Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Here There Be Dragons: Cartographical Hegemony

I fear that the increasing ubiquity of GPS is further removing the user from their environment as opposed to connecting them. Gone are the days of the compass and the quadrangle map. No longer does one orient the map, take a bearing, and plot a course. Sure, I bullshitted my way through the knots Boy Scouting holds so dear but I was an orienteering fiend. But what's the use of a map if you don't know how to use it? Or worse yet, don't understand how it represent geography, topography, and cartography? Worst of all, what if the maps your were using, the indelible guides informing your understanding of a city, country, world were wrong? Or, more precisely, not what you thought.

In 1569, German cartographer Gerardus Mercator created a map designed to aid sailors crossing recently charted seas. He titled his map "A New and Enlarged Description of the Earth With Corrections for Use in Navigation." Mercator's map, with some fine tuning across the last half millennium, has been in nearly every classroom in America since American classrooms have had maps. It is how we understand the earth to be.

Seemingly unrelated, I am enjoying some of the best TV I'd never seen and watching The West Wing. (oh, to speak like Sorkin writes!) The following clip is from episode sixteen of season two, original air date February 28, 2001.



All those days playing Risk, all those geography tests studied for, all those supposedly educational place mats for naught. Well, not quite, but still, a striking bit a cartography, no?

Dr. Arno Peters first presented his map in 1974. The Peters Projection is what is known as an "equal-area" projection, having fidelity of proportion while sacrificing true shape. No single map is "better" than any other. All two-dimensional maps have weaknesses as they try to represent a three-dimensional globe. There are different maps for different purposes. Maps are tools for understanding the world we live, they are not a one-for-one representation of the orb we inhabit.

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