What are they?
During Season 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s heroic television show, The West Wing, a nerdy but quietly zealous group called the Organisation of Cartographers for Social Equality introduce the Whitehouse staff to the Peters World Map, an equal-area map where 1 square centimetre of map equals the same number of square kilometres anywhere in the world.
Despite this map being proportionately accurate, the staff are shocked by the inconsistencies between it and the more familiar, but deliberately distorted, Mercator projection. Invented in 1569 to rationalise the lines of nautical travel, the Mercator map shows Australia to be roughly the same size as Greenland, despite it in fact being more than three and a half times larger.
The cartographers insist that the way a map is drawn reveals a great deal about the worldview of its creators: for instance, the centre has greater perceived importance than the edges. The distorted sizes of the Mercator map’s land masses further embellish the importance of the northern hemisphere and diminish that of the southern. They conclude by requesting the Bartlett government aggressively champion the use of the more egalitarian Peters map in all American schools.
What do we think?
A map, like any form of written or visual communication, is rooted in the time and place of its creation. If we care to look hard enough, a map reveal will many secrets: its language tells us of its geographical origin; the details of its contents tell us of the era of its crafting; its colour saturation and paper stock tell us of the technological sophistication of its printing press; even what information the map includes, and how it is included, can reveal the assumptions and prejudices of its creators.
A map can convey crowd data:
Internet usage in the years 2000 (above) and 2007 (below), courtesy of World Mapper
A map can be satirical:
A map can be hopeful:
A map can be simultaneously historical, mournful and beautiful:
What did we learn?
A map is not merely a means by which to communicate navigational information, it is itself a receptacle of social, cultural and political nuance. It tells us as much about the how and who of its creation as its what. A map is both time capsule and crystal ball.