Wednesday, 29 February 2012

What are these lines about?

Christmas card of the geochemical department of the Geological Survey of Finland in 1978
I got my hands on a Christmas card from 1978. Somehow it doesn't look very much like a Christmas card. It took me some time to figure out that it is much more than a simple postcard:
  • it is a map
  • it is an advertisement product
  • it is drawn with a pen plotter

A map
Honestly, it has very little in common with a classic road map or google maps or what ever comes to your mind first, when you imagine a map. There is no topography, there are no contour lines, there are no landmarks that could be recognized. Only the coordinates give a small hint. And if you are able to read Finnish, you can see on the right side that it is map sheet no. 274301. It maps the geochemical concentration of nickel at a set of measurement points that follow lines from south-west to north-east. Not more and not less. No interpolation, no information about the nickel between the points of measurement.
So much I could figure out: It is in the North of Finland. Additionally, I found a map of the bedrock in this area, that shows a stretch of  of perioditic komatite from south-east to west. The points with high nickel concentrations resemble quite well the area of perioditic komatite (a rock of volcanic origin).
But even with all this additional information, isn't that map rather  puzzling than revealing? What kind of person can appreciate such a map?

An advertisement product
The sender of this Christmas card must have been convinced that it attracts the receiver's attention . According to my information the card shows a (at that time) innovative way of handling spatial information and drawing maps. It is a computer-made map. As such it illustrates an important shift in map-making. For a long time maps were drawn by hand. The map was storage and illustration of spatial knowledge likewise.  Now the information is stored in databases on computers. The computer drawn-map extracts and presents selected information. The information can be interpolated, transformed, augmented before it is illustrated on a map (However, this does in no way affect the point that you can  lie with maps). It is comparable to the change from writing with a mechanical typewriter to writing and storing texts on a computer.
So the receiver was expected to see the potential that lies in data handling by computers, which allows a quick and inexpensive way of redrawing and reshaping the visual output.

Drawn with a pen plotter
This map/Christmas card is actually drawn by a pen plotter and not printed. This is maybe not more than a small additional episode, but it puts the Christmas card even more into a 70s context and makes it a little bit more puzzling for us in 2012.
While a printer puts coloured dots in a certain distance to each other on the white paper a pen plotter draws lines from one point to another similar to hand writing. Since modern printers have mostly replaced  pen plotters, they are a past episode of IT development.

When the whole world is scanned and mapped with ever increasing precision and people see a 
totalizing enviro-veillance network superimposed on the surface of the earth”, this pioneering and forward-looking map conveys a spirit of past times that is hardly perceptible any more. Interestingly the mapped area doesn't seem to be explored any further up to now: there are no real roads, no mines, hardly any building. Even the satellite picture of Google maps is rather blurry.