I myself have been the victim of inaccurate mapping. When moved to London I relied as most Londoners do, on the famous Tube Map to position myself around the city. For months I was changing tube lines at Leicester Square, and alighting at the Tottenham Court Road Tube station as that was the one closest to my work, when i discovered that the Tube map was NOT infact geographically accurate- but instead distorted so to fit more neatly and be read more easily. I should have got off at Leicester Square and just walked two blocks for 2 minutes and saved myself 15 minutes of catching another train for two stops. In light of the on-going Tube strikes, advertising creatives have since created a map that shows the walking distance between each station. But it turns out its not just the London Tube Map that has been lying to me.
Before reading the rest of this blog post I encourage you to view this short clip from the seminal series The West Wing, featuring a social justice group called Cartographers for Social Justice: Their goal is to eliminate the use of this map and adopt the Gall Peters map- a much more accurate reflection of the geographical size of land masses in relation to each other, as opposed to the size of the political strength or importance of that nation.
The thing is, although the Cartographers for Social Justice are fictional- the facts they state in the clip are not. The distortion of the longitude/latitude lines in the Mercator Map over emphases Europe’s position in the world, and the Gall-Peters projection rectifies this. (Africa is positioned as 14 times smaller than Greenland in the Mercator!)
Maps are symbolic depictions highlighting relationships between elements of some space. Generally they are geometrically accurate and drawn to scale (or so I assumed).So what does this have to do with Social Justice? Surely a map of the world is simply a geometric mathematical representation of the globe in a 2D form? How can a map be political? Well, of course maps are political- Everything is Political.
Professor at Chalmers University of Technology Erik Strom observes that maps are cultural artefacts that are ‘deeply implicated in the history of ideas and inform our political subjectives’ (2011, p.3). As such, the image that the map represents ‘is as much a commentary on the social structure of a particular nation or place, as it is on its topography.’ So it’s a map, or be mapped world we live in.
So if maps are our primary source of information about not only the shape and size of nations, but also the social structure, and they are distorted– so to will be the perception of what the maps symbolise (Battersby 2009, p.34). Battersby has noted that whilst the use of highly distorted maps such as the Mercator Map, which as mentioned earlier distorts the world to a Eurocentric Colonialist view of the globe, have been in decline in printed form, digitally however- the Mercator projection has ‘seen tremendous support in online mapping programs like Google (2009, p.43).
The use of a colonial representation of the globe in a post-colonial world is clearly problematic. This is all the more troubling by ‘Google’s lack of transparency, particularly concerning their commercial interest’ (2011, p.5). So the issue is- if the Mercator map is presenting an inaccurate representation that overvalues white nations and advantages the colonial empires, why is it still being utilised?
Although the resurgence of the Mercator maps tend to reinforce the coercion of the colonial history, maps can be used as a tool for social movements with critical cartography utilising social theory and applying it to social justice (Krupar 2015, p.93). By rectifying the latitude lines at the 45th parallel, the Gall Peters map stretches and reposits land mass relative to their actual land mass- making Europe significantly smaller and centralises Afrika (Barney 2014, p.104). Krupar argues that this shows us that ‘maps are instruments for formulating policy, envisioning the world differently and advocating for social change’ (2015, p.99). After all- a true representation, is better for us all.
So mapping can be utilised for good not evil- we just need to know how and why they were made, and by whom. A critical view of maps are necessary if we are to use them the way in which we intend, as opposed to the way the mapper intends.
Barney, T 2014, ‘The Peters Projection and the Latitude and Longitude of Recolonization’, Journal of International & Intercultural Communication, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 103-126.
Battersby, SE 2009, ‘The Effect of Global-Scale Map-Projection Knowledge on Perceived Land Area’, Cartographica, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 33-44.
Krupar, S 2015, ‘Map Power and Map Methodologies for Social Justice’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 91-101.
Strom, TE 2011, ‘Space, Cyberspace and Interface: The Trouble with Google Maps’, M/C Journal, vol. 14, no. 3, p. 3.