Off the Map: Revisiting geocultural literacy

About six years ago in this same column space, I highlighted an issue about which I’m very passionate and very concerned: geographic and cultural literacy, or simply geocultural literacy for short. I thought it would be useful to revisit this theme once again and reflect on whether or not the past several years have revealed any significant movement in a positive direction on this topic.

For the purpose of refreshing the topic a bit, when I use the term geocultural literacy, I’m referring to the overall awareness of place and orientation. This has to do with people’s observance of their surrounding environment and its composition, such as the flora, fauna, other people and so on. In academic circles, this is often referred to as having a “sense of place,” which also assumes a person’s ability to discern spatial, cause-effect relationships around himself or herself. That ability is built upon fundamental geographic skills such as locating places and understanding the cultural context of current events, developing a spatial perspective, thinking beyond one’s own cultural frame of reference and learning to use geographic tools (such as maps, compasses or GPS).

The decline of geocultural literacy is evidenced not only from anecdotal observations in classrooms, workplaces and in society at large, but from survey data that’s been collected by organizations such as the National Geographic Society and the Royal Geographical Society (UK). In 2006, the National Geographic-Roper Survey revealed troubling data: only 54% of the young adults (ages 18-24) surveyed in the United States answered all the geographic questions correctly. For example, 63% could not find Iraq on a world map. Another 46% could not identify the states of New York and Ohio on a US map. This survey’s results (along with others) confirm what’s been the brunt of numerous jokes for years: the geocultural literacy of US citizens is quite poor, and frankly embarrassing.

But poor geocultural literacy is certainly not just a US issue. A few years ago, another geographic literacy study performed by the spatial tools company ESRI in the United Kingdom showed that 65% of the populace erroneously believe that the United Kingdom is comprised of four regions, rather than the correct three (England, Scotland and Wales). Over half the respondents wrongly believe that English is the most spoken global language in the world (as opposed to Mandarin Chinese), and 10% mistakenly believe that Mount Everest is the United Kingdom’s highest mountain (as opposed to Ben Nevis).

Obviously, improving geocultural literacy at a broad societal level remains a significant challenge for many countries, and several organizations are striving to remedy the situation. The interesting thing is juxtaposing this continuing poor literacy trend with ever-increasing globalization and cultural interaction on many different levels, even over the past six years or so. You would think that the increased global exposure would naturally require an increase in geocultural understanding, particularly among businesses. But has that been the case? From my observation, the answer isn’t distinct in either direction, but there are some hopeful signs.

One aspect that I find encouraging is an apparent reigniting of many consumers’ love of maps, and recognition of the great power of location. Much of this can be credited to two major technological influences: smartphones and online maps, and to be very specific, the Apple iPhone and Google Maps. Despite the falling out between the two companies over their competing
mapping efforts, their combined influence has been monumental to the average consumer. While paper maps still have their place as reference material, smartphone users with GPS have tremendous geographic knowledge at their fingertips, with the quick ability to find their location, route themselves to another location (usually with accuracy but not always), view recent satellite imagery, real-time traffic data and a wide variety of points of interest (restaurants, businesses, entertainment and so on).

This rediscovery of the power of maps over the past several years is not trivial, as it’s helped many people at least gain an implicit comprehension of spatial relationships, even if it’s in the context of everyday practical purposes. It has made more consumers “location aware,” if not “location savvy,” and has given rise to a slightly improved grasp of geographic concepts and awareness of place. Interestingly, with the swift rise of user-generated content (even in mapping, such as via Google’s Map Maker program), everyday users of spatial information have become sources of detailed, local “ground truth” to correct, revise and augment. In a way, programs like this are one reflection of a growing resurgence in at least spatial literacy.

In the business world, locational knowledge has been revolutionary in changing the tasks of distribution, routing and demographic targeting. But beyond the spatial data aspects, I’ve noticed other signs that seem to indicate that companies are beginning to understand the importance of the cultural awareness and how that’s infused in their products and content.

One interesting example comes from the video game industry, a segment that hasn’t been highlighted for being particularly geoculturally aware. Ubisoft, one of the more successful game development companies, released a critically-acclaimed title in 2007 called Assassin’s Creed, a game which takes place during Crusades-era Palestine and the region (Figure 1). Knowing that this could be a potentially volatile subject, the company opted to make a statement that displays when a player launches the game: “Inspired by historical events and characters, this work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs.” While this was obviously a form of disclaimer to stave off potential criticism of how the subject matter was handled, it also demonstrated the company’s awareness of the fact that their content was not only created by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs, but that it was to be viewed and played by multicultural gamers of various faiths and beliefs. This is an important ideological leap for a company to publically acknowledge, especially within an industry that’s been sometimes characterized as being too focused on a narrow demographic (young Caucasian males, even though the demographic studies of actual gamers prove otherwise).

Beyond gaming, I’ve seen various forms of evidence in companies’ products that show they are starting to comprehend the need for assuming a global-facing position for all of their work. More corporate websites are providing translated versions or at least including a link to an auto-translation application programming interface — recognition that their visitors might not all speak English. More location lists seem to be avoiding the pitfalls of showing “Taiwan” and other noncountry entities as a “country.” The apparent need for culturalization services also seems to be rising, as there have been more cross-cultural consultants arising and more localization companies broadening their offerings to emphasize more culturalization (even though it’s often not characterized as “culturalization”).

Does all this anecdotal observation mean that geocultural literacy is truly on the rise? On the broad level, no, I believe it remains a significant challenge, one that’s exacerbated by the ubiquitous veneer of technology many of us have adopted. The use of mobile technologies and all the other modern conveniences seems to lull many people into assuming that common technology equals common culture. I’ve actually heard colleagues explain to me that because someone in China or Kenya, for example, uses an iPhone, then Chinese and Kenyan culture have much in common with their own. The commonality lies in our shared humanity, but the underlying geocultural context in which we use these devices remains diverse and unique.

Culture is dynamic and it does change, but many of the fundamental assumptions of a culture take decades or centuries to truly shift. The same can be said of the level of geocultural literacy in the general populace. Based on various forms of evidence, I think that the potential power of that literacy is being recognized and is improving — primarily enabled through key technologies. However, a more realized, deeper level of geocultural literacy that comes through education and exposure is still in jeopardy. The reality is that whether or not individuals and companies perceive it, in order to be successful in this globalized world the need for geocultural understanding remains absolute.