The map of the world is flat


Maria Popova shares some pages from an enchanting Sixties-era British schoolbook about maps and globes (the above image is an excerpt). She muses:

But besides the educational value and the sheer vintage gorgeousness of the artwork, these illustrations also remind us of what we’ve lost along with everything we’ve gained in the past half-century of technological progress — the pride in telling direction just by your shadow in the sun, the awe of gazing at the night sky and knowing that you share the North Star with millennia of fellow explorers, or even the simple joy of spinning a globe with your index finger. (Whatever happened to globes, anyway?)

How true is this, I wonder? It strikes me that I haven’t seen a globe in a while. Have they gone away, another dead medium? (I used to own a globe. What happened to it? I don’t even remember discarding it. I hope that I, like some weary Atlas, heaved it manfully into a landfill.)

Do they still have globes in elementary school classrooms, or have they been replaced by Google Earth?

We rely on (flat) maps a lot more now, but, condensed onto diminutive screens, they reveal to us ever less of the world, and they often situate us at the center of things — a pleasant, pre-Copernican illusion. Maps have become more directional, less geographic — certainly less evocative. I don’t know, but I wonder if that changes the way people imagine the world and their place in it.

8 thoughts on “The map of the world is flat

  1. Gordon Divitt

    Maps are as much political as informational. Prior to Mercator maps were used to postulate some view of the world which reflected the needs of the power which commissioned it e.g. Christian maps put Jerusalem at the centre etc.

    Mercator’s goal was to make something useful for navigators and because the prime meridian was set as running through Greenwich we got the maps we are all familiar with.

    Old maps are treasures because of the artwork but also as a reflection of realpolitik as it existed in a point in time for a particular group.

    I suspect Globes went out of fashion as they have to be huge to show any detail and make examination of the Southern Hemisphere problematic

  2. Deborah

    I remember back in the day, when daytime TV was totally unappealing, and we had nothing to do on a rainy day, I would sit with the oversized atlas and ponder far away lands in pastel colors, covered with odd sounding names in tiny italic print.

    Though I must say, it IS pretty cool to go on Google and take a good look at say… Patagonia in brilliant color and exquisite detail.

    My, my. The world, and the way we perceive it really HAS changed a lot since 1965….

  3. Dinesh Vadhia

    As parents of a 13 and 11 year old, we bought a replacement world atlas (a physical reference book) for Christmas. They love this one as they did the previous one.

    A few weeks ago, the 11 year old said that he can’t understand why anyone would want to read e-books when there is so much joy in holding and turning pages of a (physical) book.

    We are not luddites as we own multiple laptops and other computer-based devices.

  4. RRH

    While packing up my 12 year old son’s old school last week (he attends a public environmental school and thanks to private donations, a new school was built) I saw a globe and HOPE they keep it despite the new smartboards etc. Also, last summer he and I took a 2 week vacation from Michigan to Florida (we made many stops along the way). Before leaving I printed off Mapquest maps for him to use while playing the role of my navigator. Due to a series of events, we had to come back early and NOT make the planned stops along the way (making the Mapquest maps useless) so I reached into the glove compartment and pulled out the “pocket” atlas and handed it to him and told him he would have to navigate us home using that. He did WONDERFUL and learned some new skills to boot. This is what I worry about, we are SO reliant on technology that when it doesn’t work, we become the most helpless people and don’t know how to cope otherwise…God help us…

  5. Trevor Miles

    There is no doubt that alectronic maps are very useful in small scale, but even then I know I have lost some of my ‘sense of direction’, but that is largely due to the pervasiveness of GPSs in cars now. I no longer have to look at a map and work out both direction and route. As a consequence I find I am a lot less aware of how all the roads feed into eachother, and the over all structure of the city.

    On a ‘world’ scale there is nothing like a globe to give true perspective, especially of size and area. The typical Mercator projection creates huge area/size distortions for regions far from the equator. We bought our kids a Peter’s projection atlas that tries to keep area/size correct by elongating regions around the equator.

    So I can attest that I lost something in moving from 3D to 2D and then to electronic maps.

  6. Cory Frye

    Aw, come on, Nick. Globes aren’t that heavy. I’d rather imagine that you rolled it toward a landfill with the quiet dignity of an Earl Anthony.

  7. Nick Post author

    Earl Anthony. Gosh.

    There was a brief period in my sports-besotted childhood when watching professional bowling on TV was a highlight of my weekends. And, yes, Earl Anthony was godlike.

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