the year in maps


IN THE EARLY Middle Ages, if an educated Westerner set out to make a standard map of the world, here is what he would do: draw a circle, then a horizontal band across that circle, then a vertical band dividing the bottom half of the circle in two. The result resembled a hood ornament with a “T” in the middle. The semicircle at the top was Asia; the identical quarter-circles below were Europe and Africa. Today, it’s easy to feel superior to a society that thought Europe and Africa looked like matching slices of pizza, but we shouldn’t. That medieval map said very little about how the world was shaped, but it had a lot of information: For starters, it told you that God’s creation was symmetrical, and thus perfect, and that its apex was Jerusalem. In a deeply religious society in which most people never made it more than a few miles from home, this was understood to be far more important than knowing the exact contours of the Mediterranean. Thanks to satellites, surveying, and ever-increasing computing power, mapping has become geographically accurate beyond the dreams of a medieval mind. But many of those same technological advances have also brought us full circle: Maps have increasingly become vehicles not just for telling us how the world looks, but for organizing and representing all sorts of information.

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