On maps and territories and their slippery relationships

The 1946 Jorge Luis Borges short story “On Exactitude in Science”–found here and reproduced here at History and Futility–is as good an introduction to the map-territory relation as I can imagine.

On Exactitude in Science. . . 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.

Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

The concise Wikipedia definition is as good a starting point for contemplation as any.

The map–territory relation describes the relationship between an object and a representation of that object, as in the relation between a geographical territory and a map of it. Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory,” encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. For example, the pain from a stone falling on one’s foot is not the actual stone, it’s one’s perception of the stone; one’s opinion of a politician, favorable or unfavorable, is not that person; and so on. A specific abstraction or reaction does not capture all facets of its source — e.g. the pain in one’s foot does not convey the internal structure of the stone, you don’t know everything that is going on in the life of a politician, etc. — and thus may limit an individual’s understanding and cognitive abilities unless the two are distinguished. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories—that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself—in this sense.

You have to admit that this connects well with my post yesterday on the different relationships visible in a single map.

Fortuitously enough, two blog posts relating to this appeared in my RSS reader this morning.

  • Quiet Babylon’s Tim Maly calls for the creation of Upper Toronto.
  • Upper Toronto is a science fiction design proposal to build a new city in the sky. The CN restaurant might be ground level, or imagine a city sitting on top of the Bay Street towers. When Upper Toronto is finished, all residents of will be relocated upwards and Lower Toronto will transformed into some combination of intentional ruin, national park, and farmland.

    This is, of course, a terrible idea. But it is a terrible idea that lets us imagine and perform about the kind of city we’d want if we could start fresh.

    As he concludes, “Upper Toronto will be full of ideas that will never be implemented. If we do it right, it will prompt a lot of people to ask, “But why not?””

  • Less imaginatively and pleasantly but more concretely, over at Not Exactly Rocket Science Ed Yong explores (“Is crime a virus or a beast? How metaphors shape our thoughts and decisions”) how severely metaphors can bias thinking on social issues.

    In 1990, in a depressed area of Buffalo, New York, eleven schoolgirls were raped. According to George Kelling, a criminal justice scholar, eight of these incidents could have been prevented. After the third case, police knew that a serial rapist was on the loose but, even though they had a description and modus operandi, they issued no warning to local parents. They saw their job as catching the criminal rather than preventing more girls from being raped.

    Kelling argued that the cops hadn’t wilfully neglected their duties. Their actions were swayed by their views of police-work, which were in turn affected by metaphors. They saw themselves as crime-fighters who trod the “thin blue line” protecting innocent civilians from criminal marauders. With this role entrenched in their minds, they saw their job as catching the rapist, even at the expense of preventing further crimes. As Kelling said, the eight Buffalo schoolgirls “were victims, though no one realized it at the time, not only of a rapist, but of a metaphor.”

    As with all complex issues, crime is suffused with metaphors. One common frame portrays crime as a disease, one that plagues cities, infects communities, and spreads in epidemics or waves. Another depicts crime as a predator – criminals prey upon their victims, and they need to be hunted or caught. These aren’t just rhetorical flourishes; they’re mind-changing tools with very real consequences.

    Specifically, people in a study who were presented with the metaphor of crime as a “wild beast preying on the city” and “lurking in neighbourhoods” were much less likely to favour social reforms along with stricter policing as a solution to crime than people presented with the metaphor of crime as a “virus infecting the city” and “plaguing” neighbourhoods.

  • Go, read.

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    One Response to On maps and territories and their slippery relationships

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