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In a week I leave for Israel, a short vacation I’ve been meaning to take for many years. The other day, I looked at a map of the tiny country and measured distances from one city to another on my itinerary, translating kilometers to miles. Then I looked at a map of the region—Israel and its surrounding countries, none friendly, nearly all posing military threats—and my calm calculations were replaced by a surge of anxiety. I’ve seen these shapes a thousand times on the evening news, in newspapers and magazines, but I’d never had this reaction. Now, with my upcoming trip, those simple contours have taken on an emotional power.

I look at maps a dozen times a day. I check the MTA map to decide which subway to take to a meeting. I look at Google Maps to locate a store or a restaurant or a friend’s apartment and to determine how long it will take to walk between them. In the rare instances when I’m driving, I use the GPS for directions. It seems that the more I use maps, the less I ponder them: I’m only conscious of getting the information I need. But when I looked at the shapes of the Middle East, I remembered that maps are formidable triggers, releasing emotions as divergent as fear, anticipation, pride and hope.

A charming book by Becky Cooper titled Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers illustrates a playful exploration of a map’s power. Cooper began her project by handing out a blank map she had drawn of Manhattan: just an outline of the island with two lines representing Broadway and Houston Street and a rectangle for Central Park. She asked strangers (and a few celebrities) to “map out the essence of who they are and what a location is to them,” and gathered the results. My favorite is the simplest. Its key reads: red areas = fear; green = relief. Its maker annotated the colored areas with words like worry, grief, cheer, despondency, joy, need, terror, peace. Rather than noting the specific event, she (or he?) recorded the emotions triggered by looking at Cooper’s outline.

A map can be as evocative as a smell or a taste. It can dredge up a memory. As you look at a particular spot, you picture the park bench where you and your partner first kissed or had the big, final fight. But even before the scene forms in your mind, you feel it. Excitement and desire. Sadness and regret. When I see a map of the Giudecca Canal in Venice, I feel the temperature and humidity and a sense of longing and serenity before I envision the water.

A friend told me that when she looks at a map of Texas, her visceral reaction is one of ownership. Years ago she went on a spontaneous road trip to Dallas, and it is a part of her past that no one in her current life knows about. It belongs to her alone. Another friend told me that as a teenager, he drew elaborate maps of the faraway places he hoped to travel to. He spent hours filling in intricate details. I asked him how he knew what to include. He responded, “It wasn’t about reality.”

I treasure the strong emotions that maps elicit; they help me to consider my place in the world. But I’m troubled by the insidious influence of the map apps that I have on my smartphone and laptop. I see the subtle control that location-related apps—in particular mobile marketing apps—are capable of exerting, co-opting my emotions and replacing them with what they, that is, the companies that are marketing products, want me to feel. They track my whereabouts in real time, with the intention of using the data they collect to provide me with a spontaneous urge: a craving for coffee or a sandwich as I approach a Starbucks or Subway, or the need for L’Oreal hair color as I walk by a salon. This may seem inconsequential, but tell me you’re not uneasy when, for example, you read on Placecast’s website how they use map-related services to provide joy to marketers and consumers alike: “Placecast is changing the paradigm of marketing, delivering happiness on both sides of the cash register with location-based mobile offers that consumers want. … Using geofencing technology to alert shoppers of relevant nearby offers, ShopAlerts creates a ‘magical marketing moment’ that makes everyone happy.” In other words, you know you want it.

The emotions we attach to maps are influenced by sources beyond our knowledge or control. The anxiety I feel when I look at the shapes of the Middle East may be more forceful than my distrust of maps on my smartphone. But both reactions indicate the underlying power that a representation of place can have. I wonder what I’ll feel the next time I ask a map: “Where am I?" ca

© 2014 W. Richmond
Editor's Note: Wendy wrote this column and returned from her trip to Israel in early June, 2014, a relatively calm time amid the country’s conflicts.

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.

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