Sunday, May 24, 2009

The world is round (with apologies to Tom Friedman)

Saturday, May 23, 2009
9:35pm. Over South Carolina.

The week in the States lasted at least twice that long. If travel is tiring planning, meeting and getting next year figured out is exhausting. It’s good to be at 40,000 feet and heading south with the cell in Airplane mode for the next two weeks.

South. To Chile via Miami. To a land I am learning of outside the guidebooks. To a long thin strip of a country I have dwelled upon since my father first said “in your lifetime, if you travel nowhere else, you must go all the way from the top of Chile to the bottom. In one continuous stretch of one endless land you’ll experience every environment known to the planet. You can stay on one road, starting at the top in the North at the border to Peru and finish almost in sight of Antarctica, and never leave Chile."

My Father had a way of making the most mad journey romantic. As a child I had a map of the world in my bedroom, and on that map I populated the planet with stickpins representing the places he traveled to. I remember them today more as living things consuming the visible space of the land masses than as green tipped plastic and pin-prick steel. In so many ways it was the closest I got to my Father. Those pins possessed that strange telekinetic power inherent to lonely children, that power that enabled them to see into the fog of absence and find within it the hug missing at bedtime or the words lost to a failed and frayed cable lying on the seabed between two people of one blood but two disconnected lives. Chile is inextricably interlaced with those inextinguishable strands of childhood.

In the long night (or night-long) flight ahead there is also the mystery of what lies beneath. Once Miami is behind us the journey is both magical and invisible. An all night arc around the Earth, never leaving Eastern Standard time yet traveling the same number of miles as from Washington to Amman. The cognitive dissonance associated with this is tied intimately to the European mentality from which I come. We are East-West travelers, travelers who expect that as the miles accumulate the hours will be lost or gained. The anchor to the experience is jet lag. Exhaustion at noon and midday exhilaration at 3 in the morning. That was what it was to journey into the heart of the Middle East, to stand toe-to-toe with the Al Aksa Mosque and the Wailing Wall. That seven-hour time difference made it real, made it tangible. We knew we were somewhere else not simply because of the language, but because of the discord between our 3pm and our families 3pm on the other side of the world. When you hit Dubai the time difference becomes 8 hours between DC and you, and the business day is completely out of sync. That’s how you know how far away you are.

But that’s not how it works going North to South. On this airplane, at this moment, its 10:05. In DC its 10:05. In Miami its 10:05 and in Santiago its 10:05. It’s on the other side of the world, but its 10:05. And you’re on the WEST coast of South America. My 8th grade Latin Studies teacher would be proud. When he gave us a day-one pop quiz to draw the Americas I put Rio de Janeiro in line with Los Angeles. I knew all the European Capitals and the rough geography of a then divided continent from the Urals to the Atlantic, but I couldn’t begin to tell you where anything was below Mexico. The Panama Canal might as well have been in Hawaii.

There’s a point to this rambling.

There is an episode of The West Wing, the television show I’ve more or less memorized in the last 5 years, with its fictional White House and public servants who make you think of what the best of politics can be, in which White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry “throws open the doors to people we could care less about, day (in the words of Toby Ziegler)” There were two episodes with this idea at their center, called “big block of cheese” days (for the uber curious, Google Andrew Jackson and cheese or, better, take in the second season of WW – or call Betsy in our office) In the second CJ and Josh sit down with a group called “Cartographers for Social Equality.” CJ asks “where’s the inequality in cartography.”

Turns out its right in front of all of us. The world as we know it, as we’re taught it, was drawn by a European named Merkatur. It’s his map we study, its his map that tells us where everything is and how big it is and what bounds it. It’s our indispensible framework for making sense of the world. Except it’s wrong. Very wrong. It reflects not size as it exists in the physical world but size as it existed in the political world of the time, and that time has extended onto the walls of schools, the pages of books and the minds of all of us ever since.

The issue of Europe being physically several times smaller than shown on that map is just one issue. Another is the disparity between how things really are in relative size in the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern. The map adjusts size to make a round world flat (there’s an irony), and in so doing, and in so overstating the importance of Europe and all things Northern it marginalizes Africa and South America. That North-South attitude carries forward to today. It’s top and bottom.

Imagine, as they do in that episode of West Wing, if you did two simple things – turn the world upside down and redraw the map to scale. It’s been done in the Peters Projection Map. And its jarring. It makes all the important things you thought you understood less so. Size matters. “You can’t do that,” CJ says. “Why?” replies Hewk.

“Because you’re freaking me out.”

South America on the horizon. Somewhere my Dad is smiling.


Anonymous said...

I need to order a Peters Projection Map...I should really no longer be surprised that I am constantly learning something new from CityDance! Please keep changing the world-

Jon said...

A few interesting points regarding cartography:

1. As most maps try to project a three dimensional surface in a two dimensional manner, there are always going to be problems. Do you make the map accurate for angles? For area? This is the biggest cartographic problem when it comes to "correctness", since you are trading one aspect for another almost immediately.

Some details can be found here:

2. The choice of the maps orientation has always been a cultural artifact. The European Christian medieval cartographers centred the world on Jerusalem (the so-called "T and O maps"). Ancient Egyptians had the Mediterranean towards the north. Asian countries centred their maps on their own countries. There is ALWAYS a bias in maps, unconscious or not.

Refs: and

3. Finally, what are you trying to show in the map? Are you trying to be accurate to the land (topographical)? Show some particular measurement (thematic)? Or display a more generic aspect (topological)? Each one of these will distort the map in various different ways.

Sorry for the off-topic post, but as you can no doubt tell, this is a particular area of interest for me. :)