Why do we make so many maps?

If you look at any civilization at any time in history you will find people making maps. Monastic scholars, imperialistic explorers, illiterate navigators; history is filled with cartographers. Each person has made maps in his or her own unique way, and each culture has formed its own unique cartographic traditions. Every civilization has devised its own method to frame the parameters of its environment and boundaries of its interests.


That is not to say that it’s easy to make a map, cartography has its fair share of challenges. How to create the illusion of height in a range of mountains? How to show the visual qualities of an arid plain? How to show the direction and speed of a mighty river? Essentially the question is; how to translate the 3 dimensional qualities of a place onto the flatness of a 2 dimensional surface? Throughout history the best maps have been able to solve these visual puzzles and create images that communicate clearly and accurately. The less successful examples are dense and illegible and remain with us only as visual oddities.

Given these challenges, why do we go to all this trouble, are we really that afraid to get lost?

Grunge paperCertainly nobody wants to get mixed up in an unfamiliar place, but this is not enough to explain our obsessive map making activity, something else is at work here. Why, for example, do people spend hours looking over maps of places they will never visit, ruined cites of the past, or even imaginary places that never existed? Presumably we don’t worry about getting lost in an imaginary place.

The answer is found by approaching map making not as a prelude to travel, but as a means of understanding our surroundings. Maps are less about moving around in the world, and more about making sense of it. Maps are just the physical evidence of processes in our minds that are running all the time, we construct mental maps constantly, this is a fundamental way that our minds work. This process of mental imaging is essential because we are not able to comprehend our experience of the world until we are able to imagine it and give it form. We draw lines between our separate experiences and tie them all together to form complex networks. We map whatever is new to us; new places, new acquaintances, new cultures, new systems of belief. Over time these images in our minds develop and mature, when constructed well they can store complex patterns of information for our contemplation. These mental maps help us to navigate around in our memories if we construct them elegantly, and use their lines wisely. But we can also make them carelessly and end up with tangled bits of strings in our imaginations, leaving us feeling murky and disoriented.

This new addition in NOW! Bali Magazine presents chapters of a book, showing a series of mapping projects done over a twenty-year period of working and living in Bali. Mapping the terrain of the island was the initial goal of these projects. But over time the focus shifted towards mapping Bali’s architectural sites, its history, and the dynamics of its natural environment. Eventually its focus concentrated on mapping the lives of the Balinese people themselves, the topography of their inner lives. The book was created by stitching together the results of these various projects to produce an overall image of Bali and its people.


Nothing in the series is invented, all the places described and stories related in these pages were seen and heard while travelling the roads of Bali and living in its neighborhoods.


In one sense, the impressions presented here can be thought of as field recordings and taken together have the potential to produce a relatively objective map of Bali at this time in history. Whether this material has been arranged in the best possible way, whether it is relatively free from preconception and prejudice, and whether it presents a balanced view of Bali is open to debate.

There will be points suggested here that will be contested by others, some things in this book will be proven wrong. Some people maintain that it is impossible to generalize about a culture, and the idea that we can ‘map the inner topography’ of an entire culture is hopelessly naive. Certainly the map that you eventually make of Bali will be different.

But these ambiguities are simply the beauty and challenges of the mapping process, and any map should only be seen as the starting point for a new map to improve on.

Continue to follow Bruce Granquist every month as he showcases chapters of his book, ‘Mapping Bali’, an intriguing perspective and angle on both people and place. If you’re only visiting Bali, stay connected on our website and don’t miss any new stories.