“The world is not an illusion,” said Alfred Korzbyski, “it is an abstraction.” You may know Korzbyski for another famous maxim, “the map is not the territory.” Jorge Luis Borges took this idea to its most absurd lengths by imagining in his story “On Exactitude in Science” a map that corresponded in size and scale at every point with the territory. Borges, wrote Colin Marshall in a previous Open Culture post, “illustrated the idea that all maps are wrong by imagining the preposterousness of a truly correct one.”
That observation occurs in the context of a video from Vox that explains why it is mathematically impossible to create a completely accurate flat world map at any scale.
We must abstract; “the surface of a sphere cannot be represented as a plane without some form of distortion,” and so cartographers use a technique called “projection.” The design mapmakers have most popularly used dates to 1569, from a cylindrical projection by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator.
For either cultural or navigational reasons, this hugely distorted map inflates the size of Europe and North America and makes Greenland and Africa roughly the same size. A long overdue update, the Peters Projection from 1973, improved the Mercator’s accuracy, but at the cost of legibility and proportion.
But last year, architect and artist Hajime Narukawa of Keio University’s Graduate School of Media and Governance in Tokyo solved these problems with his AuthaGraph World Map, at the top, which won Japan’s Good Design Grand Award, beating out “over 1000 entries in a variety of categories,” writes Mental Floss. You can view it in a larger format here.
Instead of abstracting the globe into a cylinder, then a plane, as the Mercator Projection did, the AuthaGraph turns the earth into a tetrahedron, which then unfolds in any number of ways, as you can see further up, and “can be tessellated just like an MC Escher painting… much in the same way that we can traverse the planet without ever coming to an end.” Rather than one focal point—the North Atlantic in Mercator’s case—nearly any place around the earth can be at the center. Versions of the map are already being used in Japanese textbooks, and you can purchase a poster or buy a paper kit that allows you to unfold your own globe-to-tetrahedron-to-rectangle map (see above).
The video above from Ponder explains the AuthaGraph design, which is not—and could never be—100% mathematically accurate, but can, Narukawa writes, with “a further step” in its subdivisions “be officially called an equal-area map.” The concept was important to him because of the urgent relevance of globalist thinking. As he points out, writes Japanese design blog Spoon & Tamago, “A large bulk of the 20th century was dominated by an emphasis on East and West relations. But with issues like climate change, melting glaciers in Greenland and territorial sea claims, it’s time we establish a new view of the world.” Those in the centers of Eastern and Western power ignore the rest of the world at everyone’s peril. It may help to have a much more equitable way to visualize our shared planet.