Reading an Upside-Down Map

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Nov 15, 2014

“The only thing you sometimes have control over is perspective. You don’t have control over your situation. But you have a choice about how you view it.”
Chris Pine

Before GPS (Global Positioning System), our method for navigation in new places was with a paper map. Anytime we took an extended trip I would study the map, choose the best route, and then try to estimate how long it would take to reach our destination. I always enjoyed that process.

Because I enjoy the process of mapping, I usually have a sense of which way is north. Even without a map my sense of direction is rarely lost. Over the years when Evie and I have often gone for a drive in the country without any familiar roads or scenery, my natural navigating instincts always kicked in. To Evie’s amazement we arrive where we wanted to be.

But GPS changed all of that. Now we enter our destination in the computer, we choose the shortest or fastest or most scenic route, we note the length and time to our destination and then press “Go.” All the driver must do is follow the mile-by-mile instructions and even if a wrong turn is taken, a quick “recalculating” message is seen and, before long, the journey is resumed. 

I have found that my perspective on a trip changes if I only use GPS. Maps give me a sense of place — a perspective — that enhances my views of where I am at a given time. Even if I travel outside the country I always like to place my location in a country or region or even local place.

For most of us, we look at maps that orient north toward the top of the page. Many years ago I was shown a series of maps of modern and ancient Israel with the top of the page oriented toward the east. That 90-degree shift changed my entire perspective on that part of the world. Whenever I look at those maps I still have a hard time making that mental adjustment.

You can imagine my confusion when I first looked at one of McArthur’s Universal Corrective Maps that was made by an Australian who was tormented for coming from the “bottom of the world.” It was the first modern south-up map, published in 1979.

Did you know that the very idea of having north at the top of a map is completely artificial? It was those European navigators who started using the North Star and the magnetic compass who turned our orientation (a word which comes from the east) to the north. Today you can actually buy maps that have Australia at the top and the northern hemisphere at the bottom. This upside-down Australian map is entitled “No Longer Down Under.” When I first looked at one I could hardly fight the urge to turn it “right side up.” 

I had the same orientation problem when I traveled in Great Britain and then years later in Kenya. In those places, cars drive on the “wrong” side of the road. Even the steering wheels of their vehicles are on the “wrong” side. But as we know, our perception of “wrong” is “right” to them.

Travel in those places was extremely confusing to me, especially when we encountered a roundabout intersection. I could never remember who had the right of way. One of my friends who lived in Kenya for several decades pulled out of his Wisconsin driveway and had a horrific accident because, without thinking, he drove on the “wrong” side of the road into oncoming traffic.

Ursus Wehrli said, “I like to turn things upside down, to watch pictures and situations from another perspective.” Maps illustrate for us how differently we can view reality. As Fred Durst said, “It’s amazing how, over time, a person’s perspective can be altered.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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