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Invisible Maps, Beautiful Numbers

August 31, 2016

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” Doc Brown announces at the end of Back to the Future. Revisiting that line today, roads are a sure thing in the foreseeable future—it’s more likely that where we’re going roads won’t need us.

For maps more than roads, the future is uncertain. Maps are as important as ever but somehow vanishing from their familiar haunts and reappearing everywhere else. A little more than a decade ago, a map was something you found printed on paper that helped you fumble toward a new destination, an item you packed for a road trip. Now maps show up anywhere, used in daily life passively and actively, guiding us through the familiar as well as the unknown, appearing in NY Times blogs, on TV screens in the middle of transatlantic flights, and in almost every video game. Throughout the spectrum between pure entertainment and pure utility there are maps everywhere.

Maps got more important after iPhones ensured we’d have them at our fingertips all the time. Tools began emerging that used maps in more sophisticated ways—searching for what’s nearby (Yelp, Tinder), tagging locations (Facebook, Instagram), or augmenting geographical reality (Pokémon Go). Driving, of course, expanded the everyday need for maps decades before GPS devices could narrate directions in real time, if not eventually drive the cars themselves.

In most of the examples just listed, there’s no fundamental need to read a map or even see one. The map just works in the background, another invisible algorithm that frames reality. Navigational maps are going “under the interface,” as I’ve written before. Nicholas Carr observes, “It would seem to be the golden age of maps and map-reading. And yet, even as the map is becoming omnipresent, the map is fading in importance.”

I wouldn’t put it that way, but we should decide what we mean by “map.” To Carr, a map is visual—a geographical diagram that you look at as you work out how to get where you’re going. But if a map is defined more broadly, a kind of logic, a protocol for navigation, then maps are certainly not losing importance—they are just becoming invisible as they disseminate everywhere (and invisibility is the destiny of so much advanced technology in the digital age).

Carr describes how the look of Google maps has evolved over time to show less detail and less text (“as a cartographic tool, Google Maps has gone to hell”) while becoming more aesthetically pleasing. This shift may be Google’s effort to optimize its maps for the smaller screens of smartphones, but that doesn’t quite explain it.

The real reason, Carr suggests, is that pictorial maps themselves don’t need to do much—when it’s time to actually navigate, the user enters a destination and gets an optimal route with turn-by-turn directions on a separate screen: “As a navigation aid, the map is becoming a vestigial organ. So why not get rid of the useful details and start to think of the map as merely a picture or an image, or a canvas for advertisements?”

Maps are being unbundled—split into their functional and aesthetic components. Is reading a map something humans are even meant to do?


Recently, after having to memorize a number for a reason I already forget, the following thought popped into my head: Whenever a person is dealing directly with a number, that’s a task that a computer will eventually do.

The modern world has been saturated with numbers long enough to make them feel organic, but humans and numbers mix like oil and water. We are always trying to turn numbers into narratives because we hate numbers and love narratives, and we have animal brains that deal better in generalities than precise calculations. Thus, we buy lottery tickets and feel that flying is more dangerous than driving. Even memorizing numbers is hard for us, but we used to carry countless seven- or ten-digit phone numbers around in our heads because we had no choice.


          Charles Demuth; the future of numbers (source)

By any rational standard, people cannot be trusted with numbers. We got much better at using numbers to our advantage once computers came around to do all the hard work for us. By now, we don’t have to remember many numbers (or many other things), much less do anything with those numbers. We’ve even outsourced remembering birthdays to Facebook. Increasingly we can embrace our natural narrative inclination. The world has become more data-driven because there’s more data being captured, but people are not becoming more data-driven, the tools we operate are.

As numbers go under the interface, like maps, they’ve disappeared from their usual places in the visual landscape. You see a phone number once—when you add it to your address book—and then it becomes a name, forever mapped to a person you know. Online banking eliminated the arithmetic of balancing one’s checkbook. ID numbers and passwords get saved in digital notes or email drafts and copy/pasted (a practice certain to be replaced by a more elegant solution). The list goes on and on. Many still deal with numbers in more sophisticated ways at their jobs, but such work stands at the frontier of what will be eaten by software eventually.

The reason for computers’ widespread adoption is not that they further immerse us all in the world of numbers, the machines’ native language—it’s that they help us escape from numbers and go back to what we do best, which is almost everything else.


In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the horse has lost its role in transportation but has made a strong comeback in entertainment.” Numbers and maps are undergoing a similar transition now. Both have the same future in the human-readable landscape: aesthetic symbolism. The numbers that matter outside of software aren’t for memorization, addition, or multiplication, but cultural signification: infographics, athletes’ jersey numbers, famous addresses (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), the numbers in social media username handles. Maps are better than ever as data visualization tools, but a map seen by a human is the last stop for that data, its sublimation into the realm of the irrational.

Steve Jobs understood this future of digital information and created its look. Apple’s sleek devices and operating systems became the dominant aesthetic of the digital age and did for numbers what Google and others would, in a different way, do for maps, hiding them beneath smooth aluminum surfaces, uncluttered interfaces, and rectangular icons with rounded corners. When we see maps or numbers now, we expect them to look good. Numbers still appear on iPhones where they absolutely must but these exceptions prove the rule: The red app notification badge icons communicate most of their information through color and shape, not the digit in the middle of each circle.

With fewer maps and fewer numbers to process ourselves, we glimpse a surprising future of algorithmic premodernism. McLuhan said that television, radio, and phones were “retribalizing” mankind by circumventing the role of the printed word and returning us to the mental and social patterns of primitive oral cultures. Apple and Google, in their own way, are completing that retribalization process, freeing us from a few more bulwarks of this rationally-biased era and synthesizing the machine age with ancient tendencies our brains still haven’t outgrown. If maps still look good to us after that synthesis, we’ll decorate the walls with them.