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An illustration showing pieces of world maps.

Photo illustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

The world probably doesn’t look like you think it does — and that matters, a lot

Maps are not neutral. They affect the way we see the world around us

SHARE The world probably doesn’t look like you think it does — and that matters, a lot
SHARE The world probably doesn’t look like you think it does — and that matters, a lot

The map you know is probably wrong. 

Actually, every map you know is probably wrong in some way — especially since 75% of the world’s territories face ongoing international disputes over their borders, according to The World Factbook.

You may never hear about some of these disputes — like how Canada and the U.S. have never settled maritime borders in the Northwest Passage. But you’ll likely never be able to avoid hearing about other disputes — like the conflict between Israel and Palestine that escalated into a war last month.

In disputes, maps are not neutral. That’s exactly why India is suing Twitter for treason. Twitter showed a map of India with the contested region of Kashmir as a separate country and India is not happy, according to The Guardian.

Lines on a map often take political stances and carry social implications both for those living at the locale and for those looking at the map.

While maps are undeniably useful for showing the world around us, they are undeniably biased since cartography is as “subjective as any other artistic endeavor,” writes art historian Nicole De Armandi. Maps can size landmasses inaccurately, orient hemispheres arbitrarily or show boundaries statically. This impacts our understanding of the significance, authority, and stability of the places around us.

“Despite their seemingly mundane nature, maps are contentious, often disputed documents that affect daily life in tangible ways,” writes anthropology professor Sarah Kurnick in her recent paper on Mayan maps published in the journal Maya Anthropological Archaeology.

With such significant implications, we must consider: What are our maps showing us about the world around us? Do we agree with what they show?

The common map you see

In the U.S., the most common and popular map decorating classroom walls is the Mercator Projection Map, per National Geographic. Developed by Gerardus Mercator in 1569, the map revolutionized cartography with a simple idea: wrap a piece of paper around a globe, imagine the landmasses projected onto the paper and then draw them, Vox explains.

Mercator’s map showed longitude and latitude lines at 90-degree angles — the first to do so — and helped sailors improve navigation. The same method Mercator used continues today and underpins even Google Maps, CNN reported.

And the map looks quite familiar:

However, just because the Mercator map is popular does not mean it's fully accurate.

“People tend to take maps at face value,” Matthew Edney, a professor and researcher of cartographic history at the University of Southern Maine and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained to the Deseret News.

Mercator’s map distorts the actual size of landmasses, overinflating those near the North and South poles, reports National Geographic. On Mercator’s map, Greenland and South America appear nearly the same size, but South America is actually eight times larger. Similarly, North America appears much larger than Africa when the opposite is true. Africa is bigger than the U.S., Canada, and China put together.

Misrepresentations like these have broader, concerning implications. The way places are presented on a map affects our perception of those places themselves, reports the Borgen Project. This phenomenon is known as “map bias.”

What is ‘map bias’ and why does it matter?

Maps are inherently prone to mistakes because they take three-dimensional space and present it two-dimensionally. Mapping requires cartographers to decide how to present the world, leading to biased maps. For example, if a cartographer finds a country more important, they could place it at the center or draw it larger.

In his research with the History of Cartography Project, Edney, a cartographic history professor, said he learned “to ask why maps (were) made, and what cultural, social and instrumental value they have.”

Sometimes biases in maps are easy to recognize — like this U.S. map:

This Alaskan perspective of the U.S. is minimally helpful for navigating the continental U.S. However, the map is incredibly helpful for understanding two common biases in maps: size and centrality.

We intuitively relate size and significance. We psychologically prefer larger stimuli and, to larger stimuli, we attribute greater significance. Alaska looks much more significant than the rest of the U.S. when drawn larger. These distortions of size — if unchecked — can affect our perception of places, says CNN.

Similarly, we intuitively relate centrality and importance, says Global Citizen. In the previous map, Alaska is literally the center of the universe. Distortions of centrality occur more than we think. Some American maps even split Asia in half to place the U.S. at the center, prompting confused discussion on Quora.

