Why paper maps matter in the digital age

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A glance at the research reveals that there are distinct advantages to using printed cards.

Printed maps help you gain in-depth knowledge faster and more efficiently. Photo: Anne Spratt, via Unsplash

Ted Florence is ready for his family trip to Botswana. He searched for his hotel on Google Maps and downloaded a digital map of the country to his phone. He also wrapped a large paper card. “I travel all over the world,” says Florence, president of the international board of directors of the International Association of the Cartographic Industry and Avenza Cards, a digital mapping software company. “Everywhere I go, my routine is the same: I get a paper card, and I keep it in my back pocket. “

With the proliferation of smartphones, it’s easy to assume that the era of the paper map is over. This attitude, that digital is better than print, is what I call “technochauvinism”. In my book, “Artificial intelligence: how computers misunderstand the world“I’m looking at how technochauvinism has been used to create an unnecessary, sometimes detrimental, bias for digital over print or any other type of interface. A glance at the research reveals that the paper map still thrives in the digital age, and there are distinct advantages to using printed maps.

Your brain on maps

Cognition researchers generally distinguish between superficial knowledge and deep knowledge. Experts have in-depth knowledge of a subject or geography; amateurs have surface knowledge.

Digital interfaces are good for gaining surface knowledge. Answer the question “How do I get from the airport to my hotel in a new city?” Is a pragmatic problem that requires only superficial information to answer. If you are going to a city for only 24 hours for a business meeting, you usually don’t need to learn much about city planning.

When you live in a place or want to travel in a meaningful way, a thorough knowledge of the geography will help you navigate there and understand its culture and history. Printed maps help you gain in-depth knowledge faster and more efficiently. In the experiments, people who read on paper consistently demonstrate better reading comprehension than people who read the same material on a screen. A 2013 study have shown that as a person’s geographic skills increase, so does their preference for paper maps.

For me, the difference between deep knowledge and shallow knowledge is the difference between what I know of New York, where I lived for years, and San Francisco, which I have only visited a handful of. times. In New York City, I can tell you where all the neighborhoods are and which train lines to take and speculate on whether the prevalence of Manhattan Shale in the geological substrate influenced the heights of the buildings that are in Greenwich Village compared to Midtown. . I have invested a lot of time looking at the paper and digital maps of New York. In San Francisco, I only used digital maps to navigate from point to point. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know where anything is in the Bay Area.

When you live in a place or want to travel in a meaningful way, a thorough knowledge of the geography will help you navigate there and understand its culture and history.

Our brains code knowledge like what scientists call a cognitive map. In terms of psychology, I’m missing a cognitive map of San Francisco.

“When the human brain collects visual information about an object, it also collects information about its surroundings and combines the two,” wrote communication researchers Jinghui Hou, Justin Rashid and Kwan Min Lee. in a 2017 study. “In the same way that people construct a mind map of a physical environment (for example, a desk in the middle of an office facing the door), readers form a ‘cognitive map’ of the physical location of a text and its spatial relationship. to the text as a whole.

Print reading makes it easier for the brain to encode knowledge and remember things. Sensory signals, like unfolding the complicated folds of a paper map, help create this cognitive map in the brain and help the brain retain knowledge.

The same goes for a simple practice like plotting a hiking route on a paper map with your finger. The physical act of moving your arm and feeling the paper under your finger gives your brain haptic and sensorimotor signals that contribute to the formation and retention of the cognitive map.

Card errors

Another factor in the paper versus digital debate is accuracy. Obviously, a good digital map is better than a bad paper map, just like a good paper map is better than a bad digital map.

Technochauvins You may believe that all digital maps are good, but just like in the paper world, the accuracy of digital maps is entirely dependent on the level of detail and fact-checking invested by the company that creates the map.

For example, a Crowdflower crowdsourcing company survey 2012 found that Google Maps accurately located 89 percent of businesses, while Apple Maps correctly found 74 percent. This is not surprising, because Google invests millions in sending people around the world to map the terrain for Google StreetView. Google Maps is good because the company invests time, money, and human effort to make their maps good, not because digital maps are inherently better.

Google Maps is good because the company invests time, money, and human effort to make their maps good, not because digital maps are inherently better.

Fanatical attention to detail is required to keep digital maps up to date, as real world conditions are constantly changing. Companies like Google are constantly updating their maps and will need to do so regularly as long as they continue to publish. The maintenance required for digital content is important – a cost that technochauvins often ignore.

In my opinion, it is easier to forgive the mistakes of a paper map. Physical maps usually include an easily visible publication date so that users can see when the map was published. (When was the last time you noticed the date of the last update on your car navigation system?) When you passively follow voice GPS instructions from a navigation system and there is, say, an unmarked exit, GPS system and causes chaos among the people in the car. (Especially the drivers in the back seat.)

The best card for the job

Some of the deepest flaws in digital maps are not obvious to the public. Digital systems, including maps, are more interconnected than most people realize. Mistakes, which are inevitable, can go viral and create more problems than expected.

For example: Journalist Kashmir Hill wrote about a Kansas farm in the geographic center of the United States that was plagued by legal problems and physical harassmentbecause a digital mapping database mistakenly uses the default farm location whenever the database cannot identify the true answer.

“As a result, for the past 14 years, whenever MaxMind’s database has been queried for the location of an IP address in the United States, it can’t identify it, it spat out the default location of a location two hours from the geographic area. center of the country, ”Hill wrote. “It happens a lot: 5,000 companies rely on MaxMind’s IP mapping information, and in total, there are now over 600 million IP addresses associated with this coordinate by default.”

A technochauvin state of mind assumes that everything in the future will be digital. But what if a big company like Google stops offering their maps? What happens when government shutdown means that satellite data powering the GPS systems of smartphones is not transmitted? At present, ambulances and fire trucks can keep a road atlas in the front seat in the event of electronic navigation failure. If the company does not keep physical cards, first responders will not be able to reach addresses in the event of a fire or serious illness.

Interrupting a country’s GPS signals is also a realistic cyber warfare tactic. The US Navy has resumed training new recruits in celestial navigation, a technique that dates back to ancient Greece, as protection against digital grid piracy.

Ultimately, I don’t think it should be a competition between the physical and the digital. In the future, people will continue to need both types of cards. Instead of wondering if paper or digital is a better mapping interface, people should ask themselves which map is the right tool for the task.


Meredith Broussard is professor of data journalism at the Arthur L. Carter Institute at New York University. She is the author of “Artificial intelligence: how computers misunderstand the world. “

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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