NPR Story
3:36 pm
Thu November 22, 2012

The Motive Of The Mapmaker

Originally published on Mon November 26, 2012 12:56 pm

World maps help us make sense of the world around us, and our place in it.

While mapmakers may portray their world maps as accurate, scientific and neutral, every single one describes the world from a certain worldview and culture. From ancient Babylonia to the Renaissance, cartographers have been driven by politics, religion, emotion and math.

In A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Jerry Brotton examines the construction of a dozen world maps — from ancient history to the satellite images of Google Earth — and how they influenced historical events and perceptions of the world.

Brotton speaks with NPR's Neal Conan about the philosophical significance of maps, and how technology continues to change the way we view the world.


Interview Highlights

On how maps give people a sense of place

"A map is always a way of abstracting the reality that we see out there. We want to experience the wonder and the extraordinary diversity of the world. We will never, ever cover more than an absolute fraction of the globe. So we go to a map, because a map somehow packages the world for it. It makes, as if you say, we can go and see that other place. We'll never, ever go there. We'll never get to it.

"But we want the map, as it were, to answer a sort of very, very sort of basic thing. ... A map says: Where am I? It answers the question: Where am I? And we think that that's just a locational thing. Where am I in the world? But it's a deeply existential and philosophical question. Where am I?"

On why north is at the top of maps

"Hundreds of historians and cartographers, all the great scholars, nobody can answer this question. Nobody can say why north triumphs and north is at the top. It's absolutely hilarious. ...

"In Christian medieval maps, east is at the top, because the belief is that the Garden of Eden is somewhere in the east. And therefore you see these maps which go from the east, and they go down, down, down to the west, which is basically really towards the Americas, and there's a sense in which biblical time and imperial time is moving down through the maps, so you have east on the top.

"Chinese maps actually have north at the top, but not for any other reason than because how the emperor looks south, and if you're in subjection to the emperor, you look up north ... There's no reason why north should ever be at the top, no reason whatsoever. It doesn't advantage us in any way whatsoever.

"But these great stories that, again, it's about the way in which the culture understands itself, and how the culture understands itself leads you to orienteer the map in one way or another."

On how Google Earth fits into the evolution of mapmaking

"If you look at Google Earth in its homepage, it's deliberately really mimicking classical atlases. You open a paper atlas, what's the first thing you see? You see the world, and that's of course what you see on Google Earth. ...

"So Google gets the idea that they're part of a historical tradition about mapping. ... Google Earth is still crunching huge amounts of data, which is just what atlases and world maps from past histories have always done, and you transform that into a map. ...

"That homepage Google Earth image is deliberately drawing on the NASA 1972 whole Earth photograph of the world. And the power that that image had, when that flicked around the world in December 1972, this image of the fragile, beautiful blue Earth that was taken by an astronaut 11,000 kilometers up, that's what geographers have always been trying to do and trying to imagine.

"They imagine rising up above the world, looking back down on it and mapping it, and really that moment in the '70s when Apollo gives us that image from space really begins this whole transformation of mapmaking, that it goes online, because it's that satellite data that starts to come through in the 1970s, which Google and Apple and online companies are using to build their virtual digital maps today."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. There are all kinds of map: road maps, subway maps, navigational charts, topographical maps. Each, no matter how detailed, necessarily selects some details to put in and others to leave out. And when we talk about world maps, the selectivity, the perspective and the projection all reflect subjective judgments.

While mapmakers may portray their world maps as accurate, scientific and definitive, every single one describes the world from the point of view of the mapmaker's culture - easy to see in ancient maps that show the center of the world in the Mediterranean Sea or in China, but how does that change with the advent of satellite images of the Earth and digital maps?

How does Google Earth change your view of the world? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program we continue our annual Thanksgiving Day tradition to remember the family, friends and neighbors who aren't able to join us at the dinner table this year. You can send your emails now to talk@npr.org.

But first, Jerry Brotton joins us from the studios of BBC Oxford. He's professor of English at the University of London. His new book is "A History of the World in 12 Maps," and it's good of you to be with us today.

JERRY BROTTON: It's great to be with you. Happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: And thank you. Not a holiday there, but we appreciate it.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Before we get to how Google Earth differs from the traditional printed maps, how is it the same?

