these blind spots reveal the extent to which the portolan chart was not only a story, but also a tool—one designed to work with an assemblage of other tools, connected to information networks that would make the Age of Discovery possible

With its carefully boxed starbursts of compass bearings, the portolani made an argument about the nature of the sea: it is a place where ships pass coastwise from port to port. They did not sketch a world-encircling ocean, nor account for the curvature of the earth (though its existence was known). But these blind spots reveal the extent to which the portolan chart was not only a story, but also a tool—one designed to work with an assemblage of other tools, connected to information networks that would make the Age of Discovery possible. Ethnographer Edward Hutchins, whose book Cognition in the Wild describes navigation aboard both modern Navy ships and traditional Polynesian canoes, offers the term “distributed cognition” to describe such far-flung, tightly-specified networks of knowledge. There are many ways to distribute cognition—and NOAA charts, with their complex tissue of law, policy, and geographic data, represent neither the ultimate nor the most efficient state of the art. In Hutchins’s account, Polynesian navigators combine precise knowledge of the stars with hypothetical, imagined islands to fix their locations on the open ocean—a system as sophisticated and efficacious in its world as the navigational equipment aboard a modern naval vessel.

via Lost on the Map
August 22, 2013, by Matthew Battles
Orion Magazine