Yinka Adegoke set off an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday with the above observation about Uber. People chimed in to agree that this was common in Nairobi, Abuja, Bangalore and Beijing as well, and seemed connected to poor local mapping (see the whole thread on Storify). I’ve had plenty of similar conversations with Uber drivers in central Accra, where Google Maps is actually quite accurate, as well.
This reminded me of a point I’ve been making in conversation for years now: cartographic literacy is a historically recent skill. For most of human history, the average person never would have seen a map, let alone needed one to navigate a well-known environment. Mentally translating a eye-level view of (say) an urban street into a bird’s-eye view on a map and using this to navigate is a rather unusual task, and an understandable challenge if one hasn’t had to do it very often.
A bit of a detour through European and African cartographic history here. People have been making maps for a very long time, but up until roughly the Enlightenment, it would have been difficult to use them for overland navigation in the way that we assume maps are to be used today. In part this was due to limitations of cartographic knowledge and the difficulty of accurately depicting the spherical Earth on a two-dimensional map. However, many maps were also intended to depict connections between places of political or religious significance rather than a literal representation of the terrain between them. Here are two European maps from the 1480s that capture this variation in intent.
The Martellus world map was made in Italy around 1489. There’s a clear attempt at cartographic accuracy here, and the coastlines of Europe and northern and western Africa are presented in great detail. Knowledge of coasts and maritime routes was quite important at the time because the vast majority of long-distance trade went by sea (as in fact it still does today). The interiors of most countries are largely unlabelled, however, even for European states which were presumably better documented at the time.
Compare that map to this Mappa Mundi produced in Germany around 1480. This is an example of a politico-religious map which places Jerusalem in the center of the world. It lists a number of contemporary Christian European cities and states, such as Rome and England, but makes no attempt to accurately depict the terrain between them.
Source: The Morgan Library
In States and Power in Africa, Jeff Herbst argues that many early maps drawn by African cartographers adopt the same politico-religious schema. He gives the example of a map drawn by Caliph Muhammad Bello of Sokoto for a British explorer in 1824. There’s a brief acknowledgement of some natural features, like major rivers, but this is primarily a map of political relationships between the Sokoto Caliphate (shown many times its actual size) and the smaller cities which were vassals or rivals. Check out the tiny, misplaced Timbuktu (“Tonbaktoo”) at upper left and Kano (“Kanoo”) at lower right.
Source: Princeton Library
For comparison, here’s an 1844 map of the same area from a British cartographer. It’s a bit hard to read, so I’ve labelled the relevant cities. Putting aside the “uncharted” areas of the interior, this looks like a recognizably accurate map of the region.
Source: David Rumsey Map Collection
One of the key points here is that these maps are serving different purposes. For west African merchants, or aspirants to the Caliphate, the roads between these major cities were probably well known, but a map of contemporary political alliances would be quite useful. For foreigners coming in to conquer, a detailed road map was important to make up for their lack of local knowledge.
All of this brings me back to Uber. If you’ve lived in a city for most of your life, why would you need to read a map rather than navigating by well-known landmarks? It’s like being asked to calculate distance in inches when you’re used to kilometers — an inefficient means of producing the same result. And the mental math of doing a 3D rotation of a familiar street and projecting it onto a horizontal map is rather challenging — perhaps especially for places you know well.
I’ve got my own story about this from the time I was living in Tamale in 2010. Google Maps hadn’t really made it to Africa yet, my guidebook had only a very small map of the city center, and I wasn’t able to find a paper map of the area. I bought a bicycle and ended up getting to know the city quite well without ever glancing at a map. I’ve been back several times since then, now in possession of Google Maps, and to this day I can’t look at a map of the city and make it match up to the streets I know so well. I have to find the same landmarks that I used at the time and use them to orient myself before the map makes sense.