Projecting the landscape onto a two-dimensional surface compresses Earth, which is not even a perfect sphere, into geometric linearity. The cylindrical projection of the geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator makes South America, which was so familiar to Vilém Flusser, smaller than Greenland. These distortions are political, with a powerful Europe at the center. In his text “Mein Atlas” [My Atlas], Flusser presents two old atlases that belonged to his grandfather (“Mein Atlas,” in: Dinge und Undinge, 1993). They are very old books, the state of the art in the sixteenth century. These atlases were followed by new maps, with the knowledge of their epistemic relativity. An explosion of semantics, a multiplication of one possibility into thousands of thousands, occurred. For Flusser, imagination means “making ‘maps’ and reading them” (Medienkultur, 1997, p. 24; translated from the German). His grandfather stands for the age of the book, which is already in upheaval. The old man began to tear pages out of the more recent atlases, rearranging them, and moving them around. Leopold Flusser (1857–1937) seems to have recognized, around the same time as Aby Warburg, the power of ludic combinatorial analysis: “In short, he began to play history.” (“Mein Atlas,” p. 115; translated from the German)
Every age slaves away with its most advanced instruments at the task of abstracting the globe. In Leopold Flusser’s atlas, “the world ran between his fingers” (ibid., p. 113; translated from the German). In the new atlases, we are the ones who are running. “No longer people among people, but instead a person who codifies others in order to make them the subject matter of atlantes.” (ibid., p. 116; translated from the German) As he wrote those lines, Flusser was himself using precursors of the new, powerful digital mapping services, which seduce us into revealing the position of our friends in the vicinity (our own position is constantly being surveyed and added to the algorithm).
What is the new relationship of the atlas and the world? Grandfather Flusser could still dip in and out of his atlases. Thanks to the abstract quality of the maps, a region could preserve itself and hence continued to be a desideratum. People of the new imagination, by contrast, themselves become abstractions, signs, and symbols in the atlases that overlie our cities and that feed off what we do.