“But hasn’t everything already been mapped?”

by Andy Woodruff on December 15, 2011

In a recent post I remarked on the common reaction people have when I say that I’m a cartographer. In my experience people are usually mildly astounded and fascinated by this exotic profession (and just like that we are new best pals), and as the conversation progresses they ask if that means something like Google Maps. But sometimes it’s the most dreaded, annoying question that every cartographer has heard: “hasn’t everything already been mapped?”

There is of course a real answer to that question (perhaps it’s something like, “everywhere, but not everything” or perhaps it’s “there’s actually this one spot in Idaho we haven’t hit yet”), but it’s more amusing to dwell on the things we cartographers hear from our new acquaintances than on what we say in reply. In that spirit, a week or two ago I posed the following on Twitter:

Survey time. Cartographers, fill in the blank based on your experience. Person: “What do you do?” You: “I’m a cartographer.” Person: ______

It generated some excellent replies. If you’re not a cartographer, when you meet one remember that these are things we’ve all heard. If you are a cartographer, please comment to share your experiences too!

@stefanie_gray has heard several good ones.

“You’re a cartographer? But isn’t the map done?!” (Yes, there is only one map! Ever! And it’s DONE!)

“Why would you study cartography if every place has been discovered?” (Uh, did I say I was in ‘conquistador studies’?)

“Hahaha making maps? On the computer? There’s already Google Maps, no need for anything else!”

@wallacetim‘s neighbor doesn’t like his prospects.

“Where’s the money in that?”

@kg_geomapper seems to hang around a mix of high-tech and low-tech map users.

Person: [response always involves mention of either a road atlas or google maps!]

I also get “oh yea, I love old historical maps”

@mapgeek reports a modern twist on the old “hasn’t everything been mapped” bit. Google did it!

“But hasn’t everywhere already been mapped by google?” aargh

She has also, much to my horror, encountered someone who is less than impressed with cartography. And from a geologist at that!

I also got a “god, how boring” response once!

I think he may have been something to do with geology! oh the irony!

@fgcartographix has also found uninterested people (which is too bad, because I usually count on cartography for an easy conversation topic) but also the usual Googlers.

Person: and then changing the subject.

Person: There’s still area to map with Google Earth? (got that one twice…)

@desjardins meets people who have a passing familiarity with a dictionary.

“um, so what does a cartographer do?” or “that’s maps or something, right?”

@NadiiaGorash knows a similar crowd.

Person: WHO?!? Me: …. Person: I see. Mapmaker!

But @nichom finds people a step behind.

Person: < blink> (mental search for what ‘cartographer’ means) Me: I make maps. Person: Cool! (let fun conversation ensue)

@vtcraghead points out that those with good taste (my judgment, not necessarily his) may know about cartography because of Arrested Development.

We are living in the shadow of Buster: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tj7RlQdF25A

@clubjosh has figured out a good reply to the standard line.

usually get the “hasn’t everything been mapped” line which gets my “Yeah, but some moron keeps changing things” retort

@g_fiske talks to the good ones. The ones who appreciate us.

Person: “Oh, I love maps!”

And @musingbouche is not a cartographer, but knows what to say if she meets one.


Did I miss any? Comment on this post with any other good ones you’ve heard!

There are 15 comments in this article:

  1. December 15, 2011Joel says:

    I vividly recall a young, female bartender ridiculing me when I told her I was a cartographer. Although the job I held at the time paid a criminally low salary, I was still under the impression it outranked bartender in terms of prestige. Now, however, I know she was acting appropriately.

  2. December 15, 2011Andrew Shears says:

    One question I was asked several times when I worked as a cartographer: “oh, so you’re making cartoons then?”

  3. December 15, 2011Josh says:

    “A cartographer?! That’s like deep sea diving, right??”

    I wasn’t sure whether to be amused or embarrassed. There’s no way to describe what I do that is anywhere near as exciting as deep sea diving, so surely my explanation let them down.

  4. December 15, 2011Josh says:

    “A cartographer?! That’s like deep sea diving, right??”

    I wasn’t sure whether to be amused or embarrassed. There’s no way to describe what I do that is anywhere near as exciting as deep sea diving, so surely my explanation let them down.

  5. December 15, 2011Kumiko says:

    Person: “That’s fantastic! My daughter-in-law is a photographer too, she does..”

    Me: “No I’m sorry, I said a CAR-tographer.”

    (awkward pause)

    Person: “… so do you photograph cars? What does a cartographer do?”

  6. December 15, 2011Carolyn Fish says:

    I had an ex-boyfriend who used to ask me everyday if I had found any new islands since we had last seen each other… needless to say that didn’t work out…

  7. December 15, 2011Masrudy Omri says:

    I’m not a cartographer, but I’m a cartography & GIS major.

    “You’re a cartography major? Do you draw cartoons?”

  8. December 15, 2011David Asbury says:

    Like Kumiko, I don’t know if I’m mumbling or if the listener somehow just can’t link the word to a profession they understand.

    Once I got, “So do you do like color or black & white better?”

    And another time, “Do you specialize? Like portraits or landscapes?”

  9. December 16, 2011M. Quinones says:

    My husband does remote sensing and I do GIS analysis and cartography. Explaining to our families what we do for a living gets the usual “like google maps?” comments and “do you work for NASA?”. The eldest family members still don’t know what we do no matter how many times we explain it.

  10. December 17, 2011Martin says:

    I share a studio with a photographer, among others. She was showing off her portfolio and saying that she shares a studio with graphic designers and a cartographer. Quizzical look. “He makes maps,” she offered, helpfully. Long pause. “So does he bring the cars up to the studio or does he usually photograph them in the street?”

    You couldn’t make this shit up.

  11. January 7, 2012People always ask which hospital I work at..... says:

    People always ask which hospital I work at…..

  12. January 8, 2012John says:

    My Dad, right from Day One of studies to this very day (24 years later), continues to tell people his son is a Cartographer…. “he photographs cars”. He’s extremely amused by how many people believe him. His other one is to tell people I design shopping trolleys. When they look at him blankly he explains the “cart” bit….

  13. February 6, 2012Scott G says:

    Person: wow your a heart doctor?

    Me: No that’s a cardiologist…. I make maps. (this has happened more than once believe it or not)

    So… here is the scenario I always envision. “Patient: I think I am having heart attack. Me: Don’t worry… I am a Cartographer! Patient: oh I feel better already. Me: nurse… scalple…compass…. Leroy lettering set and a scribe tool…. give me a 20% screen and warm up the Linotype-hell stat! Patient: wha….?”

  14. February 7, 2012Laurent Jégou says:

    The daughter of a colleague, 5 years old at the time, answered to her father : “So you are drawing all the day like me in school ?” :-)

  15. March 20, 2012Jb says:

    The ‘already been mapped’ is the most common, by a long shot. Nonetheless, my runner up response is….

    “Oh, so what do you shoot? Wait, you said you’re a photographer, right?”