What You Get When 30 People Draw a World Map From Memory

Brits and Indonesians may not be happy with the results.
Zak Ziebell

Maps, as I've written before, are inherently subjective—no matter how detailed or scientific, they reflect our worldview and the age in which we're living, not to mention the difficulty of projecting a spherical globe onto a plane surface. Now compound these challenges by asking 30 people to sketch a map of the world from memory. What would you get?

In the summer of 2012, Zak Ziebell, now a 17-year-old high school senior in San Antonio, did just that. Tasked with creating "a piece of art that would reveal something unseen" as part of a pre-college fine arts program, Ziebell approached 29 strangers on the University of Michigan's campus, handed them a pen and half a sheet of paper, and asked them, on the spot, to draw a map of the world. Ziebell, who recently posted his findings to Reddit, then completed the task himself and digitally merged the 30 maps into one image, overlaying the composite drawing with satellite data. Here's how Ziebell described the process to me:

I then scanned all the maps, put them as layers in a Photoshop document, and made each layer almost completely transparent.... I thought it would be cool to see what it would look like with satellite imagery, so I got a picture from NASA and manipulated it with Photoshop to fit the new shapes of the continents.

Here's how the final product looked (the second image incorporates satellite data):

Zak Ziebell

Some of the maps Ziebell collected are pretty avant-garde:

Zak Ziebell
Zak Ziebell
Zak Ziebell

Ziebell's is far more sophisticated (then again, he wasn't suddenly asked to map the world on the way to the dining hall):

Zak Ziebell

The most interesting reaction to Ziebell's project has been overseas, where the warped, blobby maps seem to have reinforced stereotypes about geographically illiterate Americans (all but one of the participants, by Ziebell's reckoning, were from the U.S.). Under the headline, "Here's how American students view the world," the Mexican site Contenido noted that "India was glued to Africa and Saudi Arabia" and that, in many maps, Antarctica, the Arctic, Greenland, New Zealand, Madagascar, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and "most of Southeast Asia" were missing. The Jakarta-based newspaper Kompas went into detail about the ways students had missed or misrepresented Indonesia.

In Istanbul, the newspaper Hurriyet went with one simple, shocked headline: "No Turkey on this map!"

Presented by

Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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