This is what we look like. You, me, and everybody else in North America: one dot each. 454, 064,098 dots.
The creator of this maximal overview of a continent’s population is Brandon Martin-Anderson, a Masters student in the Changes Places group at the MIT Media Lab. Among his many interests is data visualization. Martin-Anderson took information from the 2010 US and Mexican and 2011 Canadian censuses and produced a dot for each person (we’re all there, you have to zoom) at the address we provided in the surveys.
The lack of state borders, city designations, roads, and geographic features de-familiarizes the all-too-recognizable map and deprives viewers of readily descriptive categories (Chicagoans, Midwesterners, Appalachians). As a result, it’s not entirely clear from this image why many of our fellow North Americans crowd together while others dwell off in more solitary locales. Instead of a sociological, historical, or geographical lens on human settlement, this map offers what looks to be a biological account of the continent, one that doesn’t quite explain why we cluster together (perhaps for warmth) and this proximity appears to predicate reproduction. Those sparse dots — stray pepper grains on a tablecloth — are folks isolated in vast expanse. Is each one evidence of a new population node about to expand or one that has withered and verges on extinction? Is there a lack of sustenance in these empty swaths, a disinclination to reproduce or an inclination to flee?
In urban areas, the dense grouping of dots takes on the aspect of nerve ganglions or, less flatteringly, spreading mold. The bits scattered across sparser regions appear to be the product of a burst seed pod, each spot a locus of potential growth or disappearance into fallow ground. The biomorphic imagery is apt: seeing the human mass at this remove reminds us that we are aggregates of propagating cells — our movements to and fro, our gatherings and dispersals, may be less driven by our higher faculties then the consequences of cell division. Collectively, we’re like that dark streak creeping across the bathroom tile, busy each of us eating, sleeping, making more dots. Zoom in close and find yourself: You’re the one with a fresh shave, a plan to visit Spain this summer, insightful thoughts about a recently read novel, a few pounds to loose, and memories of your kid when she was younger. Yes, that’s you and your 454, 064,098 neighbors.