Archive for May, 2013



(on Google Maps)


… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Jorge Luis Borges,  On exactitude in science
Collected Fictions (Trans. Hurley, H.) Penguin Books.


I first encountered Borges’ short story soon after serving the only detention I ever incurred in my time at secondary school – the result of sultry disobedience following an accusation that I must have plagiarised my weekly essay because, as my teacher memorably asserted: “No scientist can write that well.”  Unsurprisingly perhaps, I was not impressed, not with him, or with Borges, who seemed to be joining him in slinging mean-spirited chimp poo at the sciences.

The bruise has faded now, and I can enjoy the story for its charm and intelligence, and for the craft with which it is put together.  There is still the tang of critique, a hint of sneering at the bygone hubris rather than just a cool editorial noting or examination, but the sly humour feels more general and not so directed towards science, or myself, in particular.

Of course, there are scientists who conform to the caricature of fuddle-headed out-of-touchness, but my experience is that they are more rare than the myth would have use believe.  Most university departments would actually benefit from a few extra impractical dreamers, but they act counter to the traits incentivised by contemporary Darwinian academetrics and they are either ruthlessly culled, or swamped by regression to the surrounding mean.  All the same, the myth is strong, and in an age of reasonably-grounded fears that our lives are controlled and monitored by an unaccountable cabal of technocrat adepts, there is a certain comfort to be drawn from the old calumny of abstraction beyond all practical purposes, and the peripheral absurdities necessarily generated when any concept is driven to its logical conclusion.




In science itself, ‘exactitude’ has a precise, technical meaning, and it joins other words such as ‘power’ and ‘toughness’ in both gaining and losing nuances in the transition to popular use.  More often termed ‘accuracy’, exactitude expresses how closely the answer provided by your instrument approaches the true value of the thing you are trying to measure.  This begs the question of how you know the deviation from perfection if your imperfect instrument is the only way you have of estimating the true value, but there are practical techniques for handling that issue, although they usually involve suspect inelegancies such as statistics and probability theory.  Two other sibling aspects of technical measurement are also called in to help the process: precision, the ability to make the same measurement more than once; and resolution, the fundamental graininess or blurriness of the world as seen by your instrument.  This trinity of concepts informs scientific empiricism, but the distinctions between them are only hazily grasped by the lay public, even when discussing the technical issues they govern.

Despite most appearances to the contrary, our eyes are wholly imprecise, inexact, and lacking in resolution.  They are bad instruments by any numerical measure.  This usually doesn’t bother us until we try to compare their results with more exact optical devices.  The differences can lead to both quantitative and qualitative errors, and since we learn to see long before we learn to use measuring instruments, there is always a temptation to regard the obvious as true.  Nonlinearities and imperfections in our vision actively create false positives, and the authoritative force of the impressions they foist upon our consciousness means that numerically precise external measurements start out at a rhetorical disadvantage.

Far from being a window on the soul, our eyes are over-protective nannies, and they conspire with the brain to coddle our consciousness with the impression of a comprehensible smooth continuity, producing in our uncritical minds an excellent, detailed, full-colour image of what we expect the world to look like.  Cameras see in an entirely different way, because they are unencumbered by perception.  The difference between how a camera sees and how we do is not just an annoyance, or a workaday crack in the plaster which apprentice photographers must learn how to smooth over, it is central to the process of taking photographs for any purpose other than mechanical recording.

The interaction between what we see and what we perceive is guided by models and expectations built up before the act of looking takes place.  To me, now, the main lesson highlighted by the Borges story is not the impractical hubris of an exalted caste; nor is it how technical obsessions may be carried well beyond the point where returns have diminished to nothing.  Instead, the story warns of the foolishness of valuing the model over the thing modelled, and of substituting an interrogation of the world which is open to empirical amendment with a simplistic, smug apriorism.



Edward Burtynsky Dryland Farming #12
Monegros County, Aragon, Spain


I love maps.  I pore over them even when there is little or no chance of my ever visiting the places they show.  I am, and always have been, fascinated by the combination of dense information, coded symbolism and fine printing on quality paper.  All the same, maps suffer from an unavoidable catastrophic failure which is inherent to their very nature: they do not show everything.  It is possible to mitigate this failure with a suitably comprehensive collection of maps at different scales.  Add in historical maps – in the UK at least, the older one inch maps have more information of value to fossicking antiquarians – and geological maps, cadastral surveys, and airspace charts for good measure and, given a large enough table, you have assembled the beginnings of an understanding.  However, even in the aggregate there will still be things which are missed.

