Expanding our horizons
People have traveled and moved about for thousands of years. As we explored new places, fought wars and traded goods, we drew maps. There are maps of coastlines and landscapes, trade routes and villages. These maps are from all parts of the world. Improvements in science led to more accurate records. Eventually, many people had access to atlases and globes. More people were able to see the images that others had created and maps became more common.
The use of signs and symbols as a way of communicating dates back to prehistoric times. One of the first maps, for example, is a pictograph (painting) on a cave wall in France from 16,500 years ago. It shows a map of the stars in the night sky.
We use maps for wayfinding — finding our way from one place to another. We have to navigate any time we go somewhere new. To do that we need to understand where we are and how to choose a path that takes us to our destination.
When we look at maps, we are looking at a representation of space. This is shown on a grid. Once we learn how to use this grid, we can figure out the distance and direction from one point to another. Elevation is shown by lines (contour lines), which join points of equal height. If we can understand contour lines, we can imagine the hills and valleys on a landscape.
Maps are universal. But spatial reasoning skills and an understanding of map symbols and conventions is needed. Once you learn these skills, that is, you learn how to read a map, you can probably look at a map printed in a different language and understand it. You can usually find your way - if you can locate your starting point!
Today, maps are used for many reasons and they can look very different. For example, we have maps for shopping malls, underground subways, bus routes, airports, highways, city parks and wilderness areas. We also have very complex maps of the stars in the sky, of outer space, and of the ocean floor.
The digital age
But what about our ‘sense of place’ today? How do we find our way in a more complex, human-made environment? How do we navigate our way as we travel more and more quickly into unfamiliar territory by car, boat, plane, train or foot?
Many of us now rely on technology. GPS (global positioning system) is built into devices that many people have - such as cell phones, watches and computers. They can convert direction, speed and time and will show your location on a digital map. This allows us to leap past traditional map-reading into a digital world where you can locate yourself as you move through a space.
Apps like Google Maps, for example, are easy to use on any device. You are able to change from map view to photo view where you can actually see the buildings and streets you are looking for (find the Eiffel Tower).
Google Maps Navigation, an app which gives you directions in real time, will give you up-to-date traffic conditions, so you can avoid busy streets.
Google Earth allows you to fly at any angle and in any direction over a three-dimensional landscape. You can download routes and pin them to your map so you can plan your route.
To see how all of this can fuse into a great visual tool, become an armchair tourist and take a Google Maps Treks tour.
Where from here?
Women tend to rely on landmarks and visual cues, and men on maps, cardinal directions (such as north and south) and gauges of distance. Perhaps these new tools - which let you see both - will save a few relationships! New digital tools are giving us the power to understand and navigate our world by bridging the gap between representational and real views.
Google says there are about 1 million third party websites and apps using its mapping technology. We are entering a world that allows for more creativity and independence. Maps provide endless ways to learn about the world we live in as we focus on both visual literacy and technology.
Community Literacy Coordinator
Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy – Kimberley