Thursday, November 10, 2011

What we see and what we build

So my son and I are reading this excellent book called Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, and so far I have found two elements that just beg to be connected to narrative sensemaking. They are both in the chapter by Denis Cosgrove on world maps.

First, Cosgrove talks about how we think of the words "world," "earth" and "globe" differently than people did in the past. To us, they all mean pretty much the same thing, but this is a new experience in human history.
"World" is a social concept. ... "Earth" refers today to the planet that sustains life; its reference is elemental rather than social.
This is a reference to an earlier statement about how people used to think "earth" meant only the element earth, as in earth, air, fire, water, aether. There was no "earth" concept as a planet, at least among most people. Cosgrove goes on:
"Globe" is a geometric term, another word for a sphere. ... The relationship between the globe and the modern world map is close. ... The modern, scientific conception of the world extends to the whole of the globe and encompasses the whole earth, which is why these three terms are now interchangeable. Any world is a totality and has spatial boundaries, but the coincidence of the world's boundaries with the planetary globe's is a modern conception, a consequence as much as a cause of maps.
I had not realized this before: that before (some) people knew half the planet's land masses existed, they still built globes, but those globes were not like ours. They were spheres built to represent their idea of what must have seemed a much smaller planet. To take one example, the globe created by Crates of Mallus, according to Wikipedia, ca. 150 BC, looked like this:

To me today, this globe looks like a sweater too small for its wearer: there is not enough fabric to cover the space.

The Hunt-Lenox globe, built around 1510, showed South America as one continent, but North America as a series of small islands, nothing more being known about it at the time. The globe belongs to the New York Public Library on whose site photographs can be seen; here is a drawing of it from the Encyclopedia Brittanica of 1874 (the image of which I found in this article).

What amazes me about these early globes is that people built a coherent representation of the world as a sphere even though they were missing part of it. They sewed together the edges of what they knew to be so as to make it into the shape they knew it had to take. This is a perfect analogue to sensemaking: we take what we know and form it into something that represents what must be. We give it coherence and form through our efforts to make sense of it. Imagine what it must have been like to build and use such incomplete globes, then find out about the New World in its entirety. It would be like us finding another earth, teeming with life, hiding behind the moon. How would our sensemaking cope with that? How would we change?

That leads into Cosgrove's second amazing (to me) statement about maps and sensemaking:
The 1972 photograph taken by NASA's Apollo 17 astronauts, unique as an eye-witness photograph of humans' home planet, ... is certainly not thought of as a "map," although it shares many technical aspects with world maps, and has influenced considerably the design of subsequent world maps -- for example the disappearance of the graticule (grid) of latitude and longitude, the "photographic" appearance, and the use of "natural" color on many wall and atlas maps today.
So our maps, our conceptual representations of the world we live in, have changed to more closely match our enlarged experience of the world.

If you are as old as I am or older, and you can remember your first sight of that first photograph of the planet, you can verify this fact. I remember globes and maps with stronger grids and less-natural colors, and I do now own and often look at maps that look more like the "real" earth, as we know it now. I had not noticed the difference! Have you?

To illustrate, this first example is from a 1925 encyclopedia, and the second is from the 2004 CIA World Factbook. I wanted to find a 1960s (or better, early 1970s) example but failed (probably because I was looking on Wikipedia's Wikimedia commons site for images I could legally copy).

Today we don't sew together what we know from maps to create a globe; we take apart what we know of the globe (meaning, today, the planet) to create maps. The grids and false colors that once helped us make sense of what we were piecing together now stand in the way of making sense of what we see. I guess the question is: what are we sewing together now?

I don't know exactly what to make of this idea -- yet -- but it has something to do with sensemaking and narrative. My mind has been clutching the idea, mumbling to itself and and running around in circles ever since I came across it a few days ago. I thought I'd tell you about it because it might spark some thoughts in your mind before my mind gets around to telling me what it wants to do with it.


Indy said...

Great post!

A few thoughts come to mind:

1) The question of projections and culture. How you create a map from the sphere is another level of choice.

Great comic here:

2) In some ways, this is like the changing high school physics curriculum. Partly things changed because knowledge advanced, partly because of the arrival of the electronic calculator. But the result is that different things become the basic units that we sew together. Something that was a set of units before becomes a single one for the next generation.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

A comment! A comment! This time of year it always feels like the whole world is asleep. Thanks Indy.

I've always been a Dymaxion kind of person just out of reflexive obstinacy. The Pierce Quincuncial (THAT's a mouthful of cement!) looks intriguing, but then again I'm not Antarctican.

However, ultimately, being me, I had to go to the Wikipedia "map projection" page and look around

This free app at the NASA site
has "over 90" projections

This not-free app Geocart
has "a breathtaking array" which I would have to count myself, so, let's say more than 100

This page
has about 60

This one
has about 70 (but it took me five minutes to figure out WHAT it was)

And this one has about, let's say, 60

I notice a lot of these collections are cagey about their totals. Competition? So now I want to compare all the projections and find out who made them and why, and what are the subtle cultural biases not only in each projection but each COLLECTION of projections. I notice a lot of the "official" lists don't include Fuller's Dymaxion. Is that because it's hard to draw, politically motivated, or insufficiently credentialled? What waves of culture run through these representations? This could take days, weeks, months! But. I. Will. Not. Do. It.

When I was in college we had this one great advanced-math teacher who loved calculator precision. We would figure out the answer to something, and then he'd be like, "How many digits can we get? Does anybody have twelve?" When somebody had a 12-digit calculator he beamed like a child upon them. It made me want to buy a better calculator (quite an expense at that time, my "scientific" calculator cost $100) just to make him happy. I think that's my full answer to "what your favorite map projection says about you" :)

COMMENT CUTOFF ... excuse me ...

Cynthia Kurtz said...

SECOND PART ... excuse me ...

Two thoughts in relation to your second thought about calculators and physics. A few perfect lines from Star Trek: Enterprise (which I am just now going through):

... Okay, I can't find the exact lines (not all Star Trek scripts are on-line! what is the world coming to?) but it goes something like this:

Captain Archer: How will we go back in time 800 years?
Daniels the time-travel guy: We just need a (insert jargon here).
Archer: How will we build one of those?
Daniels: We learn how to make them in high school! (He begins drawing a diagram to build a (insert jargon here) in the dust.)
Archer: So it's easy then?
Daniels: Mostly, except we need to build a (insert jargon here).
Archer: I thought you said you learned that in school?
Daniels: Yeah, but there was a (insert jargon here) in every desk, so nobody knows how to build one of those.

Great little joke about technology and how it changes what we can do and CAN'T do. Which connects to what you said and all of this.

Second thought, possibly connected: I have long been intrigued by a similar changing perception about death. For example in Joseph Andrews a character is beaten by highwaymen and is lying in the ditch, and the book says:

"The poor wretch, who lay motionless a long time, just began to recover his senses as a stage-coach came by. The postillion, hearing a man's groans, stopt his horses, and told the coachman he was certain there was a dead man lying in the ditch, for he heard him groan."

I read this ten times the first time I came across it, but I've seen similar quotes in ten other books (written around then) since. Back then, there wasn't much difference between a person ACTUALLY dead and a person MOSTLY dead. Death was not a fine line; it was a border so wide you could converse over it. Today things are very different. In The Princess Bride, the reason the guy saying "It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead" is funny is that we don't think of death that way anymore. But they did then.

Anyway, all fascinating stuff, how the ground we stand on and the lives we live change as knowledge and technology change. Does being aware of the change change the change? I think so. Is that good or bad? No idea. Still, fun thinking and talking about. Thanks again for the discussion!