Whether you are looking for specific features which the map makers did not regard as being within their remit, or trying to understand a structure on the ground which does not seem to correspond to any of the little pictograms in the legend, you will, with almost any measure of curiosity and observation, quickly find that maps need to be annotated, revised, or completely redrawn with new, personal priorities encoded into the graphical representation.

There is a greater danger here than a simple mismatch between the desired and supplied collections of symbols.  The danger is of accepting the map’s predetermined ideas about the hierarchy of described features, and of seeing the world as a collection of conventional wisdoms, without perceiving the bias with which they were selected and ranked, and without asking whether there is anything worth attending to which is not on the list.  When a map shows a path and a series of well-marked features alongside it, the temptation to tick them off one by one is so irresistible that we often do not even notice that a choice has been made.  By ticking them off we confirm and reinforce their dominance, and we incur an opportunity cost made up of all the things we did not notice because we were so busy looking for the next designated waymark to tick.



Eric Fischer, The Geotagger’s World Atlas #48, Kyoto


Either we overlook things not marked on the map, or if we do see them, we do not accord them worth unless they fit neatly into existing categorisations of value.  Even giants of empirical wisdom and observation can be blinded by pre-existing hierarchies.  Charles Darwin complains in his diaries that his youthful geologising lacked the benefit of Agassiz’s elucidations of post-glacial landforms, and of how much richer an early visit to Cwm Idwal would have been had he been able to recognise the plainly-visible moraines, striations and erratic boulders for what they were.  Samuel Johnson on his tour of the Hebrides is taken to admire a pair of large glacial erratics on the island of Coll, and dutifully marvels at them and speculates on their provenance.  They are, however, quickly defined as but one of many interesting but intractable phenomena, and they are abandoned to sink out of sight in the narrative’s wake.

The danger of not seeing what isn’t on the map is just as real and omnipresent if we consider any mental model of the world and what is ranked as important within it.  Which is not to say that models are bad, or useless, or doomed to lead us astray, but rather that we should be on our guard against complacency.  This danger is especially prevalent in photography, where there are immensely strong conventions as to what is worth photographing, and why, and in what style.  These conventions operate as a map, and a timeline, where certain subjects, events and places are marked with a convenient iconic symbol denoting that they are suitable to be photographed, while most others are not.  In the translation from the entire complexity of the real world to the family album or project portfolio there is a touristification of human experience, in which key highlights – often defined in advance – are heavily overrepresented.

I often photograph plants, or interconnected communities of plants and their environments.  As such, I find myself squeezed between the twin sloughs of convention: Garden Photography and Nature Photography.  Plug either capitalised phrase into a Google image search, and an eye-catching cascade of thumbnails quickly fills the screen.  Both genres are fond of an over-saturated, warm-n-cosy view of the world, and it is not an accident that the images look great in small sizes.  The subjects, the presentation and the composition are all deliberately, if not consciously, presented as easily read truisms.  Although both fetishize a wealth of detail, that detail is only there to reassure the viewer that the scene is real – it is not used to communicate, but to establish authority.  The purpose of most such Garden and Nature photography is to confirm, not to inform or reveal.



GardenGarden PhotographyNature PhotographyNature


An interesting thing happens if you drop the ‘Photography’ from the Google searches.  The ‘Garden’ images become somewhat more interesting, certainly more complex, as if relinquishing the need to demonstrate self-consciousness has freed the photographer from stylistic conventions.  I have also seen this effect in books on landscape ecology and landscape history, where the photographs accompanying the chapter headings, which aim at a more artistic, reflective mood than the purposeful illustrations of the main text, are far more dated, stilted and forgettable than the artless art they supposedly surpass.  ‘Nature’ images, on the other hand, turn the dial up to eleven.  Everything a thinking photographer might complain about in the page of ‘Nature Photography’ thumbnails is enhanced and exaggerated to an almost painful extent when Googling plain ‘Nature’.

There is therefore, and here the irony is of industrial strength, a spectrum of observational blindness and restrictive conformation to predetermined type, from the relatively free world of the pure garden, through self-aware photography of both gardens and nature, to the exponentially-compounded conventions of pure nature work.  Not all of the constriction comes from photography, but the desire to make a photograph regarded as good by the prevailing, commonly agreed-upon laws of assessment certainly provides a useful tourniquet.

Conventions are not necessarily bad, but they blind and restrict us.  They promote seeing the world as a collection of established pigeonholes to be stuffed, and they discourage curiosity and creativity.   They privilege the mean over the outlier, and the long term, area-integrated, average trend over the specific particularity of This, Here, and Now.  The specificity of photography, the very thing that makes it most unique and powerful as a medium, is actively subverted as photographers and viewers wrap themselves in a mutual comfort blanket.



