The maps they have sold to us as faithful projections of our world lack precision, and tend to privilege some countries over others, drawing them larger than they are. We inhabit a territory that has nothing to do with its iconographic representation.

If nowadays one wonders what the size of the Sahara is, the only way to get a glimpse of it is in contrast with the size of another territory on the map. Because of its visual dimensions, we could compare it to the United States, which is just a little bit larger than the African desert. This manner of conjecturing space, for someone who cannot conceive the dimension of something so large in km², is effective to a certain degree. It at least gives us the comfort of spatial visualization —that human need so charged with ontologies—, beyond knowing that the Sahara is essentially infinite.

But, if we see a map today, North America is larger than Africa, Alaska is larger than Mexico, and China is smaller than Greenland; when in reality China is four times the size of Greenland, Africa is three times larger than North America, and Mexico is larger than Alaska. Hence, knowing the dimension of a place by comparing it to another is a fictional judgment. Everything is distorted.

Since the 2nd century, the Roman Empire’s cartographers knew that drawing a precise map of the Earth is practically impossible: the world is round, a map is flat. By flattening, for example, an orange peel, despite the countless ways of doing it, we will never get a clean rectangle. Nontheless, the distortion we have as official in our classrooms and textbooks are the result of the Mercator Projection, a map that was created in 1596 to aid navigators in their travels around the world.

And like every general view of the world, maps have always been influenced by the political systems of the time. The familiar Mercator Map gives the most precise shapes and masses, but at the cost of distorting their sizes in favor of the rich lands of the North. In its fantastical projection, for example, as well as the aforementioned issues with Africa, China and Mexico, it suggests that Scandinavian countries are larger than India, when India is in fact three times larger than all Scandinavian countries combined. We can read the political and ontological history of Earth by simply reviewing its maps, and realizing that everything we have been given as “official cartography” is an incredible planetary hoax, perhaps the greatest one of all.

Even today, when we have the skill to create a precise map for the first time, things have not changed much. Google Earth has transformed the way we see the world; but at an important cost. There are still very few (if any) agreements as to what should be included in a map and which regions of “lesser importance” should be ignored. Google Maps asserts that they are on an “endless quest for the perfect map”, however, historian, cartographer and author of the A History of the World in 12 MapsJerry Brottonis not so sure. He argues that:

No world map is, or can be, a definitive, transparent depiction of its subject that offers a disembodied eye onto the world. Each one is a continuous negotiation between its creators and users, while their understanding of the world changes.

Google has its own biases and purposes when it creates huge world-maps, and Brotton believes that these motivations lie in their corporate goals. Leaving regions of South Africa blank, for example, evidences the company’s geopolitical interests. Africa has a very low position in the global hierarchical order.

All the latter indicates that perhaps humankind doesn’t really want to see the planet exactly as it is. Africa’s representation, for instance, has not changed much since cartographers of the 19th century used to draw elephants and chimeras there, due to their lack of knowledge of its culture. Africa continues to be, at least cartographically, a heart of darkness.

We inhabit and traverse lands that have little to do with its representative maps; but we, cartographers and users alike, seem to have agreed on an iconographic fiction common to all, where we all fit, and which we stopped questioning years ago. Perhaps one day we will have a more precise version of our world and, when we see it, we won’t be able to feel but foreign to it. Our map is our allegory, our mirror: we are political beings and are more comfortable (it seems) there where we find special effects and alterations.

Meanwhilewe at least have the consolation of Alfred Korzybski’s maxim, which categorically reminds us that “the map is not the territory.”

The maps they have sold to us as faithful projections of our world lack precision, and tend to privilege some countries over others, drawing them larger than they are. We inhabit a territory that has nothing to do with its iconographic representation.

If nowadays one wonders what the size of the Sahara is, the only way to get a glimpse of it is in contrast with the size of another territory on the map. Because of its visual dimensions, we could compare it to the United States, which is just a little bit larger than the African desert. This manner of conjecturing space, for someone who cannot conceive the dimension of something so large in km², is effective to a certain degree. It at least gives us the comfort of spatial visualization —that human need so charged with ontologies—, beyond knowing that the Sahara is essentially infinite.

But, if we see a map today, North America is larger than Africa, Alaska is larger than Mexico, and China is smaller than Greenland; when in reality China is four times the size of Greenland, Africa is three times larger than North America, and Mexico is larger than Alaska. Hence, knowing the dimension of a place by comparing it to another is a fictional judgment. Everything is distorted.

Since the 2nd century, the Roman Empire’s cartographers knew that drawing a precise map of the Earth is practically impossible: the world is round, a map is flat. By flattening, for example, an orange peel, despite the countless ways of doing it, we will never get a clean rectangle. Nontheless, the distortion we have as official in our classrooms and textbooks are the result of the Mercator Projection, a map that was created in 1596 to aid navigators in their travels around the world.

And like every general view of the world, maps have always been influenced by the political systems of the time. The familiar Mercator Map gives the most precise shapes and masses, but at the cost of distorting their sizes in favor of the rich lands of the North. In its fantastical projection, for example, as well as the aforementioned issues with Africa, China and Mexico, it suggests that Scandinavian countries are larger than India, when India is in fact three times larger than all Scandinavian countries combined. We can read the political and ontological history of Earth by simply reviewing its maps, and realizing that everything we have been given as “official cartography” is an incredible planetary hoax, perhaps the greatest one of all.

Even today, when we have the skill to create a precise map for the first time, things have not changed much. Google Earth has transformed the way we see the world; but at an important cost. There are still very few (if any) agreements as to what should be included in a map and which regions of “lesser importance” should be ignored. Google Maps asserts that they are on an “endless quest for the perfect map”, however, historian, cartographer and author of the A History of the World in 12 MapsJerry Brottonis not so sure. He argues that:

No world map is, or can be, a definitive, transparent depiction of its subject that offers a disembodied eye onto the world. Each one is a continuous negotiation between its creators and users, while their understanding of the world changes.

Google has its own biases and purposes when it creates huge world-maps, and Brotton believes that these motivations lie in their corporate goals. Leaving regions of South Africa blank, for example, evidences the company’s geopolitical interests. Africa has a very low position in the global hierarchical order.

All the latter indicates that perhaps humankind doesn’t really want to see the planet exactly as it is. Africa’s representation, for instance, has not changed much since cartographers of the 19th century used to draw elephants and chimeras there, due to their lack of knowledge of its culture. Africa continues to be, at least cartographically, a heart of darkness.

We inhabit and traverse lands that have little to do with its representative maps; but we, cartographers and users alike, seem to have agreed on an iconographic fiction common to all, where we all fit, and which we stopped questioning years ago. Perhaps one day we will have a more precise version of our world and, when we see it, we won’t be able to feel but foreign to it. Our map is our allegory, our mirror: we are political beings and are more comfortable (it seems) there where we find special effects and alterations.

Meanwhilewe at least have the consolation of Alfred Korzybski’s maxim, which categorically reminds us that “the map is not the territory.”

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