There is a map that does reveal the earth in total with very little distortion. The catchily titled Fuller-Dymaxian Sky Ocean Projection map.
Conceived by Buckminster Fuller in 1943 the Dymaxian Map is a world map, projected onto an icosahedron and then unfolded,
displaying the world with its land undistorted almost as one land mass, broken only by small distances of sea.
Fuller, aside from the above mentioned problems of distortion also thought that his map, unlike the Mercator map, avoided cultural bias. It has no up and down/north and south, which he saw as correlating with up/superior and down/inferior. It’s also worth noting that in English (the nautical and aeronautical language of the world) we read from left to right.
These maps alter how we perceive ourselves. Aside from the political, the planetary or cartographical conception of ourselves might also be important psychologically and behaviourally. We’re guided by the symbolic representations that surround us, perhaps even more so when we’re not even aware that those symbols are just that. That there’s a practical application to our maps doesn’t stop them from being, in a certain sense, fictions. It’s true that the map is not the territory. And these fictions, like any other, influence us, so it’s legitimate to ask how?
In 1967, Fuller was asked to provide an exhibit at the International and Universal Exhibition in Montreal Canada, he suggested the presentation of a Dymaxian map forming from a huge icosahedron globe which would then be presented with lights displaying resources and populations. He had created a World Game that could be played on this map in which participants had to work together to figure out how best to use the resources of Spaceship Earth (as he called it) “to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone”
In the end the exhibit was not commissioned. Maybe because the idea was and, unfortunately probably still is, a bit too ahead of its time. The concept of all of us on this big rock traveling through an unforgiving universe working together for the better of all is so outlandish to some that it becomes inconceivable. An impossibility. We’re like Steve McQueen at the end of the Great Escape, trying to find a way to leap over our patriotically, self imposed national boundaries and failing. There’s too much barbed wire and too many Nazis. But surely all it would take is a conceptual shift in another direction, one offered by the likes of Fuller, for things to change. A shift in perspective.
These seemingly small things – the maps in the books on our shelves or hung on our walls – so part of our culture that we don’t usually consider their significance or the wars that were fought over acquiring them, are a part of what makes us who we are and how we think the way that we do about ourselves. About our world and about our place in it. The effect of seeing the world in total though is most pronounced in those few who have seen it with their own eyes.
Between 1968 and 1972 twenty-four men left the Earth’s orbit and traveled round the moon, twelve of them landed on the lunar surface. No-one has ever been further. No one else has ever seen the dark side of the moon with their own eyes and no-one else has seen the earth the way they’ve seen it.
Jim Lovell, who flew on Apollo 8, the first attempted lunar mission, evocatively described seeing Earth, on Christmas Eve 1968, from this distance,
“At one point I sighted the earth with my thumb—and my thumb from that distance fit over the entire planet. I realized how insignificant we all are if everything I’d ever known is behind my thumb. But at that moment I don’t think the three of us understood the lasting significance of what we were looking at.”
A common feature of these astronauts’ experience is a cognitive shift in their awareness as a result of where they’d been and what they’d seen. It’s known as The Overview Effect. The astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth person to walk on the moon, founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences after his experience. The IONS is a para-psychological research institute that studies noetic theory and human potential.
He basically came back as a fucking hippy.
But, though only those few have seen the earth that way with their own eyes there are now many pictures of this little rock from outside and these visions of ourselves can be said to have had an enormous impact on us and our society. The Earthrise picture, taken by Bill Anders also on the Apollo 8 mission, is said to have almost single handedly kick started the environmental movement.
And it’s difficult not to be affected by the Pale Blue Dot photograph sent back from the Voyager 1 in 1990. Carl Sagan requested that the probe’s camera be turned to snap a picture of earth as the Voyager left our solar system, 3.7 billion miles away. In the image we’re a single pixel, blue dot in a vast emptiness. Not the most importantest but the most un-importantest thing there is.
Except, perhaps, for the contents of our own heads. An equally inexplicable universe constructed and influenced not just of actual lived experience and photographic images of actual things that exist but by the abstractions we project on to those experiences and the distortions we make of them for our convenience. It’s easy for us to confuse the two. To forget that the maps of or our own personality are not the territory either.
In Umberto Eco’s 1996 book The Island of the Day Before a young man, Roberto Della Griva, on a secret mission to unlock the secrets of longitude for the French, is involved in a shipwreck. He is the only survivor. Clinging to a section of the boat he is washed up on another, the Daphne, moored near a tropical island Roberto cannot get to because he cannot swim.
Trapped on the deserted boat Roberto begins to write a memoir of his adventures and of his lost love. He becomes lost in his own tale and, going slowly mad, begins to confuse where his story is real or where it is just a deranged fantasy and, in turn, the reader doesn’t know where that line is crossed either. In his tale Roberto becomes convinced that the island he is shipwrecked beside, that he can tantalisingly see but not reach, lies on the other side of the international date line and, if he could reach it, he can enter the day before, go back in time and undo the mistakes that haunt him, if only he had learned how to swim. In the end he lowers himself into the sea and takes the chance that the tide might push him toward the shore. Into yesterday.
We’re all the same as Roberto. Believing our delusions. Even those, or especially those, that comfortingly seem to tell us where we are.
Moon turn the tides gently, gently away.