What Becomes Geography

Where scales lead.

The concept and measurements of scale are paramount to geographic information science and without this abstraction location, size, and direction in maps would not be possible. The scale sets some middle distance (based on an acceptable ratio for a specific purpose) of geographic pattern recognition. Scale ratios for cartographic purposes — either too small (1:1 billion) or too large (1:1) – to render patterns visible.5

The ratio of scale first covers too large an area (a small scale) and the latter too small an area (a large scale) to be visualizable. Relationships which are measureable can be used with geostatistical or tabular statistical methods. Any perception of relationships would be impossible, and their meaning as geographic patterns lost. There is somewhere an applicable middle distance between macrological and micrological analysis. Unexpectedly, from a strictly geographic information science perspective, Borges’s parables orient readers towards the limits, if not irrationality, of that perspective.


A parable about the logical consequences of scale precision can be found in Borges’ writings. This is about construction of map so precise that it duplicates everything that it is supposed to be represented. In terms of geographic information science, this describes a cartographic scale of 1:1 where every foot corresponds to every ‘ground-truth’ foot and every topographic detail, at least, must be reproduced.

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, while the map of the Empire occupied the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps could no longer produce satisfactory results, 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 the vast Map was useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it that they delivered it up to the clemencies of the Sun and the 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 (Borges, 1998: 325).

At the heart of understanding geographic precision is the evidence of the scale that a map represents. Borges creates this parable of a passionate pursuit of exacting precision in cartography. Three events happened here. First, a perfect rendering of cartography in a single map of the province was commanded. Second, the map was inscribable because it was not precise enough for the administrative purposes of the Empire. Third, following their mandate to the letter, they produced a map of the entire empire at a scale of 1:1; however, the size of the map rendered it useless, if not redundant. Following generations did not revere the discipline of cartography and casted it into a desert only to become the ‘Tattered Ruins of that Map.’

Every desiccated piece is still at a scale of 1:1 because it is identical to where it was once located. The precision is inescapable no matter how useless it became. The pieces became the ruins of cartographic expertise. Cartographic perfection was preserved in each fragment, but what the map represented could not be discerned. No matter how much the Guild of Cartographers (read the disciplines comprising geographic information science itself until the present, when cartography alone is no longer the sine qua none of the geographic profession) was respected, subsequent generations found it worse than anachronistic. In this case, the passion for precision exceeds the limits through which geography is comprehended. The utility of cartography in its geographic and historical scale contradicts its own foundation. Verification and verisimilitude are oriented to the ruination of the discipline of geography.

The ruins of the geographic profession rendered it irrelevant. A reader of Borges’ parable, who is sympathetic with, if not a member, of the Cartographers’ Guild, is likely to wonder what replaced geographic information science. Something must be replaced of course! Nevertheless, geographic information science became a relic due to its own striving for perfection. With its perfect resolution, ‘field tested’ or ‘ground truthed,’ the map was no longer valuable because it represented nothing while representing everything. It was only a simulacrum of the location of things or the topography.6 There was nothing of interest left to interpret.

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