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Jun 7, 2008

Beware of Misleading Maps

Today's opening of the London Map Fair has inspired the Times' Richard Morrison to take a look at maps that lead people astray:

A great map is much more than a navigation tool. Actually, a great map is rarely a navigation tool. It is a political and philosophical statement. What it displays, and especially what it conceals, tells us far more about the values of those who created it than about the terrain it allegedly charts.

No map can ever tell the whole truth, if only because it attempts to chart a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface. But thousands of maps are acts of deception, one way or another. Israel is unlabelled on many maps destined for Arab countries. Similarly, maps in the old East Berlin used to show West Berlin as white space, as if it did not exist.

What of Ordnance Survey, Britain's official map-maker? “We are not in the business of misleading users in any way,” it customarily proclaims. Except, of course, when it comes to showing military bases and government snooping centres. According to OS, they do appear — but as blank spaces. Orwell could not have made it up.

How will modern technology change mapmaking? According to Mr. Morrison, not much.

The most influential maps of the future may well be located in cyberspace. The map-makers' eternal quandary — of how much to reveal, how much to conceal, and how much to mislead for ulterior motives — will not go away.

The entire article is well worth the read.

About the fair: Held at the Royal Geographical Society, the London Map Fair is the largest gathering of map aficionados in Europe. The two-day event features 40 top dealers and hundreds of collectors and curators. Items for sale range from historic town plans for less than £100 (about $197) to a 1620 wall map of the Americas priced at £80,000 (about $157,000).

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