BROTTON: It's interesting because it is in many ways the same because if you look at Google Earth in its homepage, it's deliberately really mimicking classical atlases. You know, you open a paper atlas, what's the first thing you see? You see the world, and that's of course what you see on Google Earth.

And then what you do is of course you flip the pages and (unintelligible) zoom in to different regions. You go into countries, and then you go into the nations, and then you go into the regions of nations. And what Google Earth does is really mimic that because you go zooming down.

And I think what's interesting about that is it's very familiar to us because what we tend to do on our own paper atlases is find where we live. And I bet you that most of your listeners, whenever they've used Google Earth, the first thing they do is they type in their home address, and they go zooming straight down.

So Google get the idea that they're part of a historical tradition about mapping. I just wanted to put them in that tradition and say, you know, that's really part of the story of maps. It depends what your data is, but Google Earth is still crunching huge amounts of data, which is just what atlases and world maps from past histories have always done, and you transform that into a map.

We just call it something different because of course Google now calls it a geospatial application rather than a map, and that's progress for you.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That first image, though, that Earth that we see at the beginning of Google Earth, you say that brings the story full circle.

BROTTON: Yeah, it does because in a way that's always geographers have been trying to achieve. What is the subject of geography? It's a representation of the whole Earth. So Google is really saying we can now give you that entire representation of the world from space. You know, it's an incredibly powerful image, Neal, because certainly for your American audience, less so maybe for a European audience at the moment, but you will know that that homepage Google Earth image is deliberately drawing on the NASA 1972 whole Earth photograph of the world.

And the power that that image had, when that flicked around the world in December 1972, this image of the fragile, beautiful blue Earth that was taken by an astronaut, 11,000 kilometers up, that's what geographers have always been trying to do and trying to imagine.

They imagine rising up above the world, looking back down on it and mapping it, and really that moment in the '70s when Apollo gives us that image from space really begins this whole transformation of mapmaking, that it goes online, because it's that satellite data that starts to come through in the 1970s which Google and Apple and online companies are using to build their virtual digital maps today.

CONAN: And you argue throughout this book, and it's not a new argument, that maps represent representations of power, they - well, that first Babylonian map I mentioned at the beginning of the program, it was an expression of the Babylonian Empire. But it was also a representation of the state in a lot of ways. Google Earth is a representation of corporate power.

BROTTON: Yeah, because we need to remember that it's only very, very recently that the state has really had responsibility for mapping the world and mapping the nation-state. You know, here in the United Kingdom we have the good old ordinance survey maps. And so it's a very recent phenomenon that the state has taken control of mapping.

Historically it's always been private organizations, individuals, corporations who've mapped. So, you know, in the 17th century the Dutch East India Company, the English East India Company, you know, the state does not say you have to map India in this way. They go and do it.

So what's interesting is that we're now returning to what's been a much more longer distinguished historic tradition, for private individuals, private companies, to map the world. And it's actually - because my book has such a big range, I point out that it's really only very recently, only since the 19th century, that we've let the state take control of how we map the world.

CONAN: It's also interesting that you focus so much, there are 12 maps that you describe, Google Earth is the last one, but why the focus on Google? It does have rivals.

BROTTON: It does. It's very interesting that you ask that, Neal, because the industry, as you know, is changing so quickly. As I was writing this book - it's taken me nearly seven years to write the book - and so when I started, Google Earth was an incredibly innovative piece of kit. And of course now it has, even just in the last few months, in terms of Apple's challenge to Google Maps particularly, that field has changed so quickly.

So I was saying in the book, look, I know it's going to change. And it's quite interesting because I signed the book off about a year ago, and I said, you know, Google is the absolute unquestioned market leader, and there are issues of monopolization. And in the last couple of months we've actually seeing in the technology pages of the broadsheet newspapers, is Google going to be around in 10 years time? That's how fast the industry's changed.

So I just really wanted to use Google as an extraordinary example of really a company that got it first. Google understood to use online maps earlier than anybody else did, and it's a wonderful story because when they first put Google Earth together, they had no idea what they were doing.

Brin and Page, the Google founders, just thought it was cool. They just thought it was really cool to zoom around, and really it was a sort of piece of gaming technology. And so they didn't really realize - it's a classic example of the brilliance and the sort of craziness of the Google techies, they didn't know what they'd got. They've now worked out that it's an extraordinary element in their search because they were telling me when I talked to them that 30 to 40 percent of all Google searches have some geographical content.

