As the world turns

First published here:

Maps. Where would we be without them? While over the past decade, the old-fashioned paper map has slowly been made redundant with the rise of mobile phones, satnavs and Google maps, they still shape our understanding of our proportionality and place in the world, and often find a place in our homes as decorative wall art. Even if you’re no map enthusiast, chances are that, if you try to visualise the location of a given country, you will see a more or less accurate image of the world before your eyes. Or is it really that accurate?

Look at the two images: which map seems like the more accurate depiction of the world?

You probably are inclined to assume the one on the top is a fairly realistic representation of the world, while the second image seems extremely distorted on the vertical axis. In fact, the first map, the so called Mercator projection, does not represent areas equally, and thus presents North America and Northern Eurasia far bigger than those continents actually are. Consider Greenland: in the Mercator projection (left map), is seems to be slightly larger than Africa. In reality, however, Africa is almost 15 times the size of Greenland. While the Peters projection (right map) is by no means the perfect representation of the world, it is far closer to reality than the Mercator projection.

Now, you may ask what the importance of this is, after all its just maps. Unfortunately, it is not quite that easy. Besides the fact that presenting the Southern hemisphere far smaller than it is has all kinds of imperialistic connotations, the Mercator projection facilitates a Euro- or Western-centric ideology. Take the position of Europe, for example. The Mercator projection places Europe almost at the very centre of the world, while, in the Peters projection, Europe only constitutes a minute area of land on the upper boarder of the map. You could take this even further, and ask why we naturally assume that the North always needs to be at the top of the map while the South is always considered to be at the bottom.

Strange, right?

Yes, it’s convenient to always place the North top and vice versa, and yes, there is a need for agreement among people in this regard for the mere purpose of practicality, but are we aware of the implications of such, seemingly innocent, conventions? The image of the Mercator projection has been embroidered so strongly in our minds, that even when we rationally understand which map is accurate, it still feels strange, unnatural, distorted… simply wrong. Yes, after all it is just a map, but it is this discrepancy between reality and convention that affects the visual image we have of our world. It conditions us to overestimate our importance and standing in the world, consequently giving rise to a subconscious, false feeling of sovereignty and entitlement over the rest. Maybe it is time for us to be slightly more critical of our own sense of reality that is most likely nothing more than the product of social conventions and constructions.