By distorting size and centrality, maps have the “potential to affirm positions of power, trace certain global networks, and establish hierarchical relationships among nations and continents,” writes art historian Nicole De Armendi in her essay “Maps as Political Agents.”

“The way you map the world is based on perspectives,” Edney said. “But there are other ways of thinking about and showing what the world is.”

Maps redrawn

Recent maps have tried to correct for the misrepresentations in the Mercator map. One project, the Gall-Peters Projection Map or Peters Projection Map, comes from German historian Arno Peters who, in 1974, republished the work of James Gall, a 19th-century Scottish cartographer. This map tries to show landmasses in actual relative size, says CNN:

This map uses a method that equally represents the area of landmasses. However, while correcting for biased sizes, the shape of continents becomes distorted.

The Mercator map and Peters map give two useful visualizations of the world. But really, maps don’t have to look that way.

“It boils down to the fact that there are different kinds of maps and they show the world differently,” Edney said.

What if, arbitrarily, the map centered around New Zealand? That world map might look something like this:

If we used this New Zealand-centric map, would we still see the East and West hemispheres the same? After all, in this map, East is West and West is East.

Or what would the world look like if fish drew the map? To a fish — for whom water is central — the world might look something like this:

Most likely, neither of these will replace the Mercator map anytime soon. Still, all of these maps have one thing in common: they show the world without borders.

Do we visualize the world as borderless? Probably not.

By focusing on accurately presenting the physical world, these maps all misrepresent the social and political world. Maps provide more than a visualization of landmasses; they also present a segmentation of countries.

Maps draw borders

Maps are not neutral; they are territorial, reports NPR. Maps draw borders to divide soil into sovereignties. During the 1884 Berlin Conference, an infamous example of border-drawing, European colonialists divided Africa into countries without the input of any Africans.

Sometimes, the borders drawn on a map mean little to nothing for the people on the ground. In uninhabited or sparsely populated areas, borders hold less day-to-day influence. Like the Belgian farmer who moved the border between Belgium and France when he got annoyed with the stone marker, as reported by The New York Times.

Other times, the borders drawn on a map can mean everything to the people on the ground — especially when that border is a contested line. Like the long-distance couple separated by 12 miles and the China-Hong Kong border, reported by CNN.

Contested borders are more plentiful than we tend to think and than our maps tend to show. Out of the 254 territories around the world, 190 currently have some form of territorial dispute, says the CIA World Factbook.

Maps show “how we use space and arrange space; how we accommodate other people in space — or not accommodate other people,” Edney says.

And not accommodating other people can become messy and violent, even deadly. The most recent war between Israel and Palestine stems from an underlying decadeslong conflict over borders. While the conflict has gathered additional complicated facets, Israel and Palestine still bitterly dispute the city of Jerusalem and which side of the border it belongs on. 

The international community’s preferred solution for Israel and Palestine involves the creation of two separate states, reports the Deseret News. However, creating these states requires agreeing on the borders. So far, this has not happened. 

Similarly, Ukraine made headlines during recent international summits as a point of contention between Russia, the U.S. and other Western countries, reports the Deseret News. The reason? Disputes over the Crimean Peninsula where Russia and Ukraine claim land and refuse to agree on a border.

So, how should we draw a map of this region?

“Here’s the fundamental thing: maps are made by people. Maps are not something that just occurs,” Edney said. “People make choices about what to put on maps.” Choosing to draw or not draw a border has implications that go unnoticed when maps are seen as something that, as Edney said, “just occurs.”

While maps are useful for showing the world around us, they are undeniably biased. Recognizing these biases is the first step to understanding how maps affect our perception of the world.

The next step is asking questions. “When you’re looking at a map, you need to ask questions about how something is represented,” Edney explained. “What are you mapping? Why are you mapping this?”

“Maps are made for a purpose,” Edney said. “And you must understand the purpose of a map because those purposes shape the way maps are made — and they should shape the way you read it.”