So the map then becomes absolutely central to how we search, and ain't that true? You know, what do you do? You say tell me a restaurant that's nearby me that does good Chinese, tell me the hotels that are good in Madrid. So many of the searches that we do have geographical content, and surprise, surprise, now you see when you do those searches, you usually have a map, which comes along with the matches to the search that you get.

So it's become absolutely integral to search online, and that's of course why Apple wants a slice of that pie.

CONAN: Apple's challenge stumbling out of the gate a bit, but it may pick up steam later. Jerry Brotton's book is - he's a professor of English at the University of London. His new book is "A History of the World in 12 Maps." We want to hear how, well, all maps change our view of the world. How has Google Earth changed your view of the world? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Phil(ph), and Phil's on the line with us Anchorage.

PHIL: Hello, thank you, and happy Thanksgiving to you. I was commenting how in 1986, before Google Maps, I went down to Antarctica to work and in New Zeeland saw my first, quote-unquote, upside-down map of the world. And it was really kind of disorienting and recognized the implications of our perspectives from the Northern Hemisphere and always being on top.

Now with Google Map, obviously, it's oriented still the same way, just because the technology was developed here, I suppose, but being able to see the Google Earth without boundaries and everything, it really expands the perceptions of how we're all in this together.

And as far as actually using the Google Map, my wife, who's from Colombia. When I first went down to visit her down there, again I didn't go to paper maps, I went to Google Map and was able to see where she was and where she was talking about going when we go visit and all that.

So it's really nice to have access to the whole world so readily, again, even though it is from that northern perspective.

CONAN: Jerry Brotton, how did we come to that northern perspective as the default position?

BROTTON: Phil, it's such a great question, because you know what? Hundreds of historians and cartographers, all the great scholars, nobody can answer this question. Nobody can say why north triumphs and north is at the top. It's absolutely hilarious. You know, I've been working on this for decades, and what's really interesting, well two things.

Phil's point is really interesting because, of course, on Google Earth, it shows you a globe, and the globe of course turns and puts you at the center, but there are no boundaries on a globe. A globe is basically, you know, it's a sphere. Usually we look at a map, which is a rectangular map, and it does, of course, have boundaries, and it has orientation, north is at the top or south is at the top.

And so I think this is what's really interesting that in a sense now we don't have a standard, flat, rectangular world map anymore. And since we've gone online, it's very much about the global dimension of what Google Earth is showing us, means there are no boundaries, in a sense, because we are living in a global world, and nation states, and their boundaries are, of course, to some extent perhaps being eroded.

The question about where north goes on top - and I love that point, I love Phil's idea that there you are in the antipodes, and of course the world seems upside-down, but historically that's really interesting. If you look at medieval Islamic maps, south is at the top, and south's at the top because it's basically all the communities that convert to Islam are north of Mecca, so they all see that direct south is where Mecca would be. So the orientation is to the south.

In Christian medieval maps, east is at the top, because the belief is that the Garden of Eden is somewhere in the east. And therefore you see these maps which go from the east, and they go down, down, down to the west, which is basically really towards the Americas, and there's a sense in which biblical time and imperial time is moving down through the maps, so you have east on the top.

Chinese maps actually have north at the top but not for any other reason than because how the emperor looks south, and if you're in subjection to the emperor, you look up north. So there's a great - there are these great stories. There's no reason why north should ever be at the top, no reason whatsoever. It doesn't advantage us in any way whatsoever.

But these great stories that, again, it's about the way in which the culture understands itself, and how the culture understands itself leads you to orienteer the map in one way or another.

CONAN: Phil thanks very much for the call. More about 12 maps through history. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In his latest book, Jerry Brotton tells a story that gives some idea of the unique of world maps and of one map in particular. In 1998, a respected map dealer got a phone call: His services were needed to authenticate a map from the early 1500s. It turned out the map is generally accepted as the first to name this continent as America and carried an asking price of $10 million.

It was eventually sold to the United States Library of Congress, which described the map as America's birth certificate, and as Jerry Brotton writes, gave America what most nations crave, the legitimacy of a precise point of origin, in this case a birth date of 1507, when America was recognized as a continent in its own right.

His book is titled "A History of the World in 12 Maps." We're talking with Jerry Brotton about, among other things, how technology changes the maps we look at and how we see ourselves and the world through maps. How does Google Earth change your view of the globe? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's go to David(ph), David on the line with us from Sacramento.

