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30 September 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:12am

How big is it really?

The BBC's new visualisation service is really just window dressing history with maps.

By Simon Reid-Henry

For a few weeks now the BBC has been test-driving a “prototype” approach to explaining historical events that it hopes might soon inform its History and News programming. The website, BBC Dimensions “>http://howbigreally.com/> , is a Google Earth-based system which aims, so they say, “to bring home the human scale of events and places in history”.

And bring things home it quite literally does. Simply tap in your postcode and famous events, landmarks, natural disasters – indeed more or less anything that can be mapped – can now be digitally repositioned outside your own front door. Or someone else’s if you prefer.

Though still in its early stages, the technology has already been applied to topics ranging from ‘Ancient Worlds’ to ‘Festivals.’ So you can now whittle away a lunch break finding out how the Colossus of Rhodes would have matched up against the Statue of Liberty, or arranging for Rio’s Samba Parade to run past the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

But apart from offering a few moments’ informative distraction, is there anything of more lasting value to be gleaned from all of this?

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Is it really worth knowing, for example, that Guantanamo Bay, if dropped upon SE1 in London would actually stretch all the way from Paddington to Cambridge Heath? Or that Guantanamo itself is about twice the size of the Tora Bora caves whence some of its detainees came? Or even – if we switch from the ‘terrorism’ theme, to the ‘natural disasters’ theme – that the East Pacific Garbage Patch is now bigger than Europe?

In some respects it is. It certainly helps give a sense of the scale of things. And drawing comparisons across time and space is a much-needed corrective to that curious paradox of modern life: that the more we know about the world the less time we have to appreciate the way it appears to others.

It can also be useful – humbling at least – to learn that the extent of flooding in Pakistan this year was such that it would have covered the entire United Kingdom, with water left to spare.

But where is the explanation behind these comparisons? Where is the context that will actually explain why some things – like floods, and famines – more often strike some people in some places rather than others? Without such context it is all too easy for us to assume that such events are merely ‘natural’ events, when often there are often all-too-human reasons behind them.

For all its stated intention of “making the news more geographically relevant,” with BBC Dimensions the BBC appears to in fact be ignoring the lessons of geography almost entirely. Geography is not just about what you see. It is about what shapes the things you see. Absent these things and we are no more likely to appreciate the world as experienced by others than before. We are left, in fact, merely window dressing history with maps.