Thursday, March 30, 2006

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 (via) 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.