Balnagleck, Mull of Kintyre
From Scotland’s Landscapes


Daniel Simberloff puts it nicely in a warning against physics envy in ecology, and against the valuing of elegant predictive models of over messy collections of field observations:

What physicists view as noise is music to the ecologist; the individuality of populations and communities is their most striking, intrinsic and inspiring characteristic, and the apparent indeterminacy of ecological systems does not make their study a less valid pursuit.

David Simberloff.  A succession of paradigms in Ecology: Essentialism to Materialism and Probabilism.  Synthese, 43, 3-39 (1980)

Simberloff’s article does not just support empiricism as a worthwhile activity in its own right.  He is concerned to point out the dangers and dead ends created by idealist models and by systems of intellectual valuation which place theories above the experimental observations they should be attempting to explain and predict.  Model worship can get out of hand in any field, but it is particularly strong in the sciences because of the overwhelming mythological status of great predictive theorists such as Newton or Einstein.  Their success, however, should not blind us to the long term value of detailed, unbiased empirical observation: the stimulus for a stunning new theoretical breakthrough has often been a mundane, but undeniably valid, experimental fact.

The unbiased empiricist is, however, not a commonly encountered being.  In particular, preconceptions are remarkably persistent – and sneaky.  There will always be a tension between the twin poles of looking for the thing you expect to find and assembling a collection of entirely uncorrelated flotsam.  To some degree, empiricism must always contain an unavoidable element of apriorism – you can’t note down everything – and there are also times when your purpose is from the outset to say something coherent, systematic, and particular within the framework of existing conceptions.  On occasion, opening your mind only serves to empty your head: rejecting any form of preparation or planning can lead to nothing more than self-indulgent noodling.  In a world of adequate perfection though, the ideas will guide, not lead, and there will be room to accommodate revisions occasioned by surprises and serendipity.

The tension is quite general.  Even physicists suffer from physics envy, in that there is a continual pressure to relate observations to a prevailing theoretical understanding.  The most childlike woolgatherer has taken a more or less conscious decision to gather wool, and not litter, or casts of animal footprints, or dry leaves.  The trick, I think, is to be consciously aware of biases and models, to indulge them to the extent that they permit a useful and interesting synthesis to be made, but not to internalise them so deeply that they dictate your entire attention.



Noah Devereaux, Overhead, Middle America


There is one further aspect of maps and models which intrigues me, not so much because it relates to the process and practice of photography, but more because it provides such fascinating subject matter.  Maps do not only influence the mental and conceptual aspects of cultural interactions with an unchanging landscape, they also act as determinants for the landscape’s physical development.  There is feedback, and it works both ways.  A ‘model’ may be an abstracted representation of something, but in most European languages it can also mean a pattern from which something is constructed.

Political and economic maps in particular have a way of turning into self-fulfilling prophecies.  The world evolves to conform with the map, rather than the other way round.  A persistent canard from pre-revolutionary Russia was that the engineering-motivated loop followed around a pair of steep gradients by the Moscow to Saint Petersburg railway was the result of the Tsar drawing around his finger by accident when ruling the otherwise straight-line path of the proposed railway onto the map.  This story was too good to die with the revolution, and mutated into a similar bulbosity in the Russian-Finnish border, supposedly drafted around Stalin’s thumb by a deferential aide.  Railways and borders both exert influence on local land use and patterns of development, and so the curves representing the pre and post-revolutionary leader’s digits are now indelibly imprinted onto the landscape, regardless of whether the foundation myth is real or not.

However, perhaps the single most extensive example of the determinant power of maps and models is the Public Land Survey of the continental USA.  Originally intended to facilitate the selling of land that neither the seller nor the buyer had set eyes on, this divided the country up into nested sets of square parcels, and the marks and spaces of the reticulated pattern of allocated land are now written so deeply into the physical and conceptual landscape that they are unlikely ever to be erased.  The conceptual rigidity extends from homespun tales of forty-acres and a mule to ingrained resistance – on purely practical grounds – to the introduction of the metric system into the USA.  I confess to a smirk when I imagine sun-hardened farmers negotiating with snake-eyed land agents over the disposition of ‘aliquots’, a word I otherwise associate with the recherché delicacies of quantitative analytical chemistry.  The squares of land themselves form the boundaries of zoning in urban and suburban areas, and of ploughing, irrigation, fertiliser use and grazing in the countryside.  Around their perimeters are threaded roads, artificial watercourses, utility cables and pipelines.  Even in the event of a rapture-like removal of all human presence, it is a fair bet that the lattice of physical and chemical changes laid out on the ground will persist for thousands of years.



