Offline Maps: Can They Make You Smarter And Friendlier?

MikeachimTravel11 Comments

girl reading a map

Paper maps make us more human. Let’s not ditch them just yet.

Thanks to the astounding boom in GPS-assisted mapping gadgets, we can instantly know exactly where we are in the world to within a few metres. And we do this by being told, by a machine that does all the work for us. A sign of progress if ever there was one, right? Smart travel is all about embracing new technology, and we’d have to be idiots to ignore the benefits of online mapping software — so should that be the standard for getting around, and should we be tossing our “old-school” paper & static, offline maps in the bin because we don’t have a use for them anymore?

Here are 7 reasons why that might be a really bad idea.

Nb. I’m calling paper maps “analog” for the purposes of this article. You know it’s a blurry definition at best, yeah? (Like the way you can get Ordnance Survey Landranger on Multi-Map apps.) But in general, if a machine doesn’t do the bulk of the work, we’re calling it analog. 

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1. MAPS ARE SELECTIVE

If geography is prose, maps are iconography.

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As an archaeology student on excavations in the UK, I resented the drawing. No — I hated the drawing. We were taking heaps of photos, so why did we have to draw everything as well? The answer is simple: archaeology isn’t just about gathering data, it’s about interpreting it. A photograph captures pretty much everything. Even in the hands of a pro, a camera is a device designed to capture the bulk of the light hitting it in one gulp. In contrast, a drawing selects. It sifts through the raw data to emphasize, highlight and ultimately present an argument. And it’s the same with maps.

(More of the implications of that a little later).

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2. MAPS NEED TO BE READ

You know the argument that Google search is making us stupid? How about cutting & pasting that argument into the realm of digital mapping? (EDIT: this study seems to confirm it.) Is this generation the last that will truly know how to read a map? The President of the British Cartographic Society has already expressed her concern — and since map-reading is a mental exercise, do we run the risk of dumbing down our brains by relying on machines to tell us where in the world we are?

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3. MAPS ARE BEAUTIFUL

A year or so back, I visited the British Museum in London while an exhibition was running. The topic? The History Of Maps. Laid out in glass cases were some of the world’s most famous cartographic marvels — some impossible complicated, as intricate as illuminated manuscripts, some riots of colour to the point of being garish . . . and all of them beautiful.

Maps aren’t just educational. They’re educational art.

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4. MAPS ARE FUN

How about a London Underground style guide to France’s wine regions? And hey, when was the last time Google Earth was this much fun?

‘Nuff said.

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5. MAPS ARE PROPAGANDA

Visit the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus and you’ll notice a curious thing: the maps show different things, depending on where you bought them. For the last couple of decades, the EU-recognised Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the Turkish-occupied north of the island have been engaged in a cold war of naming conventions. Take the capital. A Republic-bought map will probably call it Lefkosia, its name during early Hellenic times — but pick up a map in the Turkish side and it’s called Nicosia, the name given to it by 12th-Century Lusignan crusaders. Two names, one place — and scale that down to villages and streets and you have a very confusing situation, especially when your map doesn’t reflect the names on street signs . . .

Maps are a human attempt to remodel reality — and in doing so, they tell a story about the people behind them. They’re cultural archaeology. Pick up a map in another country, and you’re holding something that reflects the way the inhabitants of that country see themselves. In other words, exactly the kind of insight a travel writer is searching for.

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6. MAPS HELP YOU CONNECT WITH PEOPLE

One of the most basic connections a human being can make with another is to ask for directions. It’s a staple technique for breaking the ice when you travel. (“Excuse me — where am I on here?”) And it’s harder to do that with a digital map — not that you would, of course, because a digital map will probably tell you exactly where you are. And in doing so, it’ll prevent you making new friends.

No fun at all.

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7. PAPER MAPS ARE OFFLINE

Oh, the hypocrisy of arguing against digital maps on a website. But we’ve all felt gadget block — the feeling of being distanced from the world by a mechanical middle-man. And when digital maps are running on devices that connect you with a world of online distractions . . . well, you’re doomed. (That’s why productivity-honing services like StayFocusd are so popular). Do you really want to ditch your adventurous plans for the day because you’re stuck on a level of Plants vs Zombies 2?

Further reading:

Originally at Travelllll.com.

Images: Odense Bys MuseerDe Long WineTeryKatsCraig MouldingCaveman Chuck Coker,ancawonkaLemsipmatt and BinaryApe.