In my literature class, we’ve been talking about cultural norms: preconceptions about drug users and addiction, the purpose of prisons, Western versus non-Western perspectives. Today I’m introducing my students to the Gall Peters map.
Seemingly innocuous, right? No big deal; it’s just another map.
What you probably noticed immediately is that this world is literally upside down. We expect the U.S. and Europe–the Northern hemisphere no less–to occupy the top half of our maps. It’s the way it’s always been; it’s how the world should be.
And another thing, what’s up with the sizing of certain continents, like, um…Africa? How come it’s so, um…large? Like 14 times as large as Greenland?
This map accurately reflects the geography of our world. Gall and Peters were two cartographers concerned with social justice. Though they were from different eras (James Gall came up with the idea in 1855, while Arno Peters translated it to print in 1972), both tried in their own ways to rectify an injustice in mapmaking. Historically, mapmakers have drawn maps to aid seafarers, thus projecting a 3-D model of the Earth–a circular globe–onto a one-dimensional surface of a map. This causes incredible distortion. In only one example, Greenland becomes 14 times the size of Africa. This is scientifically incorrect.
But more importantly, what are the political implications of changing maps? Does literally envisioning our world to posit Western nations on top and third world nations at the bottom translate into our world view?
Can mapmakers make a difference just by adopting a different, more accurate model of the world?
One of my favorite television shows explains it all more succinctly and humorously than me. I love the nerdiness of the cartographers in this video, and also the way that they blow C.J.’s mind.