David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Cartography: Maps of My Perception

This week’s readings focused on maps that either creatively represent real life or that exist in fiction. You Are Here, edited by Katherine Harmon, shows excellent maps of imagination, imaginary places, and people’s personal perceptions of the world.

It’s that last type of map on which I’d like to focus: the maps we make in our heads. We all do so; our mental maps tend to be based on our own personal experiences. After seeing the maps Rosendo Flores made for a previous version of this class (maps that resonated with me since I, like Rosendo, moved from San Antonio to Washington for graduate school), I’ve been thinking about how I perceive space in different places–particularly how my mode of transport determines how I see space.

Like Rosendo, in San Antonio I tended to drive everywhere (even though, after I returned from Peace Corps, I frequently took a commuter bus to my job at the Alamo; my dislike of driving was evident even then). Following a point countless others have made, the car obliterated distance.

But when I went to college in Pittsburgh, I didn’t have a car to bring–nor did I want a car. Instead, I relied on walking and on Pittsburgh’s bus system–at that time, at least, free to Pitt students who showed ID. Although I rationally knew that the City of Pittsburgh itself is much smaller than San Antonio, it didn’t feel that way to me, particularly when I went to visit my relatives. Although they lived only a few miles away from me, it took me 45 minutes to an hour, and two buses, to get there. Thus, the city seemed about as large as did San Antonio, where I could get the 15 miles from my parents’ house to downtown in the same amount of time.

In the Washington area, even when I drive, things seem further away than they did in San Antonio. Commuting from my apartment in Arlington to GMU campus, for example, involves less distance than did my commute from my parents’ house to downtown San Antonio. Yet, GMU may as well be the end of the earth.

So then the question arises: How do I represent my mental maps of these three cities graphically? Since this is for a blog post rather than a full project, I took screenshots from Google Maps to experiment. Laying out the journeys in actual space looks like this:

From left: San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Northern Virginia. Although the maps' scale is slightly different, nonetheless this makes clear that the distance traveled in Pittsburgh is significantly smaller.

From left: San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Northern Virginia. Although the maps’ scale is slightly different, nonetheless this makes clear that the distance traveled in Pittsburgh is significantly smaller.

But here’s how I perceived those distances, due to means of transportation and traffic:

From left: San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Northern Virginia. Not only do I show different scales, but notice that I made the maps different sizes to reflect my perceptions of space with each.

From left: San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Northern Virginia. Not only do I show different scales, but notice that I made the maps different sizes to reflect my perceptions of space with each.

Thus, the maps of my perception are significantly different. As we’ve been reading this semester, the maps people see, and the maps they make in their heads, shape how they perceive the world. How do we as historians capture those perceptions when people didn’t write them, much less draw them? Can we know? Or are many of those individual perceptions, those individual personal maps, lost to history?

Addendum: This week I commented on Nate’s blog post.

3 Comments

  1. I agree that using a map as a reference point for distance here in the DC area is rather useless. Since arriving in this region from the Midwest I have learned that residents here discuss travel in terms of “time” and not “distance” – a concept that is totally strange to my family and friends. When they ask “so how far are you from DC?” and they expect a distance in miles, they are quite confused by my response – “well, it depends on the time of day and the day of the week – it can be a matter of minutes or it can be hours.” I think you make a great point about perceptions of distance. Even Columbus had a particular perception about distance that he purposely hid from his crew. Historians of the westward movement consider diary passages to get a sense of the relationship between distance and speed of travel. Today we consider road maps as guidelines for not only distance but time between places, yet this is all predicated upon a sense of how fast we can actually travel from point A to point B. I am sensing that this next wave of perception is upon us with the internet travel and instantaneous “travel” and a perception of distance being compressed to nothing more than a hand-held screen. What happens when this idea of time and distance ceases to be a computation between geospatial relationships?

  2. I’m in the same boat, Sheri–it was hard to adjust to thinking of travel in terms of time rather than distance. I’ve learned to think of commuting distance as a more elastic concept than I grew up with, when all I needed to know was the distance as the speed limit. David, your simple mechanism of adjusting the scale of each map to fit the same size frame is an elegant way to illustrate your point.

  3. This example reminds me of how I talk with my 6 year old about time. She always wants to know how long it will be before we do something, but she can’t really understand the answer. I’ll say “20 minutes”, and she wants to know how long that is. I’ve tried to explain, it’s about the length of a show, but I realized this is untrue. 20 minute television shows go by in a blur, while waiting 20 minutes for your friends to come over feels like forever. Like the distances you, Sheri, and Kirk discuss it’s all relative to your perception.

    I would argue you could transfer this to the perception of time vs. distance as well. Even one hour of driving is never exactly equal: one hour stuck on I-66 in bumper-to-bumper traffic is completely different than an hour driving out west like across Prof. Petrik’s home state of Montana going 75 miles-per-hour.

    I wonder, too, if technology can reduce perceived distances as well. I’ve only had a smartphone for about a year and I’ve noticed how it completely turns the act of waiting in public from a time that seems to drag to a chance to check Twitter, email, or read an article on the Internet. Maybe maps of perception can be recast even further considering the many factors that seem to reduce time and distance. What do you think?

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