We keep mapping the present but it won’t hold still

In his very short story “On Exactitude in Science”, Jorge Luis Borges imagined a fantastical society that had become obsessed with the production of accurate maps. “In that Empire,” he wrote, “the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province.” This mania for scale and detail intensified, until a map was produced “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” Of course, such a map was useless for all practical purposes and, scorned and neglected by succeeding generations, quickly fell into disuse and disrepair. “In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”

At Etic Lab, we have spent the last year engaged in a complex mapping project, not of an entire nation or empire, but a single area of UK public life: the access to justice sector, which is comprised of all the national and local bodies currently attempting to provide free and affordable legal advice to those with limited means. Our work has yielded interesting discoveries, as well as surfacing some of the significant difficulties associated with understanding such a fluid and fragmentary system. We believe that the insights we have gathered will be of considerable use to future attempts to conduct research in this field.

We have one simple preliminary contribution to make to the discussion around mapping the access to justice sector, and indeed other similar fields of social activity: Stop. Pause. Don’t do it. Lay down your compass. Step away from the astrolabe. Having very recently expended considerable amounts of time, money and expertise on this problem, we propose a moratorium on all attempts to locate, enumerate and measure the actors, agencies, businesses, charities and public services involved in providing support and advice to the public in their efforts to navigate the UK legal system. If repeatedly performing the same activity in expectation of different results is, as Einstein suggested, one of the hallmarks of madness, then we believe that all would-be cartographers should receive a thorough psychiatric assessment. It is time, in other words, for a sober reflection on why we undertake such projects, what they can plausibly achieve, and how our methods might need to change in order to produce different results.

When we talk about “mapping” a complex area of social activity such as the access to justice sector, we are employing a metaphor to cover a range of different activities. We could be describing something as simple as a list of service providers with links to their respective websites, a database containing more detailed information about actors within the sector, or the kind of searchable map of local services provided by advicelocal and others. These resources each have their own unique applications, yet they are united by a couple of intrinsic assumptions about the relationship between the act of mapmaking and the nature of the thing being mapped. First: it is presumed that the reality of what is going on “on the ground” can be accurately captured by existing cartographic methods. Second: it is presumed that the structure of the reality represented by the map will remain stable over a long enough period for it to be used to inform practical decision making. On the basis of these assumptions, we are able to proceed as if it were possible to produce something like an atlas of the access to justice sector, containing a fixed record of the geographic distribution of its constituent entities.

However, in the course of our work in the access to justice sector, we have found both of these assumptions to be extremely tenuous. Very early on in our study, we discovered that empirical research practices – interviews, surveys, analysis of publicly available data sets – provided only a limited perspective on what was actually happening in the sector. One of the main reasons for this was that the structure of the sector as it currently exists is so fragmentary and volatile that any kind of static map would tend to have a very limited shelf-life. The existing quantitative data on the sector is therefore generally partial, out of date, mistaken or missing. Meanwhile, the qualitative interviews we conducted with actors within the sector indicated the scale of what was missing from this picture without offering us any pointers as to how we might rectify this information deficit. Our correspondents each gave us their own view of what was going on in the sector, a rich and complex patchwork of insights that was scarcely represented by the available data.

Eventually, we came to realise that the problem lay not so much with the paucity of the data available to us, but the metaphor we were using to structure our approach to the task. Mapping – understood as an attempt to describe the properties and relative positions of bodies within a space – was simply not an appropriate framework for what we were trying to accomplish. The access to justice sector is not a terrain defined by fixed contours and stable landmarks, but a dynamic human system defined by constantly shifting flows of finance, decision-making and demand. We realised that to the extent that we tried to map the sector as if it were terra firma, we would be unable to describe the factors which determined its current and future characteristics.

All maps – even the most meticulously and scientifically plotted – are fundamentally fictions. They do not represent the world “as it is”, but provide us with a system of symbols which (if they work) allow us to engage with reality in certain ways, for instance by enabling us to navigate from A to B. Once a map has lost this instrumental function, it becomes less than worthless. As Borges shows us, to keep making maps for the sake of mapping without a view to their specific utility leads to absurd results, and ultimately a profusion of discarded, redundant and valueless plans, drifting through the internet like “tattered ruins” in the “deserts of the West.” The solution to this dilemma is not to despair of mapping altogether, but rather to step back and take a moment to restate fundamental questions. What is the purpose of our map-making? What are we trying to accomplish, and what information will we need to represent in order to make this possible?

This is a process which has been repeated many times over the course of human history. In roughly 150 CE, the Alexandrian scholar Ptolemy projected the geographic knowledge of his time onto a globe, becoming the first cartographer to deploy latitudinal and longitudinal lines – an enormous step forward for the time. However, the curved nature of this map made it of limited navigational value, particularly as sailors began to brave the Western Oceans and the Horn of Africa in the late Middle Ages. Hence in 1569 CE the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator produced his cylindrical map, which allowed navigators to plot their course across the surface of the earth along a straight line. Both of these forms of mapping have their limitations (for instance, Mercator projection inflates the size of bodies nearer to the poles, such that Greenland and Antarctica appear disproportionally outsized), but each also proved to be powerful technologies which vastly expanded the scope of human action. They demonstrate how the type of question you are trying to ask, and the uses you are attempting to serve, must drive the form of map you create.

As we studied the access to justice sector, we were increasingly reminded of the charts used by mariners for coastal navigation. Whilst the outline of the coast may remain relatively stable, these charts must be constantly updated to allow for changes in the depth of the water created by shifting sandbanks, and other transient navigational hazards. They are also useless without supplementary information, such as tide patterns and wind speeds. Similarly, when attempting to chart a volatile human system such as the access to justice sector, it is essential that our maps are regularly maintained. The capacity to flexibly accommodate new information is key. More than this, however, we also realised that one of the keys to understanding this system is grasping the rate and scale of change, by measuring the varying quantities of different classes of providers in different locations and, more ambitiously, identifying the factors which may allow us to predict how they may fluctuate in the future.

Just as Mercator had the advantage of nearly 1500 years of technological and intellectual development over Ptolemy, we also have a few new tricks up our sleeve which may help us begin to address this challenge. Specifically, we have the capacity to use digital tools to discover and measure the activities of actors in the access to justice sector. With ELNAT, our bespoke suite of modular mapping programs, we not only able to locate organisations offering legal advice across the country from the digital presence or their appearance in databases such as the Charity Commission, we can also measure some of their internal properties, including physical location, opening hours, number of staff, services offered, turnover, level of digital sophistication and much more. We can also plot their relationship to other bodies within the sector by tracing the connections between their websites and on social media. Moreover, ELNAT records this information as a series of snapshots taken over time, allowing us to see how the overall picture is changing at regular intervals. If, for example, certain forms of charity are disappearing from particular parts of the country, potentially creating a pocket of unserved need, we will be able to spot this as it happens. We might even be able to explain why this is happening, by identifying the common characteristics shared by providers which prosper, survive or perish respectively.

It is important to recognise that we are still in the early stages of this new cartographic era – a time in which the questions that we ask with our maps are still being formulated and refined. It is crucial, therefore, that we resist the temptation to claim that we have provided a more accurate picture of “reality as it is.” Rather, what we have produced is a powerful new way of illuminating the problem of how to chart the complex structures of 21st century society. What is essential now is to test the ability of these tools to produce useful means of engaging with our contemporary reality, always being prepared to review our foundational assumptions – lest we go the way of Borges’ cartographers, polluting the kingdom with the litter of our wasteful hubris.