DAVID: Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

CONAN: You, too.

DAVID: I'm a project manager for the Department of the Interior here in Sacramento, and I help local nonfederal water districts and sanitary districts get federal funding for recycled water projects. And historically we've done site visits in a van where we spend half a day driving from one site to the next.

Recently they've started putting together presentations that involve flyovers with Google Earth, which allow us to, you know, in less than two minutes, move from one site to the next, to look at the potential location for these projects. And it has tremendously positively impacted our abilities to demonstrate the potential benefits of these projects and where they're going to be located.

And the first time we did a Google Earth flyover, our jaws dropped. People were so amazed. And

CONAN: Apple's challenge stumbling out of the gate a bit, but it may pick up steam later. Jerry Brotton's book is - he's a professor of English at the University of London. His new book is "A History of the World in 12 Maps." We want to hear how, well, all maps change our view of the world. How has Google Earth changed your view of the world? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Phil(ph), and Phil's on the line with us Anchorage.

PHIL: Hello, thank you, and happy Thanksgiving to you. I was commenting how in 1986, before Google Maps, I went down to Antarctica to work and in New Zeeland saw my first, quote-unquote, upside-down map of the world. And it was really kind of disorienting and to recognize the implications of our perspectives from the Northern Hemisphere and always being on top.

Now with Google Map, obviously it's oriented still the same way, just because the technology was developed here, I suppose, but being able to see the Google Earth without boundaries and everything, it really expands the perceptions of how we're all in this together.

And as far as actually using the Google Map, my wife is from Colombia. When I first went down to visit her down there, again I didn't go to paper maps, I went to Google Map and was able to see where she was and where she was talking about going when we go visit and all that.

So it's really nice to have access to the whole world so readily, again even though it is from that northern perspective.

CONAN: Jerry Brotton, how did we come to that northern perspective as the default position?

BROTTON: Phil, it's such a great question because you know what? Hundreds of historians and cartographers, all the great scholars, nobody can answer this question. Nobody can say why north triumphs and north is at the top. It's absolutely hilarious. You know, I've been working on this for decades, and what's really interesting, well two things.

Phil's point is really interesting because of course on Google Earth, it shows you a globe, and the globe of course turns and puts you at the center, but there are no boundaries on a globe. A globe is basically, you know, it's a sphere. Usually we look at a map, which is a rectangular map, and it does of course have boundaries, and it has orientation, north is at the top or south is at the top.

And so I think this is what's really interesting that in a sense now we don't have a standard, flat, rectangular world map anymore. And since we've gone online, it's very much about the global dimension of what Google Earth is showing us, means there are no boundaries in a sense because we are living in a global world, and nation states, and their boundaries are, of course, to some extent perhaps being eroded.

The question about where north goes on top, and I love that point, I love Phil's idea that there you are in the antipodes, and of course the world seems upside-down, but historically that's really interesting. If you look at medieval Islamic maps, south is at the top, and south's at the top because it's basically all the communities that convert to Islam are north of Mecca, so they all see that direct south is where Mecca would be. So the orientation is to the south.

In Christian medieval maps, east is at the top because the belief is that the Garden of Eden is somewhere in the east, and therefore you see these maps which go from the east, and they go down, down, down to the west, which is basically really towards the Americas, and there's a sense in which biblical time and imperial time is moving down through the maps, so you have east on the top.

Chinese maps actually have north at the top but not for any other reason than because how the emperor looks south, and if you're in subjection to the emperor, you look up north. So there's a great - there are these great stories. There's no reason why north should ever be at the top, no reason whatsoever. It doesn't advantage us in any way whatsoever.

But these great stories that again, it's about the way in which the culture understands itself, and how the culture understands itself leads you to orienteer the map in one way or another.

CONAN: Phil thanks very much for the call. More about 12 maps through history. This is NPR News.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In his latest book, Jerry Brotton tells a story that gives some idea of the unique of world maps and of one map in particular. In 1998, a respected map dealer got a phone call: His services were needed to authenticate a map from the early 1500s. It turned out the map is generally accepted as the first to name this continent as America and carried an asking price of $10 million.

It was eventually sold to the United States Library of Congress, which described the map as America's birth certificate, and as Jerry Brotton writes, gave America what most nations crave, the legitimacy of a precise point of origin, in this case a birth date of 1507, when America was recognized as a continent in its own right.

