How many continents are there? It’s a surprisingly difficult question

Come on kids, between us we can crack this. Image: Getty.

Once upon a time, “How many continents are there” was one of those questions with straightforward answers, like “How many colours are in a rainbow” or “what is the weather like in summer”. There are seven. Of course there are seven: all those picture books I had as a kid said there were seven.

Except, it turns out that, as with so many of the things we tell our children, this number owed as much to social convention as it does to objective reality. And social conventions can differ: depending on where you are in the world, there can be anywhere between four and seven continents, and you sometimes don’t have to travel very far to get a different answer.

So, to coin a phrase: what on Earth is going on?

Rules and regulations

First define your continent. The Wikipedia page on the matter contains this helpful explanation:

By convention, “continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water”.

Which sounds simple enough. Except the very next sentence is this:

Many of the seven most commonly recognized continents identified by convention are not discrete landmasses separated completely by water.

Which feels like an unexpected piece of dry humour from an open-sourced encyclopaedia.

But it has a point: it’s the work of all of four seconds to think of vast numbers of ways in which the seven things you almost certainly think of as continents don’t fit this rule. Off the top of my head:

  • Islands like Great Britain are considered part of continents despite not being part of continuous masses of land;

  • North and South America are not discrete masses of land, they’re connected by an isthmus;

  • Neither are Africa and Asia;

  • Europe and Asia aren’t even vaguely separated, they’re quite obviously the same bloody thing;

  • If Europe gets to be a continent because it’s separated from Asia by some mountains and some inland seas, then why is India only a sub-continent?

  • If Australia is a continent why is Greenland only an island? Okay, it’s smaller, but where’s the line? What are the rules here?

And so on and so on.

Spinning plates

There is another way of dividing the Earth up into roughly continent sized bits, which has a rather more scientific basis to it: plate tectonics, the geological theory which explains mountain ranges, volcanoes, and so on by showing how bits of the Earth’s surface have been sliding about and banging into each other for the last few billion years.

In this theory, it’s quite obvious why the Americas are two continents, why Australia is one but Greenland isn’t, and why Africa is a different thing to Asia despite being attached to it. It also highlights a very good reason for considering Britain to be part of Europe: they’re part of the same continental shelf, even if part of that shelf is submerged under water. Despite Brexit, Britain will always be in Europe.

The plates. Click to expand. Image: USGS/Wikimedia Commons.

In many other ways, though, the map of the tectonic plates doesn’t look anything like the map of the continents. For one thing there are a bunch of oceanic ones, which on maps of the world are mostly just water with a few islands in them.

For another, the Middle East and India are their own plates, so aren’t part of Asia; neither is the Russian Far East, which is actually part of the North American plate. Europe, meanwhile, very clearly is part of Asia, except for Iceland, which is half Asian, half North American.

There are good reasons why plate tectonics isn’t going to get us very far in explaining why we mostly think we have seven continents. One is that it’s a surprisingly recent theory: it wasn’t widely recognised by the scientific community until the 1960s, so there are plenty of people around now whose school text books will have laughed at the idea.

Another is that the plate boundaries are often invisible or, at least at the human scale, nonsensical: any system which splits Iceland into two separate continents is not going to be a useful categorisation.


Geography is written by the victors

The real reason we count Europe as a continent and include Britain in it, treat India as a part of Asia, and so forth is (this is where we came in) social convention: we do it because we do.

More than that, we do it because the rules on this stuff were largely formulated by the Europeans who spent much of the last five hundred years or so conquering the world. That’s why Europe is a seen as a single, diverse continent but the Indian subcontinent, with its own patchwork of languages, cultures and religions, isn’t: because the former was the imperial power that conquered the latter.

A related point is that, if you ignore plate tectonics, the entirely world doesn’t divide neatly up into continents at all. The reason a huge bunch of Pacific islands get bundled together with Australia as a slightly miscellaneous category called “Oceania” is as much because people wanted to make everything fit in somewhere, as t is because of any real connection between the two.

So those lengthy explanations aside, how many continents actually are there?

Counting continents

There seem to be six different systems, helpfully portrayed in this gif:

A gif of the various models. Click to expand. Image: AlexCovarrubia/Wikimedia Commons.

The seven continent system is the one you’re probably familiar with. That’s the one that’s standard in the English-speaking world, China, south Asia, and parts of western Europe. The British Empire can probably be blamed, at least in part, for its dominance.

  • There’s also an ultra-stripped down four continent model which divides the world into four major landmasses: Eurasia-Africa, America, Antarctica, Australia. This, best I can tell, isn’t taught anywhere; but it is the logical end point of the definition that involves big bits of land divided by water, so it’s worth including it anywhere.

In between there are four other models:

  • A six-continent system in which Europe and Asia are one continent. This, the internet tells me, is the standard in Russia and Eastern Europe (which makes sense, given that the slavic world straddles the Urals), and also Japan (although, citation needed).

  • A different six-continent system treats Europe and Asia as separate, but combines North and South America. That one seems to be favoured in France, much of southern Europe and various places colonised by those countries.

  • There’s also a five continent system which combines the Americas but ignores Antarctica because, to the first approximation, nobody lives there. This is the one favoured by the UN and the International Olympic Committee (count the rings).

  • Lastly, there’s a variant five-continent system consisting of Eurasia, America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. I can find no reference whatsoever to anyone using this one, but it’s in the gif and also this National Geographic page, so I’m including it for the sake of completism.

So, there you go. The best we can say is that the world has “some continents”. Assuming you accept the notion that continents exist at all.

I’m still really angry at those picture books which promised me snow in winter and heat in summer, incidentally.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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