The Map is Not the Territory

"The map is not the territory." Although this idea has been picked up by everybody from post-modernists to new-agers, the guy who said it was Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-Russian aristocrat who established the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago in 1938. But what's even more interesting about Korzybski is that most people who recognize the name or the quote learned of it not in school or by reading philosophy, but in the Null-A book series by science fiction author A.E. Van Vogt.

did not bring golden age sci-fi or Korzybski's name into my Environmental History class this week. Our topic was the Columbian Exchange, the transfer of biological material between Europe and the Americas that resulted in the deaths of 90% of the natives living here. So there was quite enough drama and suspense already, which I really didn't want to distract people from. But I did talk about maps and how they alter our perception of the environment and our ideas about it.

The world map we're most accustomed to is the Mercator projection, which was developed by a Flemish merchant in 1569. Its purpose was to help travelers get from one place to another, so its point to point accuracy is really good. But there are always trade-offs when you project a sphere onto a flat surface. Mercator got distances from point A to point B right. He got sizes and areas of the continents very wrong.

For example, on the standard Mercator map, Africa and Greenland look about the same size. But you could fit 14 Greenlands in Africa. What does it do to our perception of the relative importance of Africa, when it looks so small? The image below shows the two maps in overlay.


I've been using diagrams last week and this week drawn on a Peters Projection map. The Peters map gets relative size and area right; it's not so good if you want to measure distances. But given what we normally use maps for, it's probably a less culturally biased point of view. And unlike many (but not all) Mercator maps, Peters gives equal space to the northern and southern hemispheres.

Now if they would just make one that didn't follow the convention of always putting the Atlantic in the middle and marginalizing the Pacific…