Talking Maps: A Change in Perspective

by D-L Nelson
- France -

Look closely at the Van der Grinten map. It is upside down, except it isn’t. The earth, seen from space, has no up and down.The map drawn by Gerardus Kremer (1512-1594) decorates classroom walls around the world and has shaped generations’ point of view of the planet. The problem is that the map we are most famaliar with is not accurate in terms of the size of the countries proportionally. Nonetheless, the Van der Grinten map has embedded a northern hemisphere-centric point of view deep in our sub-consciousness.

ODT Maps of Amherst, MA, published the “What’s Up? South!" Map. Bob Abramms, ODT founder, publisher, diversity consultant, trainer and community activist, believes people need multiple view points to see the world correctly, each view not containing the truth, but part of the truth. He uses the “What’s up?” map and others to change peoples’ perspectives, not just about maps, but about the world.

The original maps drawn in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and later found by archaeologists had been used for taxation and enslavement, he says. He is convinced that “the map is a tool of persuasion a tool to convince the map reader of some fact or concept that may or may not be real.” Maps can be used to disempower people. The producer can sell his economic and political ideas. Abramms says, “Most maps are commissioned by people in power to maintain their position of power". If you have doubts, think of maps used to draw voting districts. As recently as June 2002, voter redistricting maps in North Carolina were ruled invalid when boundaries were manipulated to one party’s advantage. But if they had passed federal muster, the people of that state would have had a different set of representatives.

When maps are viewed merely as theories rather than facts, it “robs them of the authority they have claimed, as objective pictures of the world,” Abramms says.

Maps will always have a role. However, the reader must understand that every map offers a set of advantages and disadvantages. There is no "best" projection. The mapmaker must select the one best suited to the needs at hand, thereby reducing distortion of the most important features for his purpose. That is what ODT does best.

Abramms’s belief that maps are talk, not pictures, obviously has raised controversy. Most people aren’t as uncomfortable for some as the map turned upside down. “What is wrong with thinking about maps as pictures?” Abramms asks, then answers, “they’re terrible pictures.” Pictures capture the way things look, yet the map we are the most familiar with, the Mercator, has North America bigger than Africa. That definitely isn’t the ways things are in reality.

“Representations” are another word used to describe maps. But representations are more like symbols. The US Flag, the Stars and Stripes, represents the US, but it is not the US.

Abramms also asks: “What is the point of the map? Why would anyone want to make a map?” Well, maps give information (how to get someplace) or information (size and position). Some tell us that we can’t do something (zoning maps) or can do something if we want, and how and when to do it. (Temperature zone maps let us know when we should and should not plant certain things). Maps can help direct change (AIDS/HIV maps or hunger maps) when they help people to visualize a problem.

They tell different things. The following offer some examples:

On the Peters map, the countries look distorted compared to how we “know” them. Introduced in 1974, it shows the true size and proportion of countries. It starred on an episode of The West Wing, shocking the character, CJ Craig. This map, prior to its appearance on that program, was virtually unknown in North America. On the Mercator Map, Greenland and Africa appear the same size.

But in reality, Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland! Because it is a more realistic representation of land-mass proportions, many faith-based, social justice organizations support the Peters Map as being fair to all peoples. This map does speak to the real size of countries. The appearance of the map brought Abramms’s company to national attention. Many well known people have commissioned or bought his maps, including former President Jimmy Carter.

The Butterfly Map was designed by Steve Waterman, a self-taught theoretical nuclear physicist. Try taking three Clementines (the fruit) and draw the same picture on all three. Then peel them. You will see the problems of trying to create a flat map. You might even get a butterfly shape, such as this map. This map is currently being fine tuned based on sphere-packing mathematics and should be ready in 2008. Creating a map can take years, and requires a variety of areas of expertise. Waterman’s map had been rejected by other map publishers before Abramms agreed to publish it.

The Population Map shows countries in terms of people, not territory. A quick glance at it tells us that China, followed by India, are the two most populated countries in the world. The USA is only a tiny part of the world in terms of population. An editorial team including cartographers, population experts, graphic designers, GIS (Graphic Information System) specialists, as well as human rights, human resources, and political activists all worked to create this map. Not content to tell the story of population, the map has added thumbnail images such as an equal-area projection map to help readers compare land mass to population. It also tracks populations over time.

Gertrude Stein said, “a rose is a rose is a rose.” However, you can no longer say “a map is a map is a map.” The next time you look at a map, let it “talk” to you. The message may be a surprise!
For more information on maps, visit www.ODT

About the Author

D-L Nelson is a Swiss-American living in Europe. She is the author of two novels, Chickpea Lover: Not a Cookbook and The Card.
She is also editor and publisher of an electronic news service for Canadian credit unions.

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2 comments on “Talking Maps: A Change in Perspective
  1. Will Peters says:

    In his new book The God Delusion, evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins comments on consciousness-raising and includes the following:
    It is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can by maps of the world with the South Pole on top. What splendid consciousness-raisers those maps would be, pinned to the walls of our northern hemisphere classrooms. Day after day, the children would be reminded that “north” is an arbitrary polarity, which has no monopoly on “up”. The map would intrigue them, as well as raise their consciousness. They would go home and tell their parents — and, by the way, giving children something with which to surprise their parents is one of the greatest gifts that teacher can bestow. (115)
    Nice, no?

  2. Louise says:

    A very interesting map can be found on
    where it shows that less than 17 % of the earth is not marked by human life.

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