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Deception of the Maps

Deception of the Maps


Deception of the Maps

Posted on  by Kirti Patwari

Today, maps might mean zig-zags of blue and yellow that we look at beneath our phone screens. But for a long long time, paper maps, where fragments of land couldn’t be moved or zoomed according to our wish, were used to navigate ways. And I’m sure we all have imagined how the world looks through an atlas during school. In spite of serving as Bibles for Geography nuts, and the most reliable guides for travelers, these vital pieces of info that people blindly believed were actually, brimming with lies. Yes, you heard that right. And if you think it is a thing of the past, think again because the digital maps that we use in our everyday lives are devised out of the popular Gerardus Mercator’s map, one which has been the butt of criticism from many experts.

It is true that the map has been widely accepted and innumerable travelers have trailed around with it, but this congregation of routes and rivers is all smoke and mirrors. And it has seeped into the modern digital maps too. Let’s dig deeper to find out some intriguing truths that traditional maps have distorted!

Size Distortion

To be fair, it is not practically possible to depict a three- dimensional shape in all its truth on a flat sheet. Our planet, a geoid in structure, has been represented by mapmakers as a projection of the globe that approximates the basic properties of shape, size, direction, distance and scale. Many believe that the process is made more misleading by deliberate attempts of certain stakeholders to glaze certain parts of the world as more powerful. The Economist confirms that Arno Peters, a German historian was of the view that the ‘… Mercator projection was preferred because it exaggerates the size of northern European countries to make them appear more powerful when set against their conquests in the southern hemisphere.’

Basically, what Mercator’s projection does is make the northern and southern landmasses appear larger than they are. Thus, places like Russia, Alaska, and most of Europe seem to be way more vast than they are in reality. Further, would you believe that The United Kingdom is actually smaller than Japan, New Zealand, and the Philippines? And if that sounds unreal, Canada is in actuality, almost the same size as China.

Moreover, the humongous continent of Africa can envelope The United States, China, India, several European nations, and will still have room for more!

These facts make me think that our comfort with familiarity obstructs us to strive for accuracy. Let me know what you think in the comments! But for now, let’s explore a few more facts.

Map Projections That Lie – Geoff Boeing

Paper Towns

Continuing the bending of truths, here we have a baffling concept, that of paper towns. Yes, the John Green novel that just popped up in your head has a lot to do with. Just like Agloe (as mentioned in the novel), a fictional recognition bestowed upon a certain piece of land in New York, there are several others of the kind all over the world. And not only are there made-up towns and cities, but non-existent rivers and hills also. 

It might sound bizarre but there are places which have small areas on the map to their name but don’t really house any habitants. These fake towns, also known as paper towns, were born out of the minds of cartographers on purpose to protect their copyright product from being stolen or copied. Later, electronic maps which were built upon these, have shown these illusory places as real cities or roads, leaving travellers eternally puzzled. A few of these stealthily buried mischiefs are Argleton in Lancashire, England, ‘Beatosu’ and ‘Goblu’ on the Michigan State Highway which were pranks played by a Michigan University graduate, peak Mount Richard in the Rocky Mountains, and ‘Sandy Island’ in Australia.

Fun Fact : The book’s name, ‘Paper Towns’ is based on the several paper towns that Quentin discovers and encounters while searching for Margo, who is finally found in Agloe. 

Agloe, New York | Omnictionary Wiki | Fandom

Missing on the Map

Now, Cartographers are not the only ones to deceive us. Governments of several countries are in cahoots with them. To maintain a good repute, officials tend to soft-pedal the state of affairs by not identifying publicly the poverty-stricken areas of their territory. Many slums of the world, large enough to be called mini towns, are nowhere to be seen on the maps. 

Orangi Shanty town, located in Karachi, is one such place in the Indian subcontinent. A by-product of the 1971 India-Pakistan War, this extensive slum houses 2.4 million people. In spite of creating buzz with the title of the world’s largest slum by the UN, the settlement was not to be found on maps for a long time. Other places of this ilk are the Ciudad Neza in Mexico city, a poorly developed area and shelter to numerous criminal gangs, and the slum of Makoko in Lagos, which is not listed as an official place on the map of Africa. 

The Missing Maps Project, founded by the American Red CrossBritish Red CrossHumanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, and Médecins Sans Frontières together, is a mission that aims to develop basic maps of slums and other unmapped areas in the developing world to reveal infrastructure gaps and the source of diseases. Talking about a prominent slum of Asia, Ivan Gayton, the project leader says, ‘Dhaka is pretty well mapped. But Kamrangirchar, which is one of the most polluted places on the planet, is a black hole.’

We have you well aware now to not fall for any cartographic fiction. So, as the wise men say, take each piece of information with a grain of salt!