Maps define space. They are the physical product of the mental work of integrating multidimensional experiences of a space into a two-dimensional form. The “atlas map” [Fig 1] displays highly familiar visual images. Linear boundaries, iconographic typography, a homogenous blue ocean and brown land. We read those maps immediately, our reactions are automatic; we feel we “get it” when we open Google Maps. You identify streets and blocks and highways. Their geometric, abstract nature is not acknowledged. But how often do you consider the projection your map is displaying? Does it retain distance across the ocean, or on land? Or does it retain the angle between two points? You might then realize that Europe and North America are distorted to appear far larger than they are in reality. And that these unavoidably warped projections hanging in the walls of almost every elementary school classroom. That they discreetly imply an inherent power of certain continents, but their biases largely go unrecognized, unquestioned.

Michael Fried writes that involuntary or automatic action are signifiers of absorption. In his examples, absorption is often experienced in relation to emotion, or beauty, or art. But the involuntary reaction to a map is nothing so romantic. It merely confirms one’s frequent exposure to common imagery and aesthetic vernacular. 

The automatic recognition of the atlas map is not based on bodily experience. The closest one might come is the view from a plane, and that memory is not what the map triggers. The map is learned from participation in global culture, and is accepted as fact. Automatic digestion of media can be dangerous, for the message conveyed may be unwittingly absorbed without thought for the implications of what has been left out or how the media was constructed. Two maps, Minard’s Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow (The Russian Campaign 1812-1813) [Fig 2], drawn in 1869 and the Center for Spatial Research’s Conflict Urbanism: Colombia [Fig 3], created in 2016, remediate the map format. Traditional and unconventional map elements are distinct but intertwined, taking on an “integrated windows format.” There are no physical borders dividing the elements, but one is able to grasp and analyze each plane of information individually. 

Departure from the traditional map allows the viewer to look at space in an entirely new manner. Unencumbered by expectations of form and hierarchy of importance (cities and borders being ultimate), one can analyze a space in a new context. The viewer can consider each element’s origins and implication, and combine it with any number of other elements in any order, weighing their significance as they see fit. Connections are made and meaning manufactured intentionally, rather than spontaneously. Customizability makes a more honest and transparent media. 

Katherine Hayles suggests a dichotomy of attention types, “deep” and “hyper”.  Deep attention is traditionally associated with humanities, and is applied to a single object over a long period of time, ignoring outside stimuli. Hyper attention switches focus between multiple information streams in search of the highest stimulation, and is seen as a result of a low tolerance for boredom. Looking at maps in relation to these terms is useful because it leaves the sometimes controversial and certainly nebulous realm of literature that often plagues discussion of attention. Nostalgia for novel reading and print is not useful in understanding the nature of modern attention, which is applied far more in everyday life to other media. The map, on the other hand, is a uniquely global language whose full capacity is not met by the common atlas. 

Minard’s map invites a series of reactions. One’s first thought might be, what is going on? It is not immediately clear; the geographic features that triumph over the aesthetic landscape of an atlas map are unidentifiable. Looking at a traditional map, one does not notice its “aesthetic” qualities. However, here, through abstraction and addition of new information, the map undergoes extreme simplification. It is first identified as an aesthetic object. The geographic features can be found, however, upon attention. Rivers, cities, and battles are all labeled spatially, according to where they might be in an atlas, save the borders and topography. Minard leaves out extraneous details but his decision to do so is blatant. His map is unconcerned with geography. Its purpose is to convey the extent of the failure of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia and its causes. The viewer immediately notices and is drawn in by all that the map lacks. 

Napoleon’s army’s course can be followed along the gold and black paths, city to city. The gold path leads to Moscow, and the black represents the attempted retreat to France. One reads the map in yellow first, left to right, then black, right to left. Every millimetre is ten thousand men. Where rivers cut across the army’s path, one sees it shrink, millimeters coldly cut off, signifying lives lost. Clearly, most do not reach their destination. Next, one notices the graph at the bottom. Uncolored and basic, this feature is not the main focus of the map, but the long thin lines connecting to the paths above bring it logically into Minard’s story. The graph shows temperature, implying the brutal Russian winter’s responsibility for the army’s failure. Time is also indicated here, loosely: 25 October to 7 December. Minard, drawing this map only 57 years after the event, assumed his audience would already have a general sense of the dates of the war.

Minard shows time, but he was working within the technology of his time. That is not to say he was limited by it. He revolutionized the map form by extending the possibilities of what “map” could mean, while using traditional materials. The Center for Spatial Research too pushes the boundaries of the map, this time with the help of modern technology. The animated map of the Conflict Urbanism project visualizes every forced displacement in Colombia from 1985 to 2015. They conquer and display a quantity of data at a level of specificity before unimaginable for consumption by anyone. The viewer does not need an understanding of complex coding behind the animation; anyone can interpret the language of the map.

