The Upside Down World Map

It’s often said that travel can change your perspective on life.

But you don’t even need to leave your chair to see the world from a whole different point of view.

Go ahead and explore this upside-down world map for a few minutes. It will probably feel a little strange.

Note: I would have preferred to show you google maps upside down but it was easier to achieve using OpenStreetMap. Google remains a north-hemisphere centric company.

A Fresh Perspective

I found that just flipping the usual view 180 degrees allowed me to see things with fresh eyes.

For a brief moment, it feels like a whole new world, like a map out of a Tolkien fantasy novel. But it’s not, it’s just the same old world map reversed upside down. But as I browsed the inverted map my preconceived ideas and expectations were missing.

France was no longer below the UK. It was above.

Americans can zoom in to find the US map upside down. From this view America is perched above the 49th parallel line and Canada supports it from below.

Australia is no longer ‘down under’, relegated to a footnote. This is similar to McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World which flips the map and features Australia and New Zealand in the center at the top.

Viewing the map this way, as a non-eurocentric map, meant the great mighty continents of Africa and South America took center stage instead of being part of the supporting cast.

We are all carrying around these unconscious biases and expectations in our minds and we don’t even realize it most of the time. Until suddenly our world is flipped and we gain a new perspective.

I think when we travel something similar happens. We see things that are familiar but different. This allows us to enter what the Zen Buddhists call “Shoshin” or “Beginners Mind”. Shoshin is an attitude of openness and eagerness, with a lack of preconceptions.

When we travel to a foreign land even something as simple as visiting a supermarket can be an interesting new experience. We look closely at the products that are stocked and compare them to what the supermarkets stock back home. We look at the strange writing describing familiar products and even the label on a banana can become fascinating.

When you are a beginner, and seeing with fresh eyes, you haven’t yet formed all the conventions and habits that come with experience and familiarity.

And convention and habit can be incredibly powerful in how you see the world around you.

˙ǝƃɐd ǝɥʇ uo sǝlƃƃᴉnbs ɟo ɥɔunq ɐ ʇsnɾ sᴉ ƃuᴉʇᴉɹʍ ʇɐɥʇ ǝǝs noʎ puɐ sǝsɐᴉq snoᴉɔsuoɔun ɹnoʎ ǝsol no⅄ ˙sɹǝʇʇǝl ɟo ǝlqɯnɾ ɐ ʇsnɾ sǝɯoɔǝq ʇᴉ uʍop ǝpᴉsdn ʇxǝʇ uɹnʇ noʎ ɟI

James Eagleman

So much of what your brain does is unconscious and automatic. It’s only when forced into an unusual circumstance that we become aware of those automatic associations.

The south up world map reminds us that a large part of how we view the map and by extension the world is unconscious and automatic.

By looking at an upside-down world map the machinery of the mind is revealed.

On these unconscious foundations stand all our prejudices about the world and the people, plants, and animals that inhabit it.

Why Is North At The Top Of Maps?

Good question…

There is no good reason that the northern hemisphere is usually at the top and the southern hemisphere is at the bottom of maps. It’s just convention.

The geography is the same no matter which side of the map is up at the top.

When the astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission looked back towards earth they took this photo.

File:Apollo 17 Blue Marble original orientation (AS17-148-22727).jpg

Have a good careful look… You’ll see, planet earth has no top or bottom. And it isn’t written anywhere “this side up”.

This photo alone should tell you that a south-up map orientation is a perfectly valid way to draw a map.

Still, after the Apollo 17 astronauts returned back up to earth someone cropped the photo and flipped it around “the right way up” and it became the famous Blue Marble photo. You’ve probably seen it before because it’s one of the most widely shared photographs of all time.

There is, of course, no “right way up” for planet earth, so let’s flip it around again back to the way it was taken.

There. That’s better.

We never experience the world directly as it is. We only ever see the world from our own point of view.

Cartographers throughout history drew the world according to their own point of view. Maps were sometimes drawn south-up. Or even east up or west up. But the style of map that became common in recent years was the north-up map.

