Saturday, 22 April 2017

Which way's up? Mental mapping and conditioning by familarity

I recently watched a television documentary on Irish prehistory that noted if you cunningly turned a conventional map of the British Isles ninety degrees anti-clockwise, then Ireland would appear to be an integral part of Europe's maritime trade routes and not stuck out on the edge of the known world. Be that as it may, it's interesting how easily we accept conventions without analysis. As you might expect, just because something is a convention doesn't necessarily mean it is superior, only that it has achieved such a commonplace status that it will usually be taken for granted. It's not the logical approach, but then we're not Vulcans!

Take maps of the world. Map projections have usually arisen in reponse to practical needs or due to the contingency of history. Most global maps today use the Mercator projection, which whilst being useful for maritime navigation in a time before GPS, increasingly distorts areas as they approach the poles. This shouldn't seem surprising, since after all we're taken a near-spherical object, transposing it onto the surface of a cylinder, and then unrolling that onto a two-dimensional plane.

In fact there are dozens of different map projections but none are good for all regions and purposes. This doesn't mean that the Mercator projection is ideal; far from it, since heavily-populated regions such as Africa appear too small whilst barely-populated areas such as Greenland and Antarctica are far too large. However, it is popular because it is familiar because it is popular...and so on. Like QWERTY keyboards, it may no longer be required for the purpose it originally served but is now far too common to be replaced without a great deal of hassle.

Aside from projection, there's also the little matter of direction. There are novelty maps with the south pole at the top, most commonly created by Australians, but since 88% of the human race currently live in the Northern hemisphere (which has 68% on the total landmass) it's hardly surprising that the North Pole is conventionally top-most.

However, this hasn't always been the case: before there was worldwide communication, the ancient Egyptians deemed 'upper' as towards the equator and 'lower' away from it. Early medieval Arab scholars followed suit whilst the mappa mundi of medieval Christian Europe placed East at the top of a topography centred on Jerusalem.

Photographs of the Earth that show a recognisable landmass usually present north uppermost too; there is no such thing as 'right' way up for our solar system, but the origin of the first great civilisations has set the geographic orientation for our global society.

None of this might seem particularly important, but ready acceptance of familiar conventions can easily lead to lack of critical thinking. For example, in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, Great Britain exported pre-fabricated buildings to Australia and New Zealand, but as some architects failed to recognise that the Southern hemisphere sun is due north at midday there are examples with the main windows on the south-facing wall. Even the fact that most humans live in the Northern hemisphere has lead to the incorrect assumption that - thanks to their summer - the earth is closer to the sun in June than it is in December. There is such a thing as hemisphere parochialism after all!

If we can learn anything from this it is that by accepting popular conventions without considering their history or relevance, we are switching off critical faculties that might otherwise generate replacement ideas more suitable for the present. Unfortunately, we frequently prefer familiarity over efficiency, so even though tried and trusted conventions may no longer be suitable for changed circumstances we solidly cling to them. Thus we stifle improvements as a trade-off for our comfort. I guess that's what they call human nature...