Simplifying the World

By Reginald Golledge

Simplifying the World
The World's most recognizable Landmarks
by Reginald G.Golledge

It is a bit facetious to remark that "the world is a complex place." We all know that.But, given this, how are we able to understand it? In truth, we haven't achieved such a goal yet, but we've moved a long way on a path heading in this direction.

Geography consists of three components-physical, human, and representational and analytical technology.Traditionally regarded as the "science" part of geography, physical geographers use scientific methods to examine the distribution of landform features, spatial variations in the type, source, and availability of water resources, to determine climatic, soil, vegetation, and land use regularities, and to search for elemental processes that underlie these things.They also discover how features interact and how they are integrated to form the world we live in.Geographers act as human scientists when they investigate the spatial distribution of people, identifying characteristics of society, economy, ethnicity, race, political persuasion, (and so on), and the patterns of spatial interactions that these attributes generate.Technically speaking, complex relations in the spatial domain are often represented using a favorite medium-the cartographic map-for public consumption.The long-term aim is to increase people's awareness of the world around us and help comprehension of why we are able to do the things we (unthinkingly) do on a regular basis. These explorations help to answer very fundamental questions such as: where does my breakfast food and drink come from? How should I travel to work? Why is my neighborhood different from other nearby ones? Where does my shower water come from? How is it that I can grow great tomatoes in my current garden, but they wouldn't grow in the garden at my previous house? Where does all the food in my refrigerator come from? Geographic technology such as maps, diagrams, and images can be used to present a canvas that contains the answer to questions like this-by using representational forms such as globes, cartographic maps, sketches, tables, videos, movies, and so on.These representations are used when large parts of the earth's surface are needed in an explanation-i.e., when simply pointing a finger does not create enough awareness and knowledge of location, place, and interaction.

Geography has been described as "the queen of the social sciences" by a noted economist, and it has been commonly identified as a leading (and "natural") integrator of physical and human science.Its methods and techniques have been developed with this integrative objective in mind.But the world hasn't always been cooperative, and, at times, geographers have had to make "accommodations" to pursue their goals. In other words, they have had to change the world in an attempt to understand it.What are some of the accommodations made by geographers in the process of "changing the world?"

