In the following paragraph, Edward Tufte speaks of "flatlands of paper." I don't understand its meaning:

Even though we navigate daily through a perceptual world of three dimensions and reason occasionally about higher dimensional arena with mathematical ease, the world portrayed on our information displays is caught up in the two-dimensionality of the flatlands of paper and video screen


It is a reference to Edwin Abbott's classic satirical novella Flatland. Tufte is saying although we live a real, three-dimensional world, we get most of our information in artificial, two-dimensional representations: paper and on-screen.

| improve this answer | |
  • I don't remember whether he credits Abbott, but Carl Sagan also made this term famous in an episode (#10) of the original Cosmos. The flatlander's (2D people) encounter w/ 3D objects is used to parallel a 3D person's possible perspective on 4D space. – goldilocks Nov 17 '14 at 19:41
  • 1
    @goldilocks, "Let's imagine that we are perfectly flat. I mean, absolutely flat and that we live, appropriately enough, in Flatland a land designed and named by Edwin Abbott, a Shakespearean scholar who lived in Victorian England." So, yes, although describing Abbott as a "Shakespearean scholar" seems as reductive as describing a man who survived until 1926 as "living in Victorian England" (The good Queen herself died in 1901.) – Malvolio Nov 17 '14 at 20:59
  • @goldilocks, but Sagan may have had in mind Hal Clement's S-F classic Mission of Gravity, where we encounter natives of a Jovian planet who live in an almost 2 dimensional world because the high gravity allows little movement in the 3rd dimension. – Greg Lee Dec 16 '15 at 4:33

"flatland" - a region in which the land is predominantly flat —usually used in plural

"flatlands of paper" - a metaphor for books, newspapers and written information in general.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    why the downvote? – Centaurus Nov 17 '14 at 11:49
  • It's not my downvote, but it's probably because your answer is wrong -- it is, as Malvolio suggests, a reference to Abbott's book. – Charles Nov 17 '14 at 18:02
  • @Charles - evidence? Other than Malvolio's assertion? For that matter, even if it's a reference to Flatland, "flatland" itself is a more general term and someone could understand the metaphor without any knowledge of Abbott's (or Tufte's) work. – GalacticCowboy Nov 17 '14 at 18:46
  • 1
    @GalacticCowboy: It's pretty evident from the original quote, if you've read the book. But I don't feel obliged to defend someone else's downvote, I was just explaining. Apparently the 16 people who voted for Malvolio's answer felt similarly. – Charles Nov 17 '14 at 19:01
  • 1
    @Charles, This is a good answer and a useful addition to Malvolio's sparse answer. Afterall, the book title referenced has a context that is both literal and figuative with many rich associations. Since I come from the flatlands of my country, I am quite aware of the way this term can be used derisively of a place (& its flatlander inhabitants) to mean dull and lifeless, i.e. flat in the figurative sense. – user227547 May 1 '17 at 16:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.