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The map is not the territory
What Micahel Scott driving into a lake tells us about what we know.
Hey friends, welcome back. I hope Labor Day Weekend and the “short” week that followed treated you well.
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I invite you to think back with me a few weeks. Two weeks ago, we had a short post about L. M. Sacasas's 41 Questions Concerning Technology. We’re going to set that one aside (for now, anyway).
Today, I’m first inviting you to refresh your mind on the key points of our post from… 3 weeks ago. Another lifetime, right? If you need a refresher, click here:
TL;DR: That post took a dive into the deep end of conspiracy theories—what they really are, how they get their footing, and why, at times, we don’t even notice them.
A couple of key points from that post:
We have access to and take in more raw information than at any point in human history, but we’re not equipped with the mental “tools” to deal with that information.
Our media have primed us to suspend our disbelief around narratives we are already primed to believe. So what do we do about it?
Our media have primed us to suspend our disbelief around narratives we are already primed to believe.
As we continue to tread water in conspiracy theories, I want us to take a moment and remember one of the greatest conspiracies in American History: the time in The Office where Michael’s GPS tells him to drive into a lake.
So, this isn’t technically a conspiracy theory. No one was being maliciously led astray here (that we can tell, anyway). But still, the same root problem with a conspiracy theory also happened here: Michael tried to get to his destination by following an unhelpful map of the world. Whether it’s a physical map of our world that leads us into a lake or a “mental map” built by our minds that makes unhelpful connections, a map that doesn’t help us get where we want to go is not a good map.
More and more, we’ve become dependent on our GPS devices to get us from place to place. I pride myself (sometimes very incorrectly) on the internal map I have in my head, but many times I will pull out Google Maps just to see if there is a faster route. We’ve all experienced what Michael did above (not the driving into a lake part, but trusting a map) and the map turning out to be wrong. But in general, we go about our lives thinking that our maps are mostly correct. Or at the very least, we know when they are wrong and avoid those spots.
This tendency extends well beyond maps of physical terrain.
Personality tests like Enneagram and the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator break down different facets of the way we think and experience the world into distinct groupings.
Budgeting techniques like the Dave Ramsey technique teach a strict method to managing money.
Generational divides segment people born in different years into groupings with very specific characteristics1.
All of these methods work to make reality simpler to understand by giving clear rules of action and engagement. But like all maps, they have their limits and can be distorted.
Let’s hop back to maps of the physical world. We’ve all encountered situations where the physical map of the world is just wrong, like in 2012 when Apple Maps was sending people into the desert.
But what about other times, when our maps are not so much wrong as… deceptive:
With the help of digital technology, different maps can be served to different people. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, Google Maps began serving different maps of the border between Russia and Ukraine depending on your location.
Then there are situations where the map can’t be right. Due to national security laws, Maps of mainland China must be deliberately wrong.
Beyond these examples of where Maps are inconsistent for different reasons, things like elevation also involve a lot of judgment. What’s the tallest mountain in the world? Mount Everest? As it turns out, The Tallest Mountain In The World Is Surprisingly Debatable.
So, you may be asking, what’s the point of me destroying your ability to believe in maps?
“All models are wrong but some are useful.”
George Box is often quoted as saying:
All models are wrong but some are useful.
So maps in the end are tools. Technologies. Media. They are a way of delivering content to us in a useful form. If you do much looking around online about the “map-territory relationship,” you will pretty quickly come upon this famous scene from the TV show The West Wing:
The central plot of this scene is a group suggesting that the use of the Mercator projection contributes to global inequality, and advocating for its replacement. As we have previously explored, all media are really tools and all tools have tradeoffs. In this case, the Mercator projection was created to assist in sea navigation but has become the ubiquitous way to envision the world. And with that “clarified” vision are tradeoffs.
So, you may be thinking, “Alex wants me to burn all my maps.” Yes, that’s exactly it. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.
As we consider our progression of thinking over the past few posts, we recognize that any time we take a model too literally, we risk falling into the deep end:
Four weeks ago, we covered how our ways of thinking about the world can be more about the feel of it. Our suspension of disbelief, which is what allows us to overlook small divergences between our map and reality, is primarily concerned with how we experience something as a whole and not on any particular detail too closely.
Three weeks ago, thinking about conspiracy theories, we recognized that our brains are pattern-making machines, looking to save energy and to create shortcuts that allow us to make sense of our world in the easiest way possible.
So here, we arrive at the point of conflict between our maps and the world. The map is not the territory, but the map gives us a tool to make sense of the territory.
We must be ready and willing to update our maps when they begin to fail us and to consider what other maps might serve us better.
With that, thanks for reading, and looking forward to seeing you here again soon.
Notes and Further Reading
As it turns out, the phrase “The Map is not the Territory” is a very quotable phrase. It’s attributed to mathematician Alfred Korzybski, but it has been used as the title of countless articles and posts over the years. So here I am, jumping on the bandwagon. But another article by the same name gave me a lot of good insight for this post. It contains a great explaining of the failed re-launch of JC Penny in the early 2010s as an example of a failure to recognize the difference between map and territory.
If you really want to blow your mind, check out The True Size, a map that will show you the true relative sizes of countries on the Mercator projection. You can read more about that project here.
If you