What it Means to Map a World

I help out with a nifty little group in the Bay Area called “Mapping for Social Justice,” a part of BayGeo. We realize that maps aren’t objective and that they carry a ton of historical and cultural baggage so we talk to cartographers about the power that they have. We also try to talk to folks in the nonprofit arena to let them know that they can use us to help them do cool stuff. We’re promoting our industry, making our industry be less gross and assisting hardworking people who do overtime for the community we live in. M4SJ are solid people.

We had an event in September with the aim to introduce social justice concepts to a group of traditional mapping professionals and explore what these things even have in common. Here’s your obligatory West Wing clip. We asked our participants to “make a map of the world” from memory. Give it a try yourself, you won’t find any pictures to cheat from on this page. Given 30 seconds, what does your map look like? Most of our participant sketchers ended up with something like this:

This one is mine. I started with North America, where I grew up. I ran out of space for South America. I’ve been to the UK twice so I got very flustered when I couldn’t get it right and in doing so I completely forgot Ireland which somehow made me more angry than not having room for Asia or the rest of Africa or Australia. I only drew the homes of 1/3 of the humans on Earth. I skipped 3 countries with populations over a quarter billion. To be fair, I had a small piece of paper and very little time, so I drew the outlines that I knew best and that are most important to me and my life. Everyone does this. Look, my map from memory would be incredible with more time and a sheet of paper bigger than a check but I’d like to reiterate that: I am a cartographer. This is my job. I didn’t have time for Asia.

These are pretty typical results for Western participants, even professionals. Perhaps ESPECIALLY professionals. We showed off our maps and we noticed that they were all pretty atrocious and most of them were atrocious in the same ways.

  • They were flat, rectangular maps with North on top.
  • The Atlantic Ocean was in the middle and the Pacific was broken on either side.
  • Places they visited on vacation were done in excruciating detail.
  • Places like Africa, South East Asia and South America weren’t.
  • The projection was Mercator(ish).
  • Greenland.
  • Fucking Greenland.
Like 4 people live there. Were these maps drawn by a seal?

What (and who) we think of as important leaks into our thinking and onto our maps all the time. Sometimes it’s subtle and noticed only in obscure geographic journals among tweed-clad academics. Sometimes it’s powerful enough to cause international incidents or perpetuate inequality. The objective of the activity is to help us redefine what a “map” has to look like because it can seriously hurt people.

But one of the participants (herself an organizer of M4SJ) drew something very different. It looked like this:

And suddenly Oakland bicycle lane symbols make more sense

I rolled my eyes. Here’s a rabble-rouser who wants to show off how radical and different she is and make some kind of condescending statement about colonialism and how real maps are dumb. I’m not proud to say that it took me almost a full day to realize that this woman’s map was quite possibly the perfect response to this activity. I wish that instead of having a good, mutually appreciated laugh and redirecting back to the activity that we could have stopped right then and there and spent the remaining hour talking about how cool it is.

It is a Medicine Wheel- an English phrase used to describe a common symbol among many diverse nations of indigenous peoples throughout North America. It originated in the Great Plains thousands of years ago and it has since been adopted and co-opted to accommodate many interpretations and meanings. At its core it is a sacred visual metaphor for the organization of the Cosmos. It is the four cardinal directions, the four seasons, the four elements and the circle of life as well as a variety of other important concepts too numerous to elaborate on here. Put another way, it is a map that shows the place and time of humans in the Universe and what one people values. This map (and it is a map) flatters its own cultures, biases and values and represents them in a way best interpreted by other members of that group. In this way, it’s no different from any other maps that try to explore relationships between people and places with coded symbols and implicit understanding.

Maps don’t need to show distances accurately.

This is a map.

Maps don’t have to show direction accurately.

Ceci est une carte

Maps don’t have to show shapes accurately.

This is a map.

They don’t even have to show the Earth that much.

This is a map for a very, very broad audience.

They only have to speak to their audience. Maps aren’t just about space; they’re about ideas, values and cultures- not just what’s on the ground. What may seem stupid, misleading or pointless to outsiders, may in fact be an excellent map. If you don’t get it, it may simply not be for you. The Medicine Wheel has a tremendous amount of currency among its audience. To those who know how to read it, it is central to the understanding of many indigenous peoples’ understanding of the relationship between humans and the Universe.

What would a map of the world look like if drawn by a lobster? It would emphasize coastlines and water temperature. It might show smells, currents and the habitats of animals that it might flee from or feed on. It might assume that the lobster is the center of the world, that all of Creation favored the growth and prosperity of crustaceandom. It would show land as a featureless brown but would cover its own native range with countless landmarks, symbols and annotations. This map would be a very alien document to us but it would be based on the same reality and it would be, fundamentally, just as ‘true’ as any of the human maps above. We occupy the same planet but we inhabit very different worlds.

Trimble, Mapbox and ESRI probably can’t help you make them, but these are all legitimate maps. While I am more likely to be making charts of counties, roads, and building footprints than illustrated instructions for getting into heaven, for my part I’ll be thinking more about what world I’m mapping and remembering that mine is not the only one.