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Mapping How We See the World

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Date posted: August 19, 2011

Maps are both a reflection of and a way to shape the way we see the world.  We don’t often give much thought to how they are constructed, yet maps are media too, just as surely as TV and websites.  And, as with other media, maps are carefully created, two-dimensional representations of the physical world that tell a story using tools and techniques unique to the medium, cartography.  Their creators made a series of decisions about what to include, which techniques to use, and what to emphasize.  Together, these decisions impact the meaning we get from reading the map.  More importantly, those decisions impact how we view the world and our relative place in it.

Maps distort the size and shape of land masses.  You simply can’t accurately project the surface of a sphere to a flat piece of paper.  In the classic Mercator projection, Greenland is shown much larger than it actually is because we stretch the land near the poles to fit the rectangular paper.  But maps also color our perceptions of what is relatively important.  Things near the top seem more important than those at the bottom, so North America and Europe seem more important than South America or Africa.

medieval-mapI was reminded of this when I heard about the “Why I Love Maps That Stretch My Mind” contest from ODT Maps, in partnership with the Center for Media Literacy, Project Look Sharp, and others.  I met Bob Abramms of ODT Maps when we were both serving on a media literacy project a while back.  His comments about media literacy and cartography really got me thinking and he was gracious enough to send me a copy of their “What’s Up? South! World Map” in which the southern hemisphere is at the top and the northern hemisphere at the bottom.  It’s eye opening and a little disconcerting to look at.  You can see right away how placing a continent at the top somehow privileges it over the others.

In medieval Europe, maps were as much an illustration of Christian theology as they were an attempt to describe the known world.  Supporting church dogma was as, if not more, important than accurate cartography.  Medieval theologians believed Jerusalem was the center of the universe, so that’s where they placed it on maps.  East was at the top, and contained the Garden of Eden.  There were three continents, each inhabited by descendants of one of Noah’s sons.

Across cultures it was common to place the most important religious or political site in the center of a map, and in a way, the custom persists even today.  In the US, North America is generally found towards the center of world maps while, in many European countries, Europe is near the center.

Check out the contest at ODT Maps’ website and, while you’re there, take a look at all the different types of maps.  Each one tells a different story, emphasizes and privileges different data, and conveys a different view of the world and what is important.  So the next time you see a map in the newspaper or in a TV news report, ask yourself not only what the map is telling you about relative location, but what it is saying about how you should see the world.  Learn more about media, information, and digital literacy here.