Atoms vs. Bits: Maps

Here is a debate I would love to see: Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of MIT’s Media Lab, columnist for Wired, and author of Being Digital, representing “bits,” information in electronic form, vs. Edward R. Tufte, professor at Yale and author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, representing “atoms,” information in physical form.

Maps would be one point of discussion in this hypothetical debate. Tufte would present a graphic such as the following, from Yahoo! maps:

Yahoo! Maps

He would compare it to the same area displayed in a paper map:

Paper Map

Tufte would argue that the highly-refined printing process allowed a much greater density of information to be packed clearly and usefully on the paper map. The Yahoo! map includes less information, because it must be displayed on computer screens of low resolution (compared to what is possible with paper), and is therefore less useful. He would argue that the paper map is more useful in the field compared to any computer display, due to its light weight, thin form factor, the fact that you can fold it up or unfold it into a large area, and the fact that you can annotate it with pen or pencil.

Negroponte would counter that the digital map is more likely to include up-to-date information, and since no physical map could pack in all information that might possibly be useful to the viewer, the digital map would let the viewer choose dynamically the most relevant information for display, as in the case of this Google Earth representation of the same area:

Google Map

Who’s right? As usual, it depends, but don’t dismiss those paper maps right away.

Tags: Design, Technical

Updated at: 23 October 2005 8:10 AM

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