The traditional map features are darkened. Typology and borders provide a dark grey and black backdrop, almost abstractions themselves. City and country names glow in white capitals. However, both these atlas features are dwarfed by the undulating web of connecting lines shooting across the screen, overlapping and losing their individual identities but expressing truthfully the magnitude of displacement in Colombia. The lines almost seem alive, hauntingly resembling a living organism. Color gradients show direction from origin to destination, white to orange. 

Time is represented through real time passing for the viewer, the organism growing and glowing in real time, bright orange and white. One can watch the text representing the calendar change, months passing in fractions of a second. Below this the number of displaced persons. One can only make out the magnitude of the number, it changes too rapidly to recognize each individually. Short paragraphs of context fade in and out, the slowest moving of the many animated elements. The “true” map, the atlas map, ceases to be relevant. Far more engaging and clearly important is the organism itself.

However, the medium does not disappear. The bar along the bottom of the screen, with icons for Play, Pause, running time, “Vimeo,” and settings. In the upper right hand corner one can “Like,” “Share,” or “Add to Watch Later.” The viewer is firmly grounded in their reality, in front of a screen, likely far away from the conflict represented. There is no absorption into the world of the map. This effect is also a product of the lack of a familiar spatial grounding in this particular map format. The lines crossing the screen prevent the viewer from recognizing it as a real, inhabitable space. It is a representation to be interrogated. Where did the data come from? There is clearly a narrative, told in plain English. What was the creator’s intention? One finds the answers to these questions on Conflict Urbanism’s website.

The two maps described are linked visually through their color combination of black and orange/gold. In both cases, they draw attention. Orange, lively and celebratory, mixed with black, somber and cold. The mix of the two is jarring. The visual cue says this is not an ordinary occurrence. The departure from traditional colors of atlas maps further removes the viewer from the automatic responses an atlas map incites. Further frees the viewer to consider the represented stories critically and intentionally.

Both maps do incite reaction. Not an “I get it.” Nowhere near a conclusion. Rather, a mix of curiosity and confusion. Conflict Urbanism results in a verbal “oh, wow.” Minard’s may lean more toward confusion, but confusion is not deterrence. The lack of understanding is the key to lead the viewer into a more complex state of interaction with the map. The many elements compete for attention and the viewer switches between them, entirely aware of their own being and relation to these media. The association with the traditional form of “map” serves to bolster curiosity in the viewer. They want to understand the connection, make meaning out of this new yet familiar form, and relate it to their past experiences. 

The attention required to decode the features of Minard’s map could be categorized as a combination of both deep and hyper. It requires focus on one object, the map, but also switching between different locations of information and the combination of those sources into a cohesive story. It requires a level of aggregation and critical thinking which is wholly different from the passive act of, say, reading a novel. The relationship between viewer and object is “interactive,” even though there is no physical action being done. The viewer in no way alters the object. Still, they are undoubtedly active.

Nicholas Carr thinks we no longer concentrate, no longer contemplate what we read on the internet in the way we did print literature. He is forgetting the vast array of media beyond text that the internet displays, that only the internet could display, that inarguably incites deep contemplation. Conflict Urbanism: Colombia could not exist without the internet. Neither could a whole host of forums and sites that present information and captivate huge audiences.

Carr writes that the net absorbs other mediums, like the clock, or the map (he does use this specific example), and combines them. In his opinion, doing so diffuses the significance of each to the viewer. In the case of Conflict Urbanism, the combination of media does the opposite, emphasizing and reinforcing the significance of each part. The map, clock, animation, and text all work together in clarifying the extent of the crisis in Colombia. Visual complexity does not inherently dilute individual elements, it can in fact magnify them.

We are not in a crisis of attention, but a crisis of bad design.

Katherine Hayles notes that Hyper attention is often seen as “defective” because of its incompatibility with mainstream educational methods. While Deep attention is praised, it requires an environment very few are privileged enough to experience: access to quiet, safe space and time. Many young people today develop an environmental alertness out of necessity that cannot be turned off.

The lessons of these mapping exercises could be implemented in education. The student with a heightened awareness of space and conflicting sources of stimuli would excel in a class with textbooks that resemble these maps. Minard’s map confirms that stimulating media does not necessarily require digitization. Creative visual displays of information that defy expectations of traditional forms will hold the attention of a student and help them retain the information being communicated. Visual complexity that incites struggle is a tool for communicating complex ideas. Simplification of display may be easier, but will inevitably result in a dishonest and incomplete story. With today’s unparalleled access to data and modes of analytics media in all fields must be held to a higher standard: to disseminate information accurately, responsibly, and memorably to all users.

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