(on Google Maps)


The brute doggedness of the Survey’s implementation is revealed in all its rectilinear magnificence when flying (or Googling) across the central Great Plains.  There are hiccups, such as at the boundaries between two States whose grids are based on different starting meridians, where half-sized and wedge-shaped plots are squeezed up against the state line, and all the minor roads are forced to lurch through a dogleg as they traverse the misalignment.  There are also odd insertions and adjustments made necessary by the adamantine laws of geometry – a square grid on a spherical surface cannot fit exactly, and the accumulated errors are swept by law into the western and northern edges of the larger squares.

Perhaps the most impressively Borgesian element of the Survey is what happens when it crosses the Continental Divide and enters land where the convoluted topography simply refuses to accommodate horizontal straight lines.  The Survey proceeds impassively as if nothing had changed, laying out its patchwork of imaginary squares all the way to the Pacific.  The individual square as a legal entity, and as property, exists independently of any practical considerations as to its suitability for use.  Thus in the loess farmland of the Palouse the reticulations of the survey are further decorated by the dictates of topography and drainage, to produce what from the top down looks like a distinctly cubist conception of the farming landscape.  A little further west, in the marvellously named Channelled Scablands, ice-age mega-floods have scoured braided paths through the loess and down into the bedrock, but the Survey lays out its little squares undaunted, and farmers have planted wheat in whichever portions of their squares actually contain enough level soil to make tillage practicable.



(on Google Maps)


There are other cases where the map becomes the territory, including extreme examples such as the large scale model of the Aksai Chin dug into the Ningxia desert by the Chinese army so that they could practice tank battles.  However, my life as an idling Googlenaut has turned up just one other example of a 1:1 scale map engraved into the land itself, and it is a sad one.  Closer to Borges’ birthplace of Buenos Aires, in the interior of the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo, I came across odd patches of country which on the satellite image look exactly like maps, complete with contour lines, geodetic grids and colour-coded land types.  Part of the pattern results from a grid of land allocations, and the subsequent parcelling up of land use and its typical resulting vegetation types.  The contour lines, however, are at first baffling, not least because they are often continuous across the comprehensible linear boundaries and therefore must predate the patterns of growth, which now reveal them to an overhead eye.



(on Google Maps)


At first I thought I had enabled some kind of topographical overlay within Google’s satellite view, but I checked, and I had not.  The terrain did not seem steep enough for terraced farming to make any kind of sense, as a virtual drive along nearby roads covered by Google Street View confirmed.  Street View also made it clear that the lines are fairly subtle as physical features on the ground.  The contours seen on the satellite image are more akin to crop marks than well-defined embankments or earthworks.  They represent structures written into the landscape with enough force to make themselves visible in patterns of growth, but which are not disruptive enough of the terrain to prevent any particular land use.

The answer, as far as I can make out, is that these are fossil logging roads, laid out along contour lines to facilitate the removal of timber as this area was successively cleared from over 80% tree cover in 1845, to 58% in 1907, 18% in 1952, 8% in 1973 and an estimated 3% today.  Sugar cane, then coffee, then ranching, and then sugar cane again, have dispatched the original forest as if it had never been.  What is left, is not stumps, or even small memento-mori remnants of the wildwood, but instead a ghostly etching of the topology into itself.  This reflexive scribing will endure far longer than any human memories of what was removed, and, in a millennium or so, historians will add it to the list of incomprehensible but charming rituals, like galloping white horses dug through chalkland turf.

My elegiac tone is conventional, but, I think, justified by the sheer scale of the clearance.  In other parts of the world there are limits, as in Malaysian Borneo, where similar contouring road networks stop dead at the border with Brunei, whose royalty and government strenuously protect their forests.  In South East Brazil however, you find the contour lines almost everywhere you take the trouble to look.  You think you have reached the end, and then a new set pops up in an isolated field and you realise that you are still traversing the clear cut.  The wood was vast, and it is gone.

In this case, the landscape has come to resemble a map which nobody actually drew.  The unique thing in South East Brazil is that the enduring marks left upon the land are not clues or remnant reminders as to what once was ubiquitous, but an enduring record of the process by which change was effected.  This is a Meta-Borges, or, in keeping with the Malthusian despair lurking just below the surface, Borges exponentiated.