Do you trust your cartographer?

If you are a mapmaker, please do not take this as a personal attack.

I find maps interesting. Which makes sense since I am becoming increasingly obsessed with space. The most basic maps that everyone has at least some familiarity with are road maps. On these maps, most things are minimized, and some are left out all together. One feature is exaggerated: roads. And so we are given the impression that the world through which we are navigating (and this is especially true when traveling through unfamiliar territory), is made up of roads only, with a few landmarks interspersed… a church here, a statue there. Unconsciously, we visualize a world in which we are constantly moving, constantly “on the road.” But of course road maps are very useful, and this slight distortion is seemingly trivial.

Until we consider what other distortions are possible on maps. Distortions become more problematic when we consider relative sizes of continents for example. Or the characterization of their positions, for example Africa at the “foot” of Europe or “below” Europe (as opposed to a description like Europe to the north of Africa). Distortions also become problematic when we look at the focus of “world” maps, that usually have Europe and more recently North America at the center, such that everywhere else surrounds one of these bodies, everywhere else is peripheral. Open google earth, and a map of the world comes up, with the US in the center, and then the most interesting thing happens. The rest of the world recedes as the map zooms in on the US until it’s all you see on the screen. Interpret this how you will. Perhaps it’s simply because the program was developed in the US…nothing sinister….

Lt’s take a step back and think of the Prime Meridian as the center of the earth.

The International Meridian Conference was a conference held in October 1884 in Washington, D.C. in the United States to determine the Prime Meridian of the world. It was held at the request of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. Twenty-five nations were represented by 41 delegates.

The following resolutions were adopted by the conference:

1. That it is the opinion of this Congress that it is desirable to adopt a single prime meridian for all nations, in place of the multiplicity of initial meridians which now exist.

The Prime Meridian was re-named the Greenwich Meridian. A couple of countries present voted against this. The details are not clear, but it is not a surprise that the center of the earth would be named after a geographic location in England. The word “self-centered” comes to mind, but perhaps not exactly in the context in which we use it today. But still on maps and their distortions, the real danger, the insidious brainwashing, if you will, which we do not realize because we have been seeing the same maps right from childhood, is the assumption that these maps are reflections of reality. Maps of Africa for example, have varied in size over time. Not because Africa has gotten significantly larger, but because initial mapmakers could not bring themselves to admit what a large land mass Africa is, especially in relation to a space as tiny as Europe, which despite it’s almost laughable size on the map, has loomed large over the world for centuries. France is an interesting case study, because it has gotten smaller and smaller over time, again not because the physical land mass of the country France on the European continent is shrinking, but because it had to shed geographic locations in the Caribbean which it called its “Overseas Territories.”

Geography is tied to politics in ways that we perhaps never consider. And so we do not realize the implications. In the end, how representative can a map really be? And think of the word representation carefully. What world view do children (all over the world) adopt when they see the same maps over and over (think of maps and globes all around classrooms), and when they are told “this is what the world looks like?” Imagine for a minute that you click on google earth and the landmass at the center of the Earth is Africa. As the program zooms in on the continent, boundaries become clearer (problematic though those boundaries in themselves may be). As these lines come into focus, the viewer realizes that Africa is made up of different countries, with different identities perhaps? And slowly but surely it percolates into their senses that Africa is not just one big homogeneous lump of blackness somewhere out there. Who knows, with time I might even stop meeting Americans who ask me if I know their “friend from Kenya.” Indulge me for another second. Imagine that the center of the earth becomes what is called now The Middle East (I am very curious to see which lines would demarcate this space). Again the same process of click, zoom in. Well what do you know, the Middle East is made up of different countries! Different identities too? Slowly but surely, the “all Muslims live (or should live) in the Middle East and are terrorists” rhetoric could fade. Ordinary Americans would realize that there is a difference between Iraq and Afghanistan for example, and then relations with one space will no longer be simply a continuation of relations with another space just because they have been assigned the same identities.

Did I say before that I find cartography interesting? The politics of mapping are extremely salient and deadly for the simple reason that we hardly ever think about what’s going on. If cartographers were to admit for example, that their representations are constructed, are mediated by their interpretations of reality, then perhaps we will not run into the current problem of the map maker’s distortions becoming the map user’s reality.

Maps are fascinating. As metaphors, as symbols in literature, as rallying points in political rhetoric. But maps have problems. Do you trust your cartographer? Because I don’t. What does your space look like? Next time you pull out a map, look around you first.