Does It Matter? Is The Upside Down Map Just Political Correctness Gone Mad?

Consider for a minute the phrase “things went south quickly”. Many English speakers would take this to mean “things went bad quickly”.

It’s not just one phase. In fact there this a frequent association between vertical position up/down and goodness/badness.

“up” = good, in working order
“down” = bad, broken

Here are some examples I found on Stack Exchange for English language learners:

  • Is the mail server up?
    The server went down yesterday when the hard disk crashed.
  • The dictatorship rose to power in 1969.
    The regime fell as a result of the coup d’état in 1974.
  • In the heyday of the motor industry, things were looking up.
    However, since the collapse of the motor industry, Detroit has gone downhill.
  • He hit rock bottom when an alcoholic binge landed him in the emergency room.
    He has since rebounded.
  • Management approved proposal A, but gave a thumbs down to proposal B.

So you see the convention of drawing the world map with the northern-hemisphere up really does put the north in the good psychological zone and the south in the bad psychological zone.

I’m not suggesting that all maps need to be reversed or that south-up maps need equal rights or anything like that. But I do encourage you to take a minute to reflect on the significance.

The World Map Sideways (East Up) Is Even Weirder But Also Equally Valid

When viewing the world, east up, it suddenly became apparent that Europe, Africa, and Asia were really one large landmass with a few sea lakes in the center.

The way you look at the map changes what you see.

For example, despite what Google might tell you the distance from Russia to the USA is not 5518 miles.

On the “east-up” map I noticed that Russia and the USA are in fact separated by only 2.4 miles at the Diomedes Islands. Once the far east of Russia and the far west of America (Alaska) were no longer at the edge of the map it became clear that they were right next door to each other.

Diomede Islands Bering Sea Jul 2006.jpg
America (Little Diomedes Island) Is On The Left. Russia (Big Diomedes Island) Is On The Right

Go ahead and zoom in and look for yourself! I’m not making this stuff up!

Vacation At Home By Adopting A Different Perspective

Travel is one way to flip you into seeing the world from a different perspective.

But we’ve seen that you don’t need to travel to gain a new attitude.

If you are like me, you will often go about your daily business operating somewhat on autopilot.

But you can flip your point of view and start to see your own neighborhood with fresh eyes. This is the cheapest and most affordable type of “travel”. You can start a staycation right this second if you flip your point of view and start to see the world around you with fresh eyes.

Even if you have work tomorrow morning!

To turn your own world upside down try these tricks:

  • Pay extra attention to your current surroundings, look with the eyes of a painter or a photographer, what interesting angles can you find?
  • Imagine you are an alien equivalent of Sir David Attenborough and have traveled from the far distant future to study this fascinating time and place in human history.
  • Imagine you are a prehistoric hunter-gatherer human traveled from the far distant past and arrived magically to wherever you are right now. What would you think about what you saw? Isn’t the very screen you are reading this on magical?
  • Look at the objects around you. Do you really know how and what they are made from? What have you been ignoring that is right under your nose?

I call these “perspective games”. Little tricks of the imagination to help you see your current experience in a new light.

They are a fun way to pass some time on a train ride and a great way to try to see the world around you from an upside-down point of view!

Perspective games are a way to invert the internal mental maps that you’ve built up over your lifetime.

If you’d like to learn more about inverted maps, the peters projection, and how the world map you are familiar with is distorted then I suggest you check this clip from The West Wing.

You might be surprised to learn that the sizes of the countries are drawn incorrectly on the map you know well.

We all carry around biases and habitual ways of seeing and thinking. Usually, these are handy shortcuts. I’m not arguing that familiarity with a map is a bad thing.

But if we can find a way to drop our learned ways of seeing and thinking, just for a moment, we can catch a glimpse of the old and familiar as something new and surprising.

The upside-down world map is a great way to remind us to be open to different ways of seeing things.

The truth is, it’s not even correct to call it an “upside down” map of the world because there is no upside!

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