  1. 1.Geographic areas are usually irregular in shape and area.To describe them fully, very complicated measurements and mathematics would be needed (e.g., fractals and fuzzy sets).We deal with this problem by simplifying and regularizing.Ragged boundaries (such as coastlines or lakefronts) are "smoothed" or generalized into lines, shapes, and edges that we can comprehend.And, because we usually can't present geographic information in the same sized unit in which we observe it, we make "scale transformations and represent the generalized result in a way that it can be visualized (e.g., maps)."
  2. 2.We examine the world at any point in time as a three-dimensional phenomenon, but we represent it in two-dimensions, often on a flat sheet of paper or plastic or on a computer screen.Specific environments are brought to "life" by filmmakers who use view angle, perspective, shadow, scale, and motion to mimic the three-dimensionality of an environment. But understanding how a two-dimensional representation represents a three-dimensional scene is a spatial skill whose development is an essential part of a geographer's training.Making a topographic map with contours to represent elevations is a 3-D to 2-D transformation; interpreting contours to recognized hills, valleys, and other landforms is a 2-D to 3-D transformation.In addition, we use frames of reference to conventionalize representations-such as "up" is north and "down" is south (both in conversation and on maps).We impose frames on the world (latitude and longitude) for locational definition, and we develop local frames (e.g., street numbers) for smaller or local scale purposes and for measuring distance and direction in a consistent and meaningful manner (e.g., "two miles northeast of the courthouse").
  3. 3.Often we use size-based hierarchies in conjunction with ordinary day-by-day information to help inform us of local conditions.Thus, we accommodate to varying sizes of physical features by identifying size hierarchies such as "mountains," "hills," "valleys," and "lowlands." In cities, we do a similar thing by classifying shopping centers (central business district, regional shopping mall, "big box" center, community center, neighborhood center, and isolated store), and we understand that, in this hierarchy, the smaller the size unit, the more frequently they are spatially distributed about a city.We further understand that widely distributed franchises are "nested" hierarchically (e.g., elementary schools are "nested" within the districts covered by middle or high schools, and that specific high schools are contained in the geographic catchment areas of certain colleges and universities).
  4. 4.We recognize that geographic knowledge is not perfect.Global Positioning Systems may only give locational precision within 30 feet (except for highly sophisticated and very expensive ones that can, if left at a single position for a length of time, give accuracy in millimeters); maps include error involved in representing a spherical earth on a flat surface.Coastlines and borders are generalized, and often this act creates dissention and aggression (as between Israel and its neighbors). But even with imperfect environmental knowledge, geographers and others can make acceptable, visual representations that you can easily recognize.
  5. 5.When knowledge about locations or places or areas is uncertain, we aggregate to a level with which we can comfortably deal.Large urban places are incredibly complex, so we call them "cities" and search for ways to generalize about them as a whole rather than thinking of them as a collection of hundreds or thousands of neighborhoods. Sometimes this aggregation process creates a new "fictional" landscape that departs significantly from reality.But, to acquire even the partial knowledge required to deal with the complexity of urban life, we have to aggregate.Note in particular that information designed for use with machines such as computers has to be more accurate or more clearly defined than information intended for use by the human mind.The latter uses cognitive processes to make sense of incomplete information, such as interpolating, associating, translating, transforming, and perceptual "closure." Geographic Information Systems today are trying to duplicate as many as possible of these cognitive functions, but they have a long way to go before this objective will be gained (if ever)! In the meantime, we have to accept that geographic knowledge is generally fragmented, and we accommodate to this by generalizing and aggregating.
  6. 6.The state of geographic knowledge is often reflected in the way it is represented.The most fuzzy way is to use words.Verbal descriptions are at the mercy of the language that is used, particularly the richness or the ambiguity of words and phrases. Spatial prepositions like "near," "behind," "on," and "across" are very fuzzy and their use, at times, produces confusion in interpretations (e.g., do we travel across the Sahara Desert or along it? Is the bike near the hours or the house near the bike? Is the tree before the house or the house after the tree? And when does it matter?).While often simplified, maps and map-like representations, diagrams, graphics, tables, and images convey geographic information in a quicker and more comprehensible manner than does written or spoken language (i.e., visualizations are the most powerful way of representing spatial information)-though usually people have to be taught how to read or interpret non-verbal representations.
So, we must accept that we are not perfect sensors or repositories of geographic information.To understand the world, we must change it.Sometimes our changes produce false impressions (e.g., showing Greenland as bigger than the USA); at other times, we select and only use those subsets that seem "relevant" to particular purposes or tasks we actually do with maps.That's why we get lost, choose the wrong neighborhood to live in or drive through, holiday in places we dislike, and don't understand our international neighbors or associates.As an integrative discipline, geography-perhaps more than any other discipline-helps to balance the physical and the human presence on earth; it gives us insights into spatial relations and interactions at scales ranging from local to global.It is just as effective in helping to understand where your breakfast food and drink comes from as it is in helping to understand the implications of global warming or the pattern of terrorist activities against certain areas or peoples.And its methods and technologies are designed to make spatial relations as clear as possible (i.e., least distorted) with as little human effort as possible by enabling visualizations of unseen phenomena and unobserved relations at a variety of scales.

Before leaving, I want to thank those who responded to my "landmarks" query an issue or so ago.Not many did (about 50)! Was it too hard a question to name 10 world and 10 national landmarks? Or what was the problem? I'd be pleased to get your comments at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

For those who participated, the following gives the results.I've combined your responses with those I got from my students to give a simple count of the major features-I didn't get enough responses to show differences by country of residence or age, and the low response rate identifying males and females gives only a minimal picture of possible differences.Nevertheless, here it is.If any of you want to go to back to the relevant article and send in a response, I'll still appreciate and use it.

The World's Most Recognized Landmarks

From your responses, combined with the results of my student survey, the results are:

  1. 1.More than 125 different world landmarks were mentioned.
  2. 2.31 of the top 50 were made by humans; 19 were natural features.
  3. 3.The single most frequently mentioned landmark was the Eiffel Tower; the most frequently mentioned natural feature was the Grand Canyon.
  4. 4.The ten most frequently mentioned landmarks are shown in Table I.The landmarks were found in France, China, Egypt, India, USA (2), England, Nepal, Australia, and Italy.In the top 50, 28 countries were mentioned.
  5. 5.There were not enough female responses to provide data for male/female comparison.US males and foreign males both picked the Eiffel Tower first, but differed in their choice of the top ranked natural feature.US males chose the Grand Canyon; foreign males chose Ayer's Rock (Uluru).
Eiffel Tower
Great Wall of China
Taj Mahal
Statue of Liberty
Grand Canyon
Big Ben
Mount Everest
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa

Reginald G.Golledge
Professor of Geography
University of California Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Published Wednesday, May 15th, 2002

Written by Reginald Golledge

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