11 April 2011

Lapping and misting the underground

I was the sort of child who was always making lists and maps. Looking back, I realise that lists and maps were not, really, different things to me: both were ways of constructing imagined worlds, and (simultaneously) of imagining real or constructed worlds. I lost myself in published maps, the larger the scale the better. When I discovered card indexes, I was thrilled. (Remind to show you, some time, how to apply AND, OR, XOR filters to a card index using a hole punch and a set of knitting needles ... but I digress.) I card indexed features from maps, and mapped details from card indexes. I drew maps on which to follow the action of stories, and loved those story books in which a map was provided. Then, in adulthood, came databases and digitised mapping...
When Ray Girvan recently posted a link to text source visualisations, I was lost for a long time in the joy of following other people's imagined voyages through informational seas (have you, by the way, read the wonderful The raw shark texts where those informational seas are populated by information organisms including a lethal informational predator?)
A subset of these map-cum-card-file delights consisted of networked systems. Rail networks, motorway networks, bus networks, telephone networks ... they are frequently presented both as lists of their nodes and also as visualised representation of their relationship arcs. One of the most famous examples is the London underground railway with its topographically (but not geographically) correct map and its textual manifestation in (for example) Bernard & Van Caenegem's Métro program.
The London underground also interested me intensely in other, noninformational ways (and still does). For one thing, it was an ideal place for my love of people watching. When I was fifteen I spent several hours travelling around and around the Circle Line, taking photographs of the people who sat opposite me, all for the price of a one stop ticket ... an activity repeated at various times in my life since, the image shown above left being taken only a few months ago. For another, it embodies whole atavistic bodies of human characteristic hopes and fears.
James Nicholls is a young acquaintance who delights in using CAD software (Google SketchUp in particular) to construct worlds, sometimes imagined and sometimes real, in a way which I recognise as being homologous with my map and list adventures. I have admired his airy high rise constructs for a couple of years now, but in recent months they have been joined by equally compelling subterranean structures. This development reflects his own growing fascination with the London Underground. (James, if you read this: I've gotten you your own copy of Ross's Tunnel visions – bring mine back, next time I see you, and we'll swap!)
As a happy byproduct of checking the exact number of London Underground stations, James recently produced a spreadsheet which warms the cockles of my heart (whatever the "cockles of my heart" might be!): it is simultaneously a list and a conceptual map which couldn't be more different from the usual one. A whole set of conceptual maps, in fact, because as you sort and filter the sheet it shifts and morphs to map the system in different ways.
The screenshot here on the right shows a fragmentary snapshot of the spreadsheet, but if you share my delight in this sort of thing, James has given me permission to post a copy of the full spreadsheet file itself.

  • Christopher Ross, Tunnel visions : journeys of an underground philosopher. 2001, London: Fourth Estate. 1841155667

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