Monmouthpedia and the Fable of Borges’ Map.

The fable of Borges’ Map is probably familiar to a fair few people. It is the story of an empire where cartography becomes such an exact science that the map measures the country it portrays exactly in every detail.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. | Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

The story elaborates on a concept in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded: a fictional map that had “the scale of a mile to the mile”. One of Carroll’s characters notes some practical difficulties with this map and states that “we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well”.

The ambition displayed in the tale was for the whole world to be rendered accurately in map form. One can understand the desire to present the world in as great a detail as possible: isn’t that what all academics do, in their own small ways? Create their own maps of the territories they occupy, seeking to enlighten, to explain? I first encountered the fable in Jean Baudrillard‘s Simulacra & Simulation, and was very struck by his idea that we have become so reliant upon our maps of the world that we have lost touch with the reality behind them. Whilst I believe that this deep-seated fear is one which has ramifications for the Digital Humanities, in particular I saw how Borges’ Map might be applied to the case of Wikipedia, and in particular its work with the town of Monmouth.

Monmouthpedia is touted as “the world’s first Wikipedia town”. The aim of the project is:

“…to cover every single notable place, person, artefact, plant, animal and other things in Monmouth in as many languages as possible, but with a special focus on Welsh. This is a different scale of wiki-project. The project is jointly funded by Monmouthshire County Council and Wikimedia UK, Monmouthshire County Council intend to install free town wide Wi-Fi for the project.”

Basically, a vast number of objects within the town have a QR code placed upon them (or a QRpedia code, as they are termed here – not your traditional black and white codes but plaques appended to properties), which lead you to a Wikipedia page containing information about the thing you’re looking at. As Monmouth is particularly rich in archaeology, there are now over a thousand QRpedia codes in Monmouth leading the visitor to Wikipedia. The walls of the museum are dissolved completely here – the learning experience can be found on every street corner, and every tree, and to a certain extent, it could be claimed that this learning experience is liberated from the bounds of cultural hegemony, being available to all and directing the user to a democratically edited website, where the knowledge is supplied by the user, for the user. (Of course, the user is not completely liberated: one has to be in possession of a smartphone, and the Wikipedia articles and artefacts endorsed with QRpedia codes have to be chosen by someone.) But I confess, I love the idea of Monmouthpedia, and intend to visit soon in order to experience it fully for myself. And QRpedia codes are popping up in cities all over the world – Johannesburg, Bremen, to name but two. We are slowly, and inexorably, mapping the world around us, “the scale of a mile to a mile”, providing us with all the information we might require about a specific object.

And yet.

The heritage sector are keen to use QR codes. They’re inexpensive to produce and the user can be directed to wherever the organisation using the code chooses to send them. But anecdotal evidence during my time on placement at the National Library of Wales suggested their use was limited, and they are increasingly being supplanted by augmented reality, image-recognition applications or near-field communication (NFC).

And what are the theoretical implications of mapping the world around us? Are we in danger of recreating Borges’ map digitally – creating a map which encompasses every surface, point for point? And if that is the aim, to map everything, are we in danger of losing ourselves within the QR code: where nothing outside of it is acknowledged as real?

Once again, I must say that the idea of removing learning from the cultural hegemony is a marvellous thing to me, and that is why I adore the idea of Mounmouthpedia. But in the back of my mind lingers Borges’ fable, the tale of the map which became the world.

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