When was the last time you consulted a paper map? Nearly 15 years ago, when I first moved to London, the famous A to Z was a crucial piece of urban kit: indispensable once you’d been disgorged by the tube into unfamiliar surroundings. Now, all you need is a phone, and the Royal Institute of Navigation (RIN) is concerned. Learning to read maps properly, it argues, is an important rite of passage, developing character and encouraging independence. “Generations are now growing up utterly dependent on signals and software to find their way around,” it warns.
Perhaps the RIN should stop worrying and learn to love the new technology. After all, it’s wonderful to have a responsive, accurate and highly portable map close at hand. How likely is it that millennials will find themselves far enough from civilisation (for which, read a battery charger) that they’ll be caught short and disappear like the girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock?
But we’ll be losing something far greater than orienteering skills if we dispense with hard-copy maps altogether. For centuries, parchment and paper have fostered huge creativity among cartographs and planners. Maps can be symbols, propaganda, or utopian visions. They can even be pure fantasy.