Showing posts with label mapping. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mapping. Show all posts

Monday, July 30, 2012


With the record heat this summer, attention is turning back toward the dormant Sun's re-awakening, and what this could do to the various electronic devices we've come to depend on. One segment of technology that would be very vulnerable to a solar storm would be satellites. Satellites themselves are used for military purposes, but are also used for communication and orienteering. How many of us now have GPS devices, either standalone units or phone-based apps, to do our navigation in the car, or on a boat? For that matter, how long are satellites in orbit going to be maintained after our industrial civilization begins to crack up?

The importance of navigation and mapping is not something new, and has been a subject of much effort over the centuries. In the time of the Renaissance, for example, early navigational books, called "Rutters," were essentially regarded as state secrets, for a person who knew how to get from one place on the globe to another would have a huge advantage in trade and military matters. We look at maps made from the age of discovery and think how laughably inaccurate they are, but forget that at the time, these were a huge leap over having no idea what was out there at all.

People will be quick to point out that maps are both a combination of physical and conceptual data. We can't readily change features like mountains or rivers, but roads and towns can vanish, be reloacted, and so on. This is particularly true of many places which have grown up simply because there was cheap money to build something there. I think most of us know of a few "roads to nowhere" that were always very lightly traveled and existed only because some politician was able to appropriate some money for it. Likewise, there are "bedroom communities" that are located in the middle of nowhere, complete with a shopping mall, that exist simply because nothing else was there and gasoline was cheaper than land at the time. How quickly will these places vanish? If Life After People is a guide, maybe within a generation, and nature will have reclaimed them.

On the other hand, physical features don't change as quickly, and settlements which have grown up around them are more likely to exist and be maintained, especially around places which have running water or have been settled for access to renewable resources (good farming soil, timber, etc). This pattern of settlement was particularly true back before the invention of automobiles, when everyone had to walk or ride a wagon. Effectively, this means that we can expect that some places will still continue to have some human habitation, regardless of what is happening on a larger scale. Think of them as "buckets," where people will simply go (or stay) because it makes sense to do so.

The importance of saving maps is something which might be seen with a skeptical eye at first, but I think it is important for both practical reasons, and for cultural ones. It is in the absence of information that the imagination runs wild, for better or worse, and I'd guess it would take around a generation for people to go back to thinking the earth was flat, without any contradictory evidence. Storing history is no different -- how many people think Hitler was a Union general during the Civil War? From a practical standpoint, if we accept that we are going to rebuild to a sustainable level after a collapse, knowing what is out there, and where it's located at, is going to make life much easier for people who are trying to "re-connect" at some point.

It's worth pointing out two things that may not readily come to mind when we're putting a copy of Rand McNally on top of the heap of things to save. The first is that we should consider also preserving navigational instruments. A drafting compass, ruler, protractor, star chart, magnetic compass, etc, are also reasonably cheap and should last indefinitely if stored right. The other thing to consider is the form of the data itself. A road atlas is a convenient tool, but if I remember correctly, most of them do not include latitude and longitude as data. One possibility to explore (which would drastically cut down on storage space) would be storing maps which are lists of "vectors." A vector is a measure of angle, which usually represents force in a direction, but could also represent distance and location, meaning we could say that Town X is 45 degrees south of an arbitrary point at a distance of 40 miles. I haven't investigated enough yet to see if these are available, however.

Maps will have to be maintained, copied, and will be more prone to error as time goes on. However, we need to remember that if we are managing to make things work at a ninety-percent level, then we're still ahead of where we would be without that form of guidance. We aim for perfect accuracy in the storage of our information for future generations, but accept that anything we are doing is better than nothing at all.