His book is titled "A History of the World in 12 Maps." We're talking with Jerry Brotton about, among other things, how technology changes the maps we look at and how we see ourselves and the world through maps. How does Google Earth change your view of the globe? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's go to David(ph), David on the line with us from Sacramento.

DAVID: Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

CONAN: You, too.

DAVID: I'm a project manager for the Department of the Interior here in Sacramento, and I help local nonfederal water districts and sanitary districts get federal funding for recycled water projects. And historically we've done site visits in a van where we spend half a day driving from one site to the next.

Recently they've started putting together presentation that involve flyovers with Google Earth, which allow us to, you know, in less than two minutes move from one site to the next, to look at the potential location for these projects. And it has tremendously positively impacted our abilities to demonstrate the potential benefits of these projects and where they're going to be located.

And the first time we did a Google Earth flyover, our jaws dropped. People were so amazed. And since it's electronic, with virtual meetings, you know, people in D.C. or Denver can be watching the same flyover. And, I mean, it's just tremendously helped us in this program.

CONAN: And it's interesting, you mention that Jerry Brotton, the origin, in some ways, of the digital map goes back to a similar project that got started in Canada.

BROTTON: Yeah exactly because this is the basis of early computerized geographical mapping, which is about precisely mapping forestry in Canada. And that basically kick-starts the whole online mapping initiative. So again, I'm fascinated by what David's saying, you know, the way in which one way there are of course huge anxieties and concerns about companies like Google in terms of monetizing geography, but at the same time, it's possible to use that kind of technology in the form of the water project that he's talking about.

And also a point that's he alluded to, which is really what's innovative about what online mapping is doing, is you can show time on the map. You can video stream onto the virtual digital maps. And we've never seen that before. Maps are always a representation we think of space. It's about terrestrial space, religious space, but it's about space of the world. It's not about time.

A map's not supposed to be able to show the passage of time. And as David knows, you can now do that, and that's a huge innovation in terms of how you can connect people around using maps for the kind of projects he's talking about. It's interesting because he may be interested - I'm doing an artistic project, which is going to be at the Venice Biennale in 2015, where we're going to make a 40-by-80 meter map of the world, which is going to be without water.

So we're going to show the world without water, and then we're going to flood it. We're going to put it on a football pitch in Venice, and it will be really a sculptural representation of the world. And then, of course, to do that in Venice, to flood the Earth, of course there's a very, very evocative issue about, you know, what's happening with the rising sea levels and so on.

So David, 2015, you've got to be in Venice.

DAVID: I'll do my best to be there, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID: One last question, tangential: If I remember correctly, the United Nations globe is tilted in such a way that Argentina is not visible. And it's because there was a political dispute at the time, and whoever decided how the globe would be represented did not like Argentina's position. So they basically, effectively, put Argentina out of the picture. And that's - if I remember correctly, that's why the U.N. globe is not north, south, east, west, but it's tilted in just such a way that Argentina is not there.

BROTTON: That is such a fantastic story. That's why I love doing this, because you find out these new, great stories, and that's just such a classic example of how people manipulate the map. I - it's just a great story. Thanks, David.

CONAN: Thanks very much, David.

DAVID: You're most welcome, happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: And it's - here's an email that we have, this is from Deb(ph) in Salt Lake City, who writes: My primary language is English, and I'm always slightly caught off guard when I look up a place name in English and Google's map is overlaid with the name in the native tongue of the region with no English. It's confusing, but also forces me not to be so geocentric. I'm curious how changes as languages, how this changes as languages become more dominant.

BROTTON: Yeah, I mean, that's - I mean, I think that's a great point because, you know, what Google are saying is that they are not trying to create a standard map of the world. And interestingly, you know, a lot of the local maps that you see on Google are created by local users. Local users basically map their own areas, and they submit those maps to Google.

So there's a sense in which this really is about saying, local knowledge, local language, local customs are feeding in to a map which is not just standardized - which is not saying OK, this is a world, this is the world according to the ideology or the belief system of the West Coast of the U.S. or of Europe or France - but it's genuinely saying we can have all these kind of different local customs.

And of course Google would say that, because they would say we need to have different customs, dialects and languages reflected on our maps so that when people are engaging with that, they're not alienated. You know, these great stories, you know, in the 19th century, these endless rather, sort of, idealistic ideas about drawing maps on a scale of one to one million, but of course they were driven by - sorry, it was the Brits and the French.

