Friday, November 21, 2008

Off the Map

The Edge is a fantastic metaphor for connecting creativity, innovation and risk. I use it often. The potential of the Edge was inspired by living in New Zealand and discussions with my colleague, Brian Sweeney. We both strongly believe in the potential of ideas that are born beyond the center, beyond the conformist, beyond the well-known out there on the Edge. People who live on the Edge get the idea immediately but people who believe they live in the center – and are proud of it - find this tougher to understand and even tougher to get why it’s important.

Enter an extraordinary tool, one that we’ve twisted and turned for centuries to reflect how we think and feel about our world. I’m talking about maps. From the guesstimates of medieval times to the unearthly precision of satellite cartography, maps make plain our aspirations, perceptions and knowledge.

Who was not startled the first time they saw a map that put the Northern Hemisphere at the ‘bottom’ of the globe? I’ve always loved the map that puts New Zealand at the center, with every other land mass radiating out from our islands. New Zealanders can savor the paradox of being at the center and on the Edge at the same time. This kind of vertigo is exactly what’s brought on by a fantastic new publication from Thames & Hudson: The Atlas of the Real World.

This extraordinary publication is deeply provocative. It raises surprising questions and gives us insight we didn’t realize we needed. It is a wonderful example of surprising with the obvious.

For instance, a map that shows all the countries of the world by their exact land area. At first sight it looks like any other map of the world you might have seen pinned up behind an office desk, travel agent or school room, but on closer examination prepare for a surprise. Europe shrinks to a small proportion of the land mass of Africa, and Alaska is not around the same size as Australia. In fact, this frozen landmass would fit around that continent three times.

Even more extraordinary are the social, cultural and historical maps – countries sized by the numbers of troops they sent to wars and by tourism. A map scales countries by the number of fast food outlets, in this case McDonald's. Suddenly China, so dominant in most of these maps, virtually disappears along with Africa and Central Europe, while the tiny islands of New Zealand are plump enough to make up a third of South America.

This is how I like to see numbers used – to make obvious facts so surprising that we gain insight into the truth of our world and are inspired to take action.

1 comment:

Piotr Jakubowski said...

I'm assuming that big blob coming out of SEA is Singapore?

That book you mention definitely sounds interesting. I'll make sure to check it out next time I'm spending at the B&N. Christmas time is coming up, so it might be a good opportunity to go in and pick up a few new ones.