Scent of Maps

Again and again we’ve read articles by D.R. Fraser Taylor this semester on
the coming revolution of cybercartography (even if that rev. arrived a year ago
with Google Maps and its API). Taylor takes credit for coining "cybercartography"
in his 1997 keynote address, "Maps and Mapping in the Information Era" at the
ICC conference in Sweden. Conceptually, cybercartography relaxes
cartography from the constraints of paper; the map-maker and the map-user blend
together; their products–often dynamic and unconventional–play a range from
physical maps to imaginaries and abstraction (idio-data), often at the computer
interface. The "false objectivity" of physical maps is loosened to the
enigmas and wonder. Consequently we have a disturbance of traditional
cartography (i.e. the map-maker, his instruments, and ink).

We’ve read three articles by Taylor and in each of them he has mentioned
multisensory maps. Beyond sight, sound and touch, these maps incorporate
taste and scent. The article we read for Tuesday mentioned
Olfacom, a company working to devise
olfactory devices that "diffuse odors from a changeable cartridge" (Cybercartography:
Theory and Practice
555). Each time we read about multisensory maps,
we wish for stronger examples. Skepticism piles on, and we’re left with
questions about mapping scent using artificial devices that would–as I sit here
in our home office–fill up the room with a squirt of odor corresponding to
whatever it was I was observing on the monitor. Taylor reminds us of
marketing motivations backing much of the experimental research on olfactory
technologies–from popcorn breezes at Disney to some kind of museum funk (check
dusty, petrified relics and their rankness).

I want to give this idea a chance, far-fetched as it at first seems.
Multi-sensory maps–including taste and smell; would we reject them before
they’ve materialized? My first objection is that I don’t particularly care
for the artificial scents. Perfume stores, wretched; incense the same.
But we also read an essay this week on public map displays which got me thinking
about shared map interfaces. Granted, the examples in the article were
retrograde: lobbies filled up with aging monitors used to display variously
scaled weather data for passers-by. But let’s adapt the logic of the
carpet in the
Sacramento Airport
to this problem. Someone correct me if the rug is more of an aerial or
orthophoto rather than a map; it’s carpet. Now suppose we have a
foyer–the entryspace to a hundred-acre flower garden carpeted in kind, showing
a map of the grounds, paths, and foliage. The room still smells like new
carpet, right? What if we add fresh cuttings from each of the zones of the
garden and, well, we have something that approximates an olfactory map only with
natural rather than artificial scent. Representative of the grounds, a legend of
odors. But has it lost its "cyber"? Well, not necessarily, considering
that Taylor ties cybercartography definitionally to cybernetics as much as to
the computer. I like it much better than having an Olfacom gizmo next to
my desktop peripherals hitting me with a shot of fabricated scent.

I’m tempted to run ahead with this, wrapping it back to taste–even
suggesting a showcase of the Syracuse Hunger Project (a local human geography
program at SU) where, in addition to mapping hunger in Onondaga Country, the
showcase would promise a "taste of Syracuse" (as promoted, on fliers) only to
serve nada to the attendees. To what effect? I suppose this is somewhat
unruly, but it gets at the merger of multisensory experience and map
displays–particularly public map displays.

Here are a few of the other catches in class–productive though they were:

  • Interactivity as a truism. Is not! Is so! The interaction can be
    cognitive. It needn’t rely on touching (so I say…thinking of Manovich
    and also Lanham’s at/through). Along these lines, the interactive map
    display on KLM airlines, for example, shows airline passengers a view of the
    plane in flight and also on approach. Here’s the catch: on approach to
    landing, the display–a dynamic map display–changes scale without any effort
    by the passenger. The map "interacts" with the whole vehicle, the
    collective of passengers, whether they’re watching the map, reading, napping,
    sipping diet soda, etc.
  • All maps are narrative. I have doubts. But this idea gets a
    lot of play in the cybercartography stuff we’ve read. I’m unconvinced
    that maps are inherently narrative or that they require the sequential logics
    commonly deployed in narrative. I prefer to think of them as
    paradigmatic; users perform the narrative. Heavily qualified, we let it rest
    as something more complex than narrative or database: cartonarrative.
  • Ubiquity in geocasting. Geocasting is to space and place as clocks,
    watches and public-display time systems are to, well, time. With GIS we
    now have devices that can compare a body’s coordinates proximate to a
    location, like an ice cream shop. Reading the proximities comparatively,
    the device processes your approach and transmits a geocast–an ad, perhaps,
    specific to the place you are nearing: fudge sundaes, $2.00. Geocasting
    labels a wide array of locative controls and devices, from
    Digital Angel (for
    kids, pets and livestock) to criminal collaring.