As far as I can tell, the phrase “ultra mapping” originates with this Wired UK article on our friends at Stamen and their recent activities in London. It sure sounds like a Stamenism, and it beautifully describes what they do. But as I turn the phrase over in my mouth (and in so doing, decide it really ought to be a single word), I’ve come to think it actually refers to something even bigger than that, a truly epochal change that we and our maps are living through together.
I’m sure cartographers and people in the geography community have been all over this, possibly even in so many words, but I believe we’re right now experiencing the most significant single evolution in mapping since someone first scratched plans on papyrus. One relatively recent and very simple intervention, made possible by the lamination together of three or four different kinds of technology, has completely changed what a map is, what it means, what we can do with it.
It’s this: that for the very first time in human history, our maps tell us where we are on them.
The fact that such depictions can now also render layers of dynamic, real-time situational information seems almost incidental to me compared to this. This one development subtly but decisively removes the locative artifacts we use from the order of abstraction. By finding ourselves situated on the plane of a given map, we’re being presented with the implication that this document is less a diagram and more a direct representation of reality — and, what’s more, one with a certain degree of fidelity, one that can be verified empirically by the simple act of walking around. How is that not epochal?
I’d argue that this begins to color our experience of all maps, even those that remain purely imaginary. We begin to look for the pulsing crosshairs or the shiny, cartoony pushpin that say YOU ARE HERE. The ability to locate oneself becomes bound up with the meaning of any representation of space whatsoever.
Now bring all the Stameny goodness implied by dynamic visualization back into the picture: all those routinely gorgeous renderings of subway ridership or crime or air quality imply something very different when you can either find yourself within their ambit or cannot. At its rawest, the suggestion is this: either these issues affect me, or they do not. And this is true even if what is being mapped is a purely historical event. The implication is there, however faint.
I’ve been a map fan all my life. I must have spent literally hundred of hours poring over various representations of place real and imagined, from the AAA TripTiks and Guides Michelin that used to litter the family car, to the Middle-Earth and Ringworld charts that so awed me when I was nine (“contour interval violated on Fist-of-God”), to the land-navigation block of the Army’s Primary Leadership Development Course (repeat after me: “a line drawing, to scale, of a portion of the Earth’s surface as seen from above”).
Nothing in all that, though, prepared me for the frisson of holding an iPhone in my hand for the first time, launching Google Maps, pressing a single button…and being located, told where I was to within a couple of meters. It’s a real epistemic break, isn’t it? Those who come after us will have a hard time imagining that there was ever such a thing as a map that couldn’t do that.