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little white (map) lies.

February 17, 2011

maps.  probably the most used application on my phone.  maps are really pretty great.  but here’s the thing about maps.  they can lie.  and when they lie it can be a deception of the utmost frustration.  telling you to turn the wrong way down a one way street, telling you to turn down a street that doesn’t exist where it says it does, telling you a country exists when it actually doesn’t anymore.  these are not the fault of anyone in particular…times change, and maps are limited by our knowledge and by how quickly we can disperse that knowledge.  but boy, can maps be manipulated intentionally by the map maker.  there’s a really great book called how to lie with maps that discusses all this shakespearean drama in further detail.  sometimes the little white map lies are fairly harmless and have no particular agenda in mind, but in other cases (advertising and political propaganda) there is a very distinct goal, a very intentional manipulation.

in the last couple of weeks i’ve come across some funny and fairly harmless misguided mapping encounters.  here’s a phone shot for directions in minneapolis that i got from a friend.  the text he included asked, “hey google maps, wanna race?”

this one i found via comedian lauren ashley bishop, with the included words “i think somebody at google maps is day drinking today.”

obviously a joke, like the directions google maps gives to get from the u.s. to china or japan, which advise you to swim or kayak across the ocean.  point is…maps are not infallible.  they have specific purposes, information is always left out or distorted.  again, sometimes this omission or inclusion of various pieces of information is completely innocuous while other times it sets out to sell a particular agenda…while the map might not be particularly wrong, it certainly is biased and shouldn’t be taken as any sort of proof of anything…maps can be manipulated to show and “prove” pretty much anything we want them to, just like the data used to make them.

you guys remember when all those birds were dying?  our birdpocalypse?  this quick little analysis is from edith zimmerman over at the hairpin, a website which i encourage you to checkout if you’re into interesting information.  it’s often goofy and random and carries that dry, sarcastic humor so familiar to those of us in the pacific northwest.  there’s witches, bats and ghosts involved so you know it’s legit.

and then we have this little gem via the folks over at the land art generator initiative.  (the guys over there are geeking out pretty hard on come pretty crazy stuff, i encourage you to go take a look at their blog.)

holy solar

here’s a larger version.  so, assuming all the information is correct regarding energy usage and solar cell efficiency and that things were much simpler than real life…this map would still be somewhat misleading.  most of us can’t really fathom how large an entire country or continent is.  so while the squares take up a seemingly insignificant portion of total land space…it’s misleading in that this is still a whole lot of land area…496,805 SQUARE km.  that is not only a large chunk of land but to produce that many solar cells?!  not that it isn’t an important point…it’s true that our move to green energy isn’t as overwhelming and unobtainable as many seem to think.  certainly if we sat down and really, truly made it a goal it would be feasible to do in the next decade.  but we have shown ourselves to be unwilling.  anyway, the point i’m making is that although in a very general sense the map is useful it could also be misleading.  i wish i had some way to convey to you how large those swaths of land are (like bill bryson in his really great book a brief history of nearly everything).  but that chunk in the sahara is huge.  huge.  you could probably come close to fitting half of japan in there.  which is a convenient segue way into my next image.  which doesn’t really lie.  it’s just neat and has to do with other countries making up africa.  it’s from another really great website that usually has quite a bit of cool stuff going on and which i also encourage you to check out and that i also will probably be stealing more stuff from in the future.  so here you go.  this is how big africa is.

again, click here for a larger version.

alright, well, that’s really all i have for now.  just remember to be careful with maps…they can lie, and some people are very, very good at making them lie.  cheers.

One Comment leave one →
  1. samnowak permalink
    February 17, 2011 3:54 pm

    I would argue that all maps lie, not just that they can lie. Every last, stinking one of them holds some sort of untruth. Whether that lie is intentional or not is a different story. All maps are distorted in one way or another, whether we like it or not, because of the basic mathematical principle that you can’t take a three dimensional object and perfectly represent it on a two dimensional one. So maps lie with size, with distance, or shape, or area, or the data that it is trying to present–any number of things really.

    Cool post, Chey. That thing on decoding the bird deaths map is hilarious. I personally really like the witch with the knife that dominates the Americas.

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