The tide was turning in the Everglades’ ten thousand islands, and we were lost. My wife and I, with our teenage son and daughter, had struck camp a couple of hours earlier, paddling away from our campsite on a Gulf beach into the brackish maze that lay between us and the mainland. Barbed and seriffed, the mangrove horizons jumbled around us like lines of overstruck type. Periodically I had consulted my NOAA chart (no. 11430, Lostman’s River to Wiggins Pass), taken compass bearings on clumps of far-off mangrove, and struggled to triangulate our position on the map. Comprehending the clearly charted shorelines for this enjambment of trees was, at least for one new to the Everglades, more a matter of hazy reckoning than cartographic certainty.
Nautical charts like 11430 have been around for a long time; they helped to forge the beginning of modern mapping. Portolani, the pilotage charts compiled by Mediterranean sailors beginning in the late Middle Ages, plotted anchorages for coastwise navigators with newfound precision. As a means of organizing information about space, they struck a different tack from the idealized, Ptolemaic geography of earlier medieval maps, which depicted the world as the fallen remnants of a divine system. The difference between the portolani and the Ptolemaic maps, however, was not so much one of quality or sophistication but of practice: with the portolan charts, measurement, rather than idealization, became the organizing logic. And measurement, too, has its blind spots, as anyone looking at Greenland on a latter-day Mercator-projection map can tell.
All maps tell stories of the world from particularized points of view, as the geographer Denis Woods likes to point out. “What the maps seem to reveal most,” Woods writes, “is our profound ambivalence about our place in the universe.” Responding to those ambiguities, maps can hide other ways of knowing the world. It’s altogether too easy to mistake the map for the territory, as the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges demonstrated in a very short story called “On Exactitude in Science,” imagining a long-ago kingdom whose cartographers produced “a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire”—an object that, for all the virtue and expertise that went into it, proved useless. “In the deserts of the West,” Borges concludes his story, “there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars.”
With its carefully boxed starbursts of compass bearings, the portolani made an argument about the nature of the sea: it is a place where ships pass coastwise from port to port. They did not sketch a world-encircling ocean, nor account for the curvature of the earth (though its existence was known). But these blind spots reveal the extent to which the portolan chart was not only a story, but also a tool—one designed to work with an assemblage of other tools, connected to information networks that would make the Age of Discovery possible. Ethnographer Edward Hutchins, whose book Cognition in the Wild describes navigation aboard both modern Navy ships and traditional Polynesian canoes, offers the term “distributed cognition” to describe such far-flung, tightly-specified networks of knowledge. There are many ways to distribute cognition—and NOAA charts, with their complex tissue of law, policy, and geographic data, represent neither the ultimate nor the most efficient state of the art. In Hutchins’s account, Polynesian navigators combine precise knowledge of the stars with hypothetical, imagined islands to fix their locations on the open ocean—a system as sophisticated and efficacious in its world as the navigational equipment aboard a modern naval vessel.
Today, few cognitive systems are more complex and distributed than Google Maps, which transforms the practical knowledge and craft techniques of surveyors, cartographers, and navigators into so many algorithms. Critics worry about the loss of geographic literacy and spatial intuition, disused capacities in the context of easy digital affordances—but perhaps it’s worth paying more attention to the assumptions that digital maps make, the arguments about the world they offer.
Like the highway maps that are its closest kin, Google Maps reaffirms the reign of the automobile with its attendant sprawl and fossil-fuel dependence. In conjunction with the Global Positioning System, it penetrates living space, painting the world’s surfaces with fixed certainties. To be sure, it can be enormously useful, even lifesaving. And yet this pervasive cartography reifies vexed political boundaries and effaces divides of class and opportunity; like Borges’s imperial map, it blankets the world with Ozymandian ambition.
A NOAA chart, likewise, bespeaks a different but equally controlled and tempered world: one patterned by government-maintained channel buoys, lights, and day markers; tools like the compass, the sextant, and the GPS transponder; and the craft of experienced navigators who share a hard-won tacit knowledge of the sea.
It was this last element—the well-trained navigator—that was missing as we turned toward the mainland on that last day in the Everglades. Mangroves dominated the scene: amid wide expanses of breeze-kissed water, thickets of arched roots and canopies of salt-glazed leaves stood everywhere, seemingly unmappable in their energetic ephemerality. And yet the chart suggested a network of solid land amid all this healthy natural tumult. In its own way the chart was a beautiful thing, depicting the coast as a crenellated, tide-worn set of teeth, shattering toward the leftmost margin into the crazed mosaic of the ten thousand islands. With its flat-hued palette, the chart domesticated land and sea: khaki for land, olive for inconstant marsh, and for the waters, a soporific sky-blue, so different from the Everglades’ tide-rumpled tannic ochre.
This subtly colored collage perched on my sweat-slick knees, slightly crumpled inside its smudged Ziploc, as we paddled toward Everglades City and the mainland. We had plotted our return along a simple course, connecting with heavily trafficked Indian Key Pass for the return to Chokoloskee Bay and the canoe landing in Everglades City. But just after leaving camp we had encountered a trio of dolphins who, like porpoising pied-pipers, cheerily led us away from our planned route. Now I was alternating between taking futile bearings on distant, indistinguishable clumps of mangrove and staring at chart 11430, trying to squint my way to a fixed position. I guessed that we had turned into north-facing Gaskin Bay, which led us back towards the Gulf at West Pass. But these were guesses at best—and without knowing our position, we could easily aim our boats down one of the many false passes through the mangroves and paddle into a long cul-de-sac.
Just then from the bow of my boat, my daughter spoke up: “I have service,” she announced. She had been paddling silently, swaddled in her music, white earbuds blocking out our growing anxiety; now she was looking at her phone, surprised that a text from a distant friend had found her in the swamp.
I grabbed my dry bag, rummaged out my own smartphone, and opened Google Maps. The pulsing blue dot appeared, dim beneath a veneer of reflected Florida sky; the jigsaw puzzle of the map began to assemble itself. Our canoes abeam, my wife and I compared the digital map to the chart, looking through the keyhole of a mobile device and the fretwork of depth soundings and declinations, onto the tangle of the mangroves around us: a palimpsest of ways of looking at land and sea, which together chorused a story that would lead us home.
Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History and The Sovereignties of Invention, a collection of short stories. He’s a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBattles.