21 December 2007

A young adult's primer in epistemic anarchy, with maps

Seeing Through Maps: The Power of Images to Shape Our World View
Ward Kaiser
ODT, Inc., 2001

I still remember the first time I saw the McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World, the "upside-down" map with Australia at its center. It was 15 or so years ago, in a down-under exhibit at Brookfield Zoo. The experience of seeing "north" and "south" disconnected from their habitual, yet arbitrary, association with "up" and "down" was at once discomfitting and exhilating. I saw THROUGH the map, and grokked one assumption upon which standard Mercator projection was based.

A textbook of sorts, this was apparently written for bright junior high and high school students. The book's ambivalent title, Seeing Through Maps, is apt because the book is about both seeing through (i.e., USING) maps and seeing THROUGH the map itself to the assumptions that frame it. "Understanding that every map is a projection that gives up some aspect of global reality in order to present what it shows---and that is otherwise endlessly selective---should free you to see through the connotations to the denotative maps that support them. And so in turn be able to scrutinize the connotations. Understanding that every map has a point of view and serves a purpose should free you to take the point of view that serves your interest." (p. 79)

Yet for all this talk about maps, the book is not a study in the practice of cartography. Rather, it is an exploration of the practice of representation in general, an exploration which can evoke profound cognitive dissonance. Consequently, the book also exhorts the reader to adapt a sense of "model agnosticism" when it comes to using maps/metaphors/representations, because no single perspective or position can be total or comprehensive, by definition. The authors repeatedly expound on this main theme of the book:

"Each view excludes another. Because each view has its own value, each may be required to serve one purpose or another. But the more points of view that are taken into account, the more comprehensive is the understanding." (p. 22)

"What is wrong with _moving_ from one view to another? First you catch this view. Then you get that. You stand in between for a while. Then you move to an entirely new position. In fact, this is our recommendation. We believe that the best understanding comes from being able to view the world from as many perspectives as possible. We want you to give up the idea that one map, or even one projection, can meet our needs for understanding." (p. 26)

"'[U]pside-down' maps shock viewers into questioning their assumptions about maps in particular and about life in general....Sometimes all we need to do to solve our problems is turn them upside down." (p. 56)

"But we do not have to have just one picture. We can have, we _do_ have, many. There is no reason for maps all to be on the same projection. The ceaseless repetition of a single projection tries to convince people that 'this' is what the earth looks like. But the earth does not look the way any individual projection makes it look." (p. 67)

"The more attached you are to YOUR way being right, the harder a time you'll have with new perspectives." (p. 69)

"Once people get an image of the earth in their heads, it is hard to persuade them of the advantages offered by another point of view. Another name for this reluctance is prejudice. To work against it, keep as many perspectives in play as possible!" (p.76)

"If we make an effort to look at everything, and try to take our eyes to new places, the world we experience will be much richer, more interesting, more useful, more complete, more generous, more _real_." (p. 109)

If you want your adolescent kids to be given a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance, to open their eyes to a deeper structure at work in our usage of symbols and to innoculate them against media illiteracy, this book seems to be a pretty good place to start. Here's my test. Look at these three questions from the book, page 99:

"What assumptions are built into the concept or image I'm presented with?; What other points of view might provide an entirely different 'take' on things?; How might this appear to someone raised in an entirely different culture or country?"

Do you want your kids asking these kinds of questions? If so, this book would be a good resource. (It is also a great introduction to funky, non-traditional maps like the Peters projection, the Fuller Dymaxion map, and the aforementioned McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World.)

(This review was originally written on December 12, 2006.)

No comments: