Sunday, May 25, 2008

Anoraks in aisle 9

Years ago, I had lunch with people selling geographic information systems and to the terror of their PR agent, they showed me how to make their software go wrong. I think they were pleased I knew what they were talking about: they had been used to selling to corporations, now they were aiming at the PC market and few of the journalists they'd met were all that interested. Even fewer knew about projections, I was the only one who would defend Mercator's system.

(Rant. I still will. Don't you knock Geradus Mercator in front of me. His way of translating a globe into a flat map is a working one: he wasn't pratting about settling political scores, he was getting ships to go where they were pointed. /Rant.)

So these people saw a fellow cartography fan in me and we had a ball. Shortly afterwards, the feature I wrote about them and various other GIS manufacturers got me a nomination for Magazine Writer of the Year at the PPA Awards. (I lost to a dog columnist in Bitch monthly. Quite seriously.)

I just relish the artistry in maps: the choice of what you show, what you don't. The way a map tells you as much about its artist and his or her society as it does about the lands it depicts. The lands it depicts: the far-distant shores, the pin-sharp accuracy of Ordnance Survey and the wild imagination of mappa mundi. Actually, also the imagination of Ordnance Survey: the way acres of military property will be marked "lake" or something. Shouldn't the OS mark ordnance when it finds it? I'd think that was a contractual obligation.

Anyway, I bring this up now because I wish to complain and I promise that there is no one but you I can tell in all this land. Here's the thing. My local hypermarket, a very big Sainsbury's, has been remodelling for six months: every time I go, and I go an awful lot lately, they've moved things. Now it's finally finished, it's all very good, but it's big and different so they have maps up.

They have maps, I have an iPhone that lets me blog here live from the freezer section, can you see where this is going yet?

I photographed the map with my iPhone. I wasn't planning to show it to you, or to anybody really. But standing there in aisle 9, I had no problem with people staring as I tapped the screen to zoom in on Light Bulbs, aisle 27.

Only, the map lies.

I put my social standing on the line for that map, and it lies.

There are no light bulbs in aisle 27. And I may be a man, but still I can ask questions: the staff directed me back toward aisles 3 through 7.

Maps exaggerate the prominence of enemy territory in wartime. They suggest safe passage where no such thing exists. It's through mapping we get gerrymandering - how did Gerry Mander get both his names remembered? - and it's through maps that we can see society change over centuries.

But we can't find light bulbs in Sainsbury's.

All that J Sainsbury money, all that Sainsbury graphic design, all that Sainsbury lying.

Hang on. I'm in Asda.


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