Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Pictures of the World

Yesterday, I posted this map on the Polemicist Facebook page:


After seeing some of the responses, I realized that many people may never have seen, and are not aware of, the famous Peters Projection Map, and the issues it addresses: 



To summarize the issue:  As pointed out on the Peters Map site, any flat map has a problem "projecting" a three-dimensional globe on a two-dimensional surface, and any such map will introduce some distortion.  No map will show both the size and shape of geographical formations accurately.  The map with which we are all familiar, the Mercator projection map, which was designed around 1659, was not designed to depict relative sizes of continents and countries accurately, but to show the shapes of continents fairly well.  The Peters Map, first presented by Dr. Peter Arno in Germany in 1974 (and first published in an English-version in 1983), is an equal area map that shows all countries, continents or oceans according to their actual size, and makes accurate comparisons possible.

As discussed here:

"The Mercator projection creates increasing distortions of size as you move away from the equator. As you get closer to the poles the distortion becomes severe. Cartographers refer to the inability to compare size on a Mercator projection as "the Greenland Problem." Greenland appears to be the same size as Africa, yet Africa's land mass is actually fourteen times larger.... Because the Mercator distorts size so much at the poles it is common to crop Antarctica off the map. This practice results in the Northern Hemisphere appearing much larger than it really is. Typically, the cropping technique results in a map showing the equator about 60% of the way down the map, diminishing the size and importance of the developing countries."

(Take a look also at the Greenland-China, North-South, the Europe-South America problem, and Africa-former Soviet Union discrepancies on the Peters site.)

Was this on purpose?  Well, it "was convenient, psychologically and practically, through the eras of colonial domination when most of the world powers were European. It suited them to maintain an image of the world with Europe at the center and looking much larger than it really was. ... [M]ost map users probably never realized the Eurocentric bias inherent in their world view.  When there are so many other projections to choose from, why is it that today the Mercator projection is still such a widely recognized image used to represent the globe? “

Why, indeed?  The United Kingdom Geographical Association says: “The ideal is an 'equal-area' world map. There is a long history of professional bodies recommending 'equal-area' world maps for schools. In 1907-08, the Geographical Association printed a recommendation that world maps in school atlases should be equal area.  A century later, there can surely be no justification today for schools to use a world map that shows one part of the world bigger than another area of the same size.”

It’s necessary to recognize the relation among three facts: 1) the Peters projection map “remains a curiosity in the United States,” 2) “national surveys show… U.S. schoolchildren have among the lowest levels of geography awareness of all developed nations, and 3) many professional cartographers have resented the ‘politicization’ of their field. Arno Peters was one of the first to assert that maps are unavoidably political.”

Equal area maps have been around since at least 1805. The Peters projection is only the boldest recent version. It was, predictably, the object of scorn and derision from conservative pundits and educators, and it, along with other equal area maps and the whole notion of what’s at stake in them, has been largely disappeared from American education and culture.  In post-modern, iPad America, the 100+-year-old professional educational recommendation is ignored, while the 450-year-old Mercator projection has remained the dominant, the norm. That effect is certainly on purpose.

This is important because the maps we are shown constantly in the course of our compulsory school education and our elective, but corporately managed, media education give us the picture of the world we carry around in our heads. That picture forms the most concrete and primal foundation upon which is built everything about, you know, the way we see the world.

You see before you think, and what you think is usually based on what you see. It is not intellectually-coherent political theories that form “ideology” in the most powerful sense, but, precisely, those concrete, “psychologically and practically convenient” images like this that make for a sense of “reality” and ‘common sense” which takes for granted all that’s most necessary to question. This is the “ideology” that precedes, and forms the prerequisite of, any thought-out political position, the “ideology” that is the most resistant to change. And that ideological resistance often takes exactly the form of resenting the ‘politicization’ of practical, convenient, widely-accepted, common-sense cultural memes.

To get down to cases: If you see the reality around you as one in which Dennis Kucinich is twice as big as Yao Ming, you might be…uh, psychotic? You’d certainly get yourself into trouble if you were deciding with whom to pick a fight. Well, what do you think – no, what do you picture -- is involved when the President announces he’s sending American soldiers and establishing American military bases in more and more places in Africa? What all does that picture make you think imagine is involved? For our country? For yourself? When CBS-ABC-NBC-CNN-Fox-MSNBC report this, they may show you the good old Mercator projection map -- just so as not to confuse you, and all. But I promise, the Pentagon knows how big Africa is.

This is why, as with so many other images, we have to replace the Mercator map with the Peters map as the dominant picture of the world in our minds.  And why, across the board, whatever your explicit politics, that’s not so easy to do.

3 comments:

  1. There's a great piece on "The West Wing" devoted to The Peters Map: http://youtu.be/n8zBC2dvERM


    FWIW, as a writer of Alt-History fiction, I'm a very big fan of The Peters Map.

    ReplyDelete
  2. do you know if there are any photos of the earth from space, showing the whole planet from different positions. this would be very helpful to see, because I've seen the Mercator projection for the last 40 years and it's hard to accept the one based on the true land mass size. Plus I live in Germany, which I've just discovered is virtually at the North Pole, and I'm feeling like I've been lied to! There's no way I would have moved here if I'd seen this map first!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Use Google Earth. And say hello to Santa Claus. (And if you've moved from England, be thankful: much of the UK is even closer to the North Pole.)

    ReplyDelete

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