Putting the world into perspective

I once saw a book for kids at a science museum gift shop that used interesting visuals to put certain things in perspective. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the book because it was so long ago, but I’m pretty sure it was published by Klutz.

One example from the book included a spinner that displayed your statistical chance of being born into the richest 10% of the world’s population. Much of the “western” and “developed” countries were included in this 10%. I created a quick little graph to illustrate this example below. I’m not sure if “10%” is the number they used in the book, but you get the idea.

Chances of being born into the richest 10% of the World

9 spins out of 10, the pointer would land on the red portion. And in all of our cases, this spinner was “spun” before we were even born. We can do the best we can with what we’re born into, but it is not always easy. I know that I’m lucky to have so much going for me (a great family, great friends, a relatively safe town, a good education), and I’m working on not being so materialistic and to focus on cutting back whenever possible. Also, I understand that being born into a “rich” nation does not necessarily mean you are rich in general. The United States has an especially large disparity between the rich and poor, something I feel we should all be working harder to close, somehow.

Another interesting example in the book that really stood out to me was an illustration of a world map. The map looked like any normal map, except for one thing — look at the images below and you’ll see what I mean (these particular maps come from the Nations Online Project).

Map #1:

World Map

On first glance, I was compelled to say that this maps is “wrong”, that it is “upside down” and “flipped.” But then I realized that no, it is wrong from what perspective? We’re accustomed to seeing maps oriented in a certain accepted way, but that doesn’t mean that that “accepted way” is the “correct” way. In the universe, there is no direction. There is no North or South, no East and West. There is no top and there is no bottom. We use directions because they make it easier for us to pinpoint locations, but it is still a human construct. If an alien species were to happen upon our planet and marvel at the beauty of its landmasses and water from space — so much that they wanted to draw them, do you think they would know to orient the continents from the ONE perspective that we accept as correct? Here’s another example:

Map #2:

World Map

The book suggested that the way we orient our world map may reflect notions of superiority, with the implication that some locations are on “top” of others, and that some locations come first. Whether or not you agree, it does challenge you to think of the world in a different light — and raises some interesting questions. How  different do you think the world would be if we adopted another standard for the “correct” display of maps? How much of an effect, if any, does map orientation have on the perception of a country and its place in the world?

6 Comments

  1. Interesting post, I definitely agree that the way we shape our maps has some degree of bias. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the United States is always positioned at the top left — so that we are somehow on top of the rest of the world PLUS we read from left to right — we read a map in the same way. It’s very neat indeed. I wonder though — does the North Pole always have to be referred to as the “North Pole” — or can it technically be the South Pole as well?

  2. Brendan – yes, I didn’t think about language, but it does make sense. Maps do frame the world for us in the same manner as language in the sense that it determines how we classify things.

    Emma – That’s exactly what I was thinking of when I thought about the implied superiority of our current “correct” version of the map. Also, in space, there are no directions. There is no single correct angle so to speak, so it seems like North can be any direction. The compass always points north, but you could just change the “N” to an “S” if you wanted to. It’s all human constructed.

  3. Neat post! I think I know what book you might be talking about. isn’t it the “Science in Museum in a Book”? It really does make you think. About the spinning wheel, I guess they meant rich as in having access to money and food? Because there are many ways to be rich (as we talked about on the boards before it closed) I still miss the boards! 🙁

    And about the maps, I guess whoever is responsible for drawing the map is more likely to put their own country in the center of things, or distort things in their favor. I’ve been on boards that were run by people in Asia and they put Asia on the left of the map rather than on the right, as it appears on ours.

  4. Brendan: thanks for the link, it’s very interesting, especially the world as a village concept — only 5 people from the U.S. and Canada if there were only 100 people in the world…hmm, I may have to do a post on that. 🙂

    Jena: You just might be right about the book…but I can’t be sure. But it sounds pretty close! 🙂

    By “rich” I believe they were talking about the most developed countries. Where the economy is stable, medical care is top notch (even if access to it isn’t… *roll eyes*) and such.

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