Among those prohibitions are bans against projection and anthropomorphism, against the insertion of hopes and fears into images of and facts about nature: these are all subspecies of interpretation, and therefore forbidden. (p122)

Cartography has evolved in a similar fashion. From early cartographers inscribing empty spaces on their maps with “Here Be Dragons” (actually, they didn't) to Google Earth, one might think that there is a flawed but inexorable march towards an ever-finer approximation of reality (if not objectivity). After all, as Daston and Galison write, the moral imperative of objectivity recognizes that “the phenomena never sleep and neither should the observer; neither fatigue nor carelessness excuse a lapse in attention that smears a measurement or omits a detail; the vastness and variety of nature require that observations be endlessly repeated.” And yet, there are forces at work that are greater than cartography and the technologies that have transformed it in the last few centuries, and these too should be recognized.


I came across a most extraordinary example of these other forces last week, in a long-form reportage by the Times-Picayune's Brett Anderson. “Louisiana Loses Its Boot” is Anderson's attempt to reconcile the rapidly changing (that is, receding) coastline of the state with the fact that the official state map has not been updated in fourteen years, and isn't likely to be any time soon. What he finds is a toxic mix of, on the one hand, galloping erosion and, on the other, benighted legislation that seems dead-set on ignoring the former. As a result, “the boot is at best an inaccurate approximation of Louisiana's true shape and, at worst, an irresponsible lie.” (All citations below are from this article).

MississippiTo be sure, Louisiana was always a devilishly difficult entity to map. The Mississippi is a notoriously fickle river, given to not just flooding its banks but rewriting them wholesale, as Harold Fisk's maps from the 1940s illustrate. And yet it is precisely this process that replenished the coastline: new sediment allowed vegetation to take hold and create adequate breakwaters and barrier islands, which in turn kept hurricanes from being the Gulf of Mexico's shock troops. The coastline was shifting constantly, but it was not receding. In fact, it was expanding. But once the Army Corps of Engineers “stabilized” the Mississippi in order to ensure commerce, this process of replenishment was severely stunted. As a result, hurricanes such as Katrina have had much greater impacts than would otherwise have been possible. The need for structural modification is not just limited to the river, either. Louisiana is the nation's second-largest oil producer and has “over 9,000 miles of navigation and pipeline canals…dredged in the state's coastal marsh.” Adding projected sea level rises to the mix does not promise to make things any more pleasant.

One would think that the physical uncertainties of the situation would therefore call for as ‘objective' an approach to mapmaking as possible. After all, even without factoring in human impact, it is probably difficult enough to decide what is ‘walkable land' and what is not. Instead, the conflicting priorities of the fishing and energy industries have stalled Louisiana's famously corrupt politics from mandating a responsible accounting. Additionally, “the Department of Transportation and Development and the U.S.G.S. would have to agree on a shape and then implement a costly replacement plan for images currently in circulation.” Oh, dear. And the U.S. Supreme Court has done its part to command the tides, too, when it decreed in 1981 that “the state boundary of Louisiana was no longer an ambulatory line that could move in response to changes in the coastline, and was henceforth immobilized as a set of fixed coordinates.”

In this case, we resist any sort of accurate map only in order to avoid blaming ourselves. We would rather have the maps lie to us, for as long as possible. In the meantime and wholly apart from this tragicomic legislative context, an acre of coastal land is being lost every hour. So even if there was agreement, what kind of map could be created that would do coastal Louisiana justice? In Anderson's view, one that would throw the situation in a clear and unforgiving light: hence the loss of the boot. Such a map could only be a political tool:

A more honest representation of the boot would not erase the intractable disagreements — around global sea level rise, energy jobs versus coastal restoration jobs, oil and gas companies versus the fishing industry — that paralyze state politics, but it would give shape to the awesome stakes, both economic and existential, that hang in the balance.

Anderson's campaign to make the map explicitly political goes against the cartographic gaze that I described above, with its decentralization of power and accountability. It is no wonder that it has been met with resistance. But is it enough? When one looks at the current, tranquil state map of Louisiana, none of this decay, let alone conflict, is apparent. Of course, a citizen traveler might be roused to indignation if not action, once he attempts to reach a destination that no longer exists: a swamp where there was once a camp, the vast reaches of the Gulf where there was once a causeway or a barrier island. But how many people are there of that ilk?

And so we have turned a full circle of cartographic irony: from speculative maps that included places that never existed, to objective maps that show us places that no longer exist, but pretend as if they do. After all, what Marlow found, far up the Congo River and in the darkness of the human heart, could never be marked on a map. But for what can be recorded, whether it is Louisiana's coastline, the Arctic ice cap, or various star-crossed Pacific islands, we can only hope that eventually, as Borges once wrote, “in time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied.”