Measurements of time and space are now globalized standards. Most of us have no problem with this because we’re sons and daughters of modernity, raised to believe that beauty is subjective and measurement is objective. In fact, the inverse is often true: our experience of distances and time is far more subjective than we think, while our experience of beauty and truth is far more universal than we suspect.
Somewhere in Africa (c. 1970):
A young man from an African village where his father was chief was sent to France for a formal western education. He studied surveying and mapping and eventually went to work for the UN. One day, he proudly returned to his village to show the mapping survey he had overseen and published for his native area.Upon seeing his work, his father showed clear disappointment. His map he said, was entirely wrong.
-“How can that be,” asked the son.
-“It’s obvious,” said the chief. “See this road here. It is uphill and difficult, it takes twice as long to travel as this other road you show here and your map says they are the same.”
In scale reality, both roads were the same metric distance but the father could not conceive distance being disconnected from travel time. Moreover the map was ugly. It made their beautiful land look like a colourless mass of squiggly worms.
The zoo hired me to do their map. Visitors had complained about their old maps and the complaints grew when they made more an architecturally more precise update. I told them that when people visit a zoo, they come to see the animals, period. And they have a preconceived notion of a visual experience not space. My map focused on attractive illustrations of the animals (instead of symbols) drawn at least five times larger than scale. Also the head of each animal was drawn nearly twice as big than their actual proportions. Why bigger heads? Use your index and thumb to measure the width of your own face right now, you will be shocked how tiny your face is in measured space. The map also totally ignored distances between the exhibits and only depicted their relative positions from each other. The map was a big hit. People enjoyed using it to get around. Further proof came when the parking lot litter of discarded maps was greatly reduced. People kept them as souvenirs:
This shows how a universal appreciation of the beauty of animals is far more dominant in orientation than the subjective perceived number of meters between A and B. This is such an obvious reality to all humans when you point it out yet often academically trained mapmakers and many other data-driven people have trouble grasping this.
As my friend Aaron Elliot aptly put it: “We are evolved to visually process our local line of sight rather than yelling at people for not adapting their minds to the conventions of the (modern) mapmakers.”
Getting yelled at for not adapting to the conventions of information gatherers is a good metaphor for the discomfort we feel with the increasing demands of standardized tests, customer surveys, opinion polls, medical/therapeutic questionnaires, CV’s, as well as all electronic and Social Media formats – a few of many domains where we are asked to conform to a scale that can easily be measured and processed by the numerous people making disconnected data-maps of our realities.