We love maps

We love maps because they seem like a pure expression of data, of geometric fact, but in fact are deeply entangled with bias and human behavior. And we love maps because they are instrumental: the way we see the world graphically on a sheet of paper becomes the way we imagine the world becomes the way we inhabit that world. The Mercator projection map of the earth is a wonderful example of this entanglement. Originally developed as a navigational tool for ships, the Mercator map is valuable because it shows certain nautical routes (so-called “rhumb lines”) as straight lines, and can be published to fill a neatly portable, rectangular sheet of paper. As a consequence of showing the round earth in this flattened format, the most popular version of the Mercator map shrinks the size of Africa, inflates the size of Greenland, makes North “up” and South “down,” slices off a piece of Russia, and shows the Atlantic shipping lanes between Europe and America as the center of the world. A well-meaning cartographer’s abstraction becomes a parable of racism, imperialism, cold war politics, and first-world vs third-world flows of global capital. The push and pull of the Mercator projection on area and orientation exert literal pressures on the sociological reception and utility of the map.

Causality flows in the other direction, too. In 1961, cartographer Arthur Robinson, commissioned to produce a Mercator alternative that was “pleasing to the eye of general viewers,” invented a new method of projection to describe the round earth that fit the continents within a kind of squashed circle instead of the Mercator rectangle. (While we won’t parse the phrase “pleasing to the eye” at great length, we can only assume that as a criterion, it embodied the current state of the map-viewer’s biases. We’re imagining a dinner-time conversation that goes something like, “Don’t you think it would be nice if our map showed a little less Russia and little more Mexico, dear? You know I’ve always wanted that Acapulco vacation.” [Forgive the period-specific vacation destination. Of course today one would never dream of vacationing in Acapulco.]) The map was used in official National Geographic Society publications from 1988 to 1998, but was eventually abandoned because the complex system of projection extends the points of the poles into long lines and does not accurately represent the shape or area of geographic formations.

By definition, maps force their makers and their viewers to make choices and priviledge one set of values over another. When cartographers draw the three-dimensional earth on a flat sheet of paper, they can choose between preserving shape locally (so that that the boundaries of continents are accurate, for instance) or preserving area (so that continents are the right size). But they can’t do both at the same time. Each choice provokes a cascade of consequences, some of which the cartographer gets to make, other just unavoidable consequences that emerge from the process. And the choices get pretty fundamental. Almost all maps, for instance, assume that the earth is spherical. Map projections find ways to convert this spherical topology to a flat plane. But of course the earth is not a sphere, it’s a slightly lopsided ellipsoid with a fat midsection. And so it goes…the aura of the map as a truth-telling device dims, politics blur into geometry, design etches indelible consquences…

Here is a sampling of our favorite maps:

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