Let’s Give ’em Something to Talk About

africa_in_perspective_map.gifThere’s a site called Strange Maps, which fascinates me. The owner is a person after my own heart, but more diligent; he(?) understands that mapping is an exercise not only in making sense out of the world, but in dominating the world. A map, like a book, is not a fact; it is an interpretation of a fact, a representation of what the minds understands to be reality. But that “reality” is shaped in the mind by all sorts of things, from the relatively harmless influence of the environment to more sinister influences, like the need to amass or maintain power over people’s minds and actions.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Take the following images, for example.


The first is the “normal” map of the world — the Mercator Projection, designed for sailors from Europe. If you believe what you see, you are left with the impression that Europe and Asia and North America are far bigger than they actually are — that the USA is as large as South America, and that Europe isn’t much smaller than Africa. But what you don’t think about is the fact that this map is in fact a distortion of reality. The world is a globe, not a flat piece of paper, and the lines of longitude are not parallel, which means that the distance between them at the equator is greater than the distance between them closer to the poles. These distances are not fixed, which means that Canada isn’t as long as it appears on a map.


The second is an adjusted map of the world, which attempts to present a more accurate view of the situation. In this map, the distortions err in a different way. Instead of imitating the actual shape of the continents, it attempts to draw them according to the actual sizes of the land masses See how the equatorial continents suddenly appear far larger than the northern ones? They are accurate in terms of size, not shape.


Then there are the maps that approach the world from different centres. In the one we’re most familiar with, the Atlantic Ocean is in the middle, which means that when readers of Roman letters look at it, the first thing they see are the Americas and the second thing they see are Europe. This is a EuroAmerican centric view of the world. In the this one, Japan is in the centre of the world. Quite a difference, huh?


And then there’s the map that places the South Pole at the top of the map rather than the North Pole. It appears upside down to us — but why should we imagine that North is up and South is down? If we’re from the southern Bahamian islands, it’s the other way round — and who’s to say we’re wrong?

But I say all that to say this. This is the map I wanted to share.


It’s from Strange Maps, and shows how big the continent of Africa really is in terms of the square footage of different dominant countries. In the case of the USA, the non-continental US states have been added to the total size of the country, so that the sizes of Alaska and Hawai’i have been calculated in. But what’s really illuminating about the whole image is the discussion that it spawned on the blog. If you read it, you will understand just how much influence what people want to believe — what they do believe according to their deepest prejudices — leads them to justify nonsense.

Something to think about, isn’t it? Something to talk about, too, I hope.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Give ’em Something to Talk About

  1. Area is just one way at looking at the world, and Africa is very large in that sense. But one can look at other parameters, such as absolute population, or population density, or income, or some other economic variable, even something like number of flight arrivals and departures and the world will seem different. I guess it depends what you want to say. Seeing the world in terms of where it is in a space is very limited. The spatial aspect we can’t really change, but the other parameters can shift a lot and those are the things that will ultimately affect people’s lives. So, let’s think of ways to move Africa from where it is in terms of some other life variables so that it is “closer” in size to some of the other areas in the world.


  2. As you know, economics is dear to my heart and while there are numerous cuntries and people on the continent of Africa, it is most unsettling to me that their leaders do not pursue otehr policies to help their people from the morass of corruption that seesm to plague most African nations.
    I am presently at a conference with people from over 50 nations and many of them are African. The stories make your heart bleed.
    So many of the people I met are tired of blaming the West and their exploitation of more than years ago now. They want economic freedom and the ability to pursue their own interests rather than that of many of the self imposed authoritarian leaders.
    Hopefully we will one day see their wishes come true. Will it be in our lifetimes? I certainly hope so.


  3. Interesting piece. A good book on the political functions of cartography is Siam Mapped by Thonchai Winichakul. It focuses specifically on the creation of what he calls Thailand’s “geo-body” but the points he makes certainly have wider applications.


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