The world is not a map

I use this image created by Google Deep Mind not as an illustration of my article but to show how world can be seen different, also by a machine biased by a human input. Just to drive your imagination…

I did my Master thesis about maps. I work in a place called Geospatial Technology Research Group. And I think that maps are just old-style geographical representations, or images of what we believe that the world is in a modernist paradigm.

Nothing more.

Of course, you can see similar forms in an earth photograph took from space. Is not that it doesn’t exist. Is what it means for society.

Of course, maps are really useful, meaningful, simple. The world map is just a symbol that has been forged by decades in a modern society as an icon of humanity. Is the achievement of egocentric minds.

Nowadays, with the climate change over our heads, we should rethink everything. From energy production to material consumption. And we should include our assumptions there. The maps is just one more, a bigger one, an assumption of our human reality, our home.

The world is not a map. I’m saying that we should teach our kids that the map, is just one of a kind of the possibilities to represent a lot of things. Humanity, territory, power, economies, resources, race, etc.

Maps are also the most confusing, ambiguous, discriminatory image that humanity has created. And it is so strong that it is hard to reject it, a natural belonging.

I propose to do an exercise. Every time that you would use a map, look for another form to represent the same. Or easier, first delete the map, then try to represent the same without one. It could be the best ethical approach on human geographical representation. Maps are full biased because its polysemic construction.

For example, the World Wide Web (or internet) is not horizontally global, don’t use a map for representing it. The financial transactions are not equal in all the regions, it’s better to use other representation forms. Maps never shows the cultural diversity in a territory.

Stop using maps for everything, you’re ruining it. We need new ways to comunicate complexity. I love data visualization and there is millions of way to show data over a territory. But if you realize, territories are not so important — more than ever, in the Anthropocene Era. What is usually important is diversity, cultures, people, movements, trajectories, transactions, stories, infrastructure, codes, beliefs, etc.

Maps are messages itself, they transmit a lot of things before showing anything. If you put any information on it, the result is opaque, the meaning is obscured by the map.

Reproduction is not explanation, as correlation does not imply causation.

If you use a map to generate some correlation of events in a territory, you’re probably missing a lot of things on how things happens there. And you’re not explaining much about it. The reproduction of a common image, like a world map, is just worthless to our comprehension. We assume that the others will understand why did you use that map. But probably they will get wrong assumptions before the interpretation occurs.

If you want to use maps, you can do it. The best maps are used for war — physical or cultural. Are created to define limits of a territory disput. The other uses of maps are probably wrong.

If you use it, you are reproducing the power of it. This is how culture works, reproducing abuse and oversimplifying things.

If you want to explain things, complexity matters. And to make it work, you have to embrace it and avoid simple images. Cliffford Geertz refers to Thick Description as the work that an ethnographer does in describing culture. It’s not a matter of codes, its not a matter of behavior, it’s not located in language or symbolic elements. Social actions are bigger than us, and can’t be explained simple. Or as Bruno Latour stressed out, it’s not a matter of fact, it’s a matter of concern.