Maps and Modern Navigation

by | Dec 19, 2020 | Uncategorized

Old Map or Atlas of the World
Atlas Cartography Maps or modern navigation

The Age of Smart Devices

In the age of smart devices, we don’t seem to question the difference between maps and modern navigation methods. As we seem to do with all electronic devices, we have decided that GPS is more reliable than our own common sense, what we know, our “gut feeling” when we believe that something is not entirely accurate. Also, we prefer the convenience of GPS over using traditional maps for navigation. Shockingly, some people have never even used a map or would know how to read one. It all boils down to: How do we find our way?

Hopefully, we understand that this occurs, and we make adjustments. Yet, I find it bizarre when I read or hear stories about people who actually follow these erroneous trails to nowhere to arrive at the end of a pier somewhere or on the middle of a railroad track. Furthermore, how does this happen before common sense kicks in? Ultimately, I can only assume that these people trust their smartphones’ GPS more than themselves, or maybe they lack common sense or spatial awareness.

Is it costing us more than we gain?

As a society, have we stopped paying attention to the world around us because we are intently following our phone directions? Secondly, Is this new navigation style affecting our basic instincts when it comes to finding a place? If so, how much will we miss along the way? And how many problem-solving skills do we forfeit?

That said, technology has changed forever how we get around. And, our reliance on it has forever changed us and how we move from place to place.

Finding our place in the world

About three thousand years ago, our ancestors began a long process to figure out how they fit into the world. Ultimately, this led to the invention of the map. Map usage for navigation was a history-changing technology. Their use led us on bold expeditions to parts unknown while still keeping us tethered to our place. We seldom use maps. We rely on modern navigation.

One of the oldest surviving maps is the Babylonian Map of the World. This map was actually a clay tablet created around 700 to 500 B.C. in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. Additionally, it shows Babylon at the center represented by a circle bisected by the Euphrates River and surrounded by the ocean. Beyond that, It doesn’t have much detail—a few regions are named, including Assyria, but it wasn’t really a map for navigational purposes. It was more primordial. Its purpose was to help the map holder grasp the idea of the whole world, with himself at the center. I guess we have always wanted to find our place as well as finding our way to points unknown.

ancient map in Babylon shows the importance of finding our place and our way in society
Babylonian, 7th – 5th century B.C. Carved relief with map and text. Stone. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Realistic map making

The first attempt at realistic map-making was in the second century A.D. Claudius Ptolemy was driven to make accurate horoscopes as an astronomer and astrologer. Thus, “He invented geography in this quest to improve his horoscopes. This, at least, is an idea suggested by Matthew Edney, a professor of cartography at the University of Southern Maine.

Ptolemy World Map
Ptolemy World Map

An early Spanish explorer in the 16th century insisted that California was surrounded by water on all sides. Furthermore, this error was embraced in 1622 by the Michiel trade, exploration an Amsterdam mapmaker. As a result, California was drawn as an island into the 18th century. Tongue in cheek, sometimes it seems as if California is still an Island unto its own. It might not actually be that different if you look at it from maps and modern navigation standards.

very early map showing California as an Island Early maps can contend with modern navigation in some cases
Early map showing California as an Island

Maps being to improve

Maps began to improve because trade, business, exploration, and navigation required them. Ships started crossing oceans, and monarchs who intended to build their empires and expand their wealth needed accurate ways to chart their lands and their travels. That said, maps became more accurate. Additionally, New, reliable compasses helped develop “portolan” maps, which had lines showing routes across the seas from one port to another. These maps were an immense help in guiding sailors. 

Also, they rediscovered Ptolemy’s map work of 200 AD at this time, which influenced the drawing of new maps based on his calculations of 1600 years prior.

Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America was partly due to mistakes in Ptolemy’s cartography. Ptolemy’s belief that the world was 30 percent smaller than it actually is. He also used a different mile system, which was longer. Thus leading Columbus to think that traveling to Asia would be much shorter than it was. Hence, this was an early form of GPS error that brought Columbus to an unexpected place for better or worse.

Maps become more accurate in defining an area but not necessarily in the details of navigating its interior

As sea trade increased, maps of the New World became more accurate along the seacoasts, major rivers, and places the beaver trade depended on. However, America’s interior was mostly unknown; mapmakers often drew it as a big blank space labeled “terra incognita.”

Maps bestowed power. With the aid of a good map, military forces had an advantage in battle. Furthermore, a kingdom could be better defined, which helped increase the wealth of the kings and queens in the form of taxes. As well, maps helped motivated the pillage caused by colonialism. 

The United States post-Lewis and Clark’s expedition showed Americans just how much West there was to be had. Earlier maps were elementary. For example, illustrations of the Rocky Mountains showed them as a single range. As a result, these explorers probably thought it would be a pretty straightforward journey. They were very wrong in this assessment, very unprepared, and fortunate to have had the aid of indigenous people who probably saved their booty more than once. 

Today’s GPS

These days, our GPS maps are road trip partners. They speak to us, telling us where to go and how long it will take us to get to our destination, turn by turn. The maps are guided by satellites and mapping companies like Waze, Google, Bing, and Mapquest. Greg Milner, author of Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds, tells us, “It’s very seductive.” There’s no need even to orient yourself to the north. However, Milner has concerns that GPS is weakening something fundamental in us as we lose our orientation skills, we also run the risk that the details of the world around us are becoming blurry. A 2008 Cornell study found that “GPS eliminates much of the need to pay attention and see how things and places are connected.

Some don’t believe in this loss. It has been argued that the use of GPS and online mapping means, conversely, that we live in a more cartographic age. Many online searches produce a map as part of the search results for just about everything. Today people see more maps than they used to, which they believe is a good thing. Possibly both are true.

Where are we going, how do we get there and back safely?

The bottom line is that we want and need to know where we are, where we are going, how best to get there and safely return. Therefore, maps have been one of the most important human inventions allowing humans to navigate their way through the world. The earliest surviving maps include cave paintings and etchings on tusk and stone. In their simplest form maps, are two-dimensional. However, since the age of Classical Greece maps have also been projected onto a three-dimensional sphere known as a globe.

When we think about maps and modern navigation, We are enormously reliant on GPS these days. However, recently I have noticed the irony that current decorating fads embrace the use of globes and maps as design features. I wonder if people know their purpose or even how to use them beyond decorating with them.

Something else to think about…

In short, we lose an opportunity to connect with others. Sometimes, getting lost and seeking help can be a great opportunity to meet, engage, and practice language in other cultures or countries.

maps usage in finding a location
Use of traditional maps

Post by Danette Ulrich

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