Monday, April 6, 2015

Cartographic Fictions and the Poverty of Digital Archives

In Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996), the protagonist lives on a paper street, but did you know that paper streets have actually been used as cartographical traps to catch plagiarism? Gizmodo shared an excellent article on this today, outlining the ways in which some of these "trap streets" and imaginary places have actually lead to the creation of real places in the locations where they were mapped to catch intellectually lazy cartographers. I loved this idea and had to find out more about it.

"Trap streets" differ from "paper streets" in that they are deliberate misrepresentations. "Paper streets" and "paper towns" are imagined streets that someone actually plans on creating, irregardless of whether they will ever be constructed. Paper streets and towns are what developers lay out, after purchasing the land, but as we all know, sometimes those plans can fall through and cartographers have been known to include the still imaginary places on maps as traps for other cartographers.

Trap streets are a fascinating, but ultimately pointless, trade secret. Cartographers almost universally deny using them. Although the practice started to deter copyright infringement, trap streets are not copyrightable because "the existence, or non-existence, of a road is a non-copyrightable fact." Yet, the practice is only just beginning to die out.

Map aficionados treat the fake places that only exist on maps as Copyright Easter Eggs. Now that we've entered the era of digital imaging and mapping, these fake places are quickly being weeded out. Perhaps, the most famous example of this is Moat Lane.

Moat Lane in Finchley, North London was only recently removed from Google Maps, after first appearing in the TeleAtlas directory, a primary reference for Google Maps. Satellite view revealed treed yards and a house where the street was supposed to be.

This is Google's Street View of the place Moat Lane supposedly was.
Illustrating the ubiquitous and democratic nature of the digital world, TeleAtlas is now a subsidiary of the GPS mapping company TomTom. Mapping errors go through a system called Tele Atlas Map Insight, which enables users to improve the maps by reporting and correcting errors bypassing the customer and technical support teams of the manufacturers that use TeleAtlas maps.

More accurate maps are undoubtedly important, but these systems for correcting them illustrate the poverty of digital archives in the modern world. Trap streets are rapidly disappearing from the maps we use everyday without a trace. The corrections are leaving little to no record of how initial "errors" occurred, or why the corrections were made. The need to alter the written records of the past was a testament to the authenticity of archives, leaving a literal paper trail for historians. Digital archives leave no such paper trail. After all, who wants to leave behind a record of their mistakes?

Here's a link to another great article on this subject.

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