You know, and so it really responded to our own imperial desires to map the world in a certain way. And that may be changing, that may be one of the good things about what online mapping enables us to do.

CONAN: You cite for example the American geographer Waldo Tobler's(ph) famous first law of geography: Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.

BROTTON: Yeah, isn't that a great line, and then you think about that and go, hmm, yeah, OK. And I think that that's one of the economic aspects of what Google and Apple are after because their argument is that what people of course are particularly interested in and are more likely to buy are things that are near to them.

So what you want to give people once you geolocate them on the global map is things that are near to them. You don't want to know about Chinese restaurants in London, you want to know about - if you're in Washington because you want to know about things that are near to you. So it's a way in which yes, one can experience the whole world, but the economic imperative of course of Google and Apple, and they are there to make money, is about saying that's what it's about, it's about near things. Near things are what you want and are more useful to you.

CONAN: It's an interesting representation of the old journalistic principle of the amount of coverage a bus plunge gathers in the newspaper is inversely proportional to the number of deaths and the distance from the city in which the newspaper is published.

BROTTON: Yes, yeah, exactly. Yeah, I mean, I think that this is what's interesting about this argument of globalization, you know, globalization, of course, and companies like Google and Apple seem to really categorize what that means. And what interests me and what I talk about in the book is what happens to the globe in an era of globalization.

We think about globalization as an economic thing, which is about the world shrinking. And I'm so interested that what Google of course are doing is something that is classic to maps. It's about shrinking the world so that you can hold the world in the palm of your hand, a sort of William Blake idea. But then within that you can suddenly expand it, and you can see everything right down to a scale of just a few meters.

And that's always been the fancy of mapping, that you can do that.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jerome(ph), Jerome with us from Danville, California.

JEROME: Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JEROME: I'm a retired high school English teacher, and I got myself involved in the very first Google-certified teacher program because I happen to live near Mountain View, and I came up with this idea of using Google Earth to trace the storylines of great travel literature like "Grapes of Wrath," "Make Way for Ducklings," even, as the little duckling family goes through Boston. And it changed my retirement entirely. I've had 1.5 million visitors to my site.

And what I've discovered as I speak all around the country on this, is that it's more than just a new kind of map. It's a whole new (technical difficulties) where you can not only zoom in and out that you get the global map and the regional map sort of all in the same place, but you also can twist the orientations going in, if you are reading "Grapes of Wrath," you're riding right along with the character. You're in the location. But you look (technical difficulties), where West is at the top of the map, because it looked like you're following Route 66 West. So you see the future of the story right out in front of you, as the characters would in the story.

CONAN: Jerome, your cell phone is betraying you, so we're going to hang up on you. But thanks. It's a fascinating point.

JEROME: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: And, Jerry Brotton, you're the professor of English. He beat you to the punch.

BROTTON: He did, a little. But I'd offer back to Jerome the idea that one of the great lines that I love, the classical mapmakers, right back to the Roman period, talk about geography and mapping as the eye of history. So a map enables you to see past history, past cultures, past literatures in different way. And I love what Jerome's describing because, certainly, I think literature - which again, is so much of a temporal thing - is about a passage of time. You read a story, and it's about time passing.

And what Jerome's saying is: What happens if you spatialize that and you put it on a map? And I think very weird and interesting things happen. And, of course, network theory is all about that, you know, plotting networks of connections between people that you didn't realize were happening. And, yeah, I mean, this is all the rage. I have to tell you, Jerome, it's all the rage in literary studies. So it's no wonder you're getting so many hits, that it's such a success, absolutely. I'm with you.

CONAN: So "Canterbury Tales," you can find out where everything happened.

BROTTON: Exactly. Well, that would be a really good example actually, Neal. Yeah.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get Nelly on the line. Nelly's with us from Kirkwood, in Missouri.

NELLY: Hi. Yeah, I was listening to the topic and thinking about my own experience of Google Maps with my parents, kind of relates to your earlier caller, also. We emigrated from Russia. It's been about 40 years. I grew up listening all about stories about Kiev and smaller towns that they grew up in, places that I was at. They - I showed them Kiev now, and they loved it. It was fabulous. They saw a McDonald's that they'd never seen before. I was able to see, you know, the houses that I grew up in.

We looked at the small towns, also. And it made me think about the whole concept of the sort of fantasy, romantic images. We have places in our head. Of course we all want to see what Canterbury looks like or these small towns from our past. But at the same time, there's that contrast between your romantic vision and then the reality. And it kind of does twist, in a way, how we relate to places, whether it's from our own personal histories or even, you know, China, Marrakesh, things like that where we have a romance about and then, you know, actually are able to see in real time.

CONAN: Yeah, does Google Earth, Jerry Brotton, rob us of the lighted and shrouded towers of far-off Samarkand?

(LAUGHTER)

BROTTON: Well, in a way. But what's really interesting is the way in which you can now wrap and you can walk historically old maps. I don't know if you've seen this, but you can actually layer them across the contemporary map. And again, I think that's a wonderful innovation that you can use, the Rumsey maps. And you can, say, take an 18th-century map and you can wrap it over, say, Kiev. And so you see you can actually see the way in which history has changed, the way in which it looks. So you can, as it were, have the romance and the realism. I mean, I think this is what's really clever.

Again, another innovation within online mapping is this idea of layering, that you can layer maps and put one on top of the other. And historically, we haven't really been able to do that with paper maps. So Nelly's point, I think, is really interesting. You know, you still can engage with that sense of how space and the landscape and territory and the city has changed over time.

NELLY: It's kind of like reading the book versus watching the movie. And there's always that conflict, I think, people have. After you read and love a book, it's what have you gained, and what have you lost?

BROTTON: I think that that's a really shrewd point around how maps work. And, of course, what is a map? A map is always a way of abstracting the reality that we see out there. You know, we want to experience the wonder and the extraordinary diversity of the world. We will never, ever cover more than an absolute fraction of the globe. So we go to a map, because a map somehow packages the world for it. It makes, as if you say, we can go and see that other place. We'll never, ever go there. We'll never get to it.

But we want the map, as it were, to answer a sort of very, very sort of basic thing. I mean, I think, you know, what does a map do? A map says: Where am I? It answers the question: Where am I? And we think that that's just a locational thing. Where am I in the world? But it's a deeply existential and philosophical question. Where am I?

NELLY: Right, right.

BROTTON: You know, where am I in the world? Why am I in this place? Why am I situated at this point in time and history? And that's what really powerful about maps. You know, humanity always wants to map itself in relation to that big, wide world out there.

CONAN: Not only itself, you are looking outside the perspective of the map and looking for yourself inside it.

BROTTON: I think that what you've just put your finger on, Neal, is the great thing that a map does. A map asks you as if you were to be in two places at the same time. You are outside the world, outside time and space, almost like a god looking down on the world, and you're finding exactly where you are on the map. And that's, of course, precisely what Google Earth asks you to do.

Start by taking the perspective of 11,000 kilometers above the earth, looking down on it, as though you were completely disembodied. And then zoom straight down to wherever you live and locate yourself on the map. So it's this kind of magical thing which allows you to be in two places at exactly the same time. I think maps are the great undiscovered things. People have never really understood the great power of maps. And look, everybody's lining up to these fabulous stories, different varieties of how important a map is to us.

CONAN: Google tells us that we are the last generation that will ever be lost. Is this the December 31st of the printed map?

BROTTON: Yeah, I do find that rather sad. It's back to Nelly's point about the possible romance of your relationship with the world. I think we all sort of have a romance about getting lost. And when I heard that, I did - it did rather sort of worry me. But then as somebody pointed out to me, yeah, but you only won't be lost if you have connectivity. If you're somewhere up the side of a mountain, you might have a problem still, and you might still need a paper map.

But there is no doubt, Neal, that you're seeing this extraordinary shift. I mean, I work on the Renaissance period when the invention of printing, the printing press emerges in the late 15th century, and maps become printed objects. And everybody panics and says, oh, wow. What's going to happen now? We're in exactly the same moment. You know, what Google is leading is a transformation of the map from a paper object to a virtual object.

CONAN: Jerry...

BROTTON: And we're not going to go back.

CONAN: Jerry Brotton, thank you very much for your time. And we hope you find your way home.

(LAUGHTER)

BROTTON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Jerry Brotton's book is "A History of the World in Twelve Maps." He joined us from the BBC studios in Oxford. When we come back, our annual feature: Who's not able to make it to your Thanksgiving table this year? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.