Pobody’s nerfect on Null Island
Or, the world capital of inside jokes
There’s no place like Null Island. That’s because the intersection of the Equator and the Prime Meridian, latitude zero and longitude zero, is an empty spot of ocean off the coast of West Africa.
But the fact that it has coordinates (0°,0°) and that we live in the golden age of geocoding (finally, something to be cheerful about!) means that when a location is left empty in a database, it may be assigned to Null Island.
And so the space in the Gulf of Guinea occupied only by a lonely meteorological buoy shows up all over the place. A new scientific paper by Levente Juhász and Peter Mooney wonderfully titled “I think I discovered a military base in the middle of ocean” - Null Island, the most real of fictional places” chronicles the technical history of this null but not void unplace, and most amusingly tracks “the growing interest in Null Island as a social and artistic concept as well.” And so it offers those of us in the wit newsletter community a chance to trace an inside joke through its lifespan. The researchers counted four phases, though based on the facts they present, I’d argue there are seven:
1. Eerily prescient cartoon (1957)
The Atomic Age animation Colonel Bleep followed aliens who come to earth to investigate the first nuclear explosions and subsequently establish Island Zero Zero, which looks like this:
2. Inside joke (2008-2010s)
Steve Pellegrin, a data analyst at the software company Tableau, is credited with inventing the name Null Island to “describe data goofs.” He also snapped up nullisland.com and filled it with jokes such as:
A man travelling on Null Island passed a small courtyard and heard voices murmuring. He went in and saw an altar with a large stone 0 in the middle. White-robed people were kneeling before the altar, softly chanting “Nil... nil... nil...” while ceremonial priests sang prayers to The Great Nullity and The Blessed Emptiness.
Eventually, the man turned to a white-robed observer beside him and asked “Is Nothing sacred?”
The inside joke that spread among geospatialists became slightly more real in 2011 when a one-square metre polygon was added to the Natural Earth database as what Juhász and Mooney call a “troubleshooting country.” Now, Null Island was in the public domain.
3. Early adopters (2011-2014)
When mapmakers collide with data analysts, you’ll find novelty T-shirts, which is where Null Island began to appear. Google added it as an Easter egg in a 2012 version of Google Maps, and the exact shape of the island referenced fictional landmasses in the games Myst and Dragon Quest.
4. General curiosity (2014-2016)
The media picked up on Null Island in 2016, most notably with a Wall Street Journal a-hed story headlined “If you can’t follow directions, you’ll end up on Null Island.”
5. Artist statements (2018-2020)
This is where the word “liminal” starts to be used, as in “Null Island becomes a timeless, liminal place where all these objects try to survive virtually, beyond material deterioration.”
6. Conspiracy fodder (2021)
A cryptocurrency enthusiast pieces together various errors on a conspiracy subreddit to prove the existence of a secret Chinese military base. Key quote: “That is about as far down this rabbit hole as I have gone, would love to see what others find.”
7. Infinite oops (2021-)
Null Island exists at the intersection of not only the Equator and the Prime Meridian but also, Juhász and Mooney argue, that of human error and wishful thinking. There will always be a Null Island because bad data has to live somewhere. In the early days of the pandemic, the authoritative Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard placed all unassigned cases there, creating a virtual leper colony. The fitness app Strava shows plenty of people jogging Null Island, and there are ample AirBnb accommodations if your dates are flexible:
The last laugh goes to the intrepid few who have actually visited (0°,0°). They are the illegitimate heirs of mountaineer George Mallory, proof that for every noble but pointless human endeavor there’s an equally ignoble one. Mallory famously climbed Everest “because it’s there”; this Norwegian engineer visited Null Island last year because it’s not.
Quick quips; lightning
“Is not the whole world a vast house of assignation to which the filing system has been lost?”
— Quentin Crisp
“In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”
— Jorge Luis Borges, specifically the translated entirety of his whole short story On Exactitude In Science
“I wanna hang a map of the world in my house. Then I’m gonna put pins into all the locations that I’ve traveled to. But first, I’m gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won’t fall down.”
— Mitch Hedberg
Get Wit Quick No. 148 takes a cutlass to an atlas, alas. Huge thanks to the excellent data science newsletter Quantum of Sollazzo for pointing out the Null Island paper. I like to think that I too live in a troubleshooting country. Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is the imperfect Null Island beach read. The coordinates of the tappable ❤️ are: just below.