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12.12.13

The Haraway Projection

Wired has a short piece about amateur cartographer Gene Keyes. The post describes Keyes' lifelong work on the "Cahill-Keyes Octal Gradient," a map projection billed by Wired as a "master map" that optimizes the presentation of the globe on a flat page. But of course there's no such thing as being "optimal." A map (or anything else) can only be optimal for a particular purpose. I can easily list applications for which the CKOG is far from optimal. The interruptions in the oceans make mapping any oceanic features (like ocean life or trade routes) a non-starter. And the wobbling compass directions from octant to octant make it a poor choice for mapping anything with a clear latitudinal component, such as climate zones. Keyes asserts that his projection is meant to help improve geographic literacy by closely resembling a globe. But the aspect of the world that has always seemed to me most strikingly visible on a globe but is lost on most projections is the connectivity of the continents around the North Pole -- which ironically is discarded in the move from the original butterfly-like Cahill projection to Keyes' M-shaped CKOG! What seems clear is that the projection is optimized for Gene Keyes' personal aesthetics. This is made more obvious through a visit to his website, where his comparison between Buckminster Fuller's dymaxion map and the Cahill projection (on which the CKOG is based) is largely in terms of "neatness" criteria like symmetry of the map border and facets having sizes that come to nice round numbers when measured in metric units.

What motivates me to write this post is not so much the strengths or flaws of the CKOG in particular, but the general tendency captured in the title of the Wired post: "the search for the perfect map." When I was younger, I had the same sort of fascination with finding a "master projection" that would give a universally optimal representation of the world. Though I lacked the resources to try to design my own projections, I pored over the atlases I had at home and at the library, trying to imagine how to smooth out every distortion to create the one true map. The desire to explore and master the world through one perfect map, labored over by an isolated genius, seems to be a common fantasy for white dudes like Keyes, Cahill, and my younger self.

Today, however, my attitude toward projections -- and maps in general -- has shifted by 180 degrees. What fascinates me about mapping is how many different ways we can represent the earth. The projections I find compelling are not ones like CKOG or Robinson or Gall-Peters that try to give a single "best" view of the world, but weird ones like star projections and oblique aspects of more familiar projections. I want maps to challenge me to see the world, and think about how it all connects, in new ways. I want to preserve the sense that the complexity of the world far exceeds any one attempt to map it, and that we can only move between different and mutually conflicting partial perspectives. We could perhaps call this juggling of multiple partial maps the "Haraway Projection," after the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway, who famously criticized (.pdf) the quest for a "God's eye view" or "view from nowhere," preferring instead grasp the world through multiple "partial perspectives" rooted in specific social locations. I'll take the disorienting and open-ended instability of the Haraway Projection over the CKOG's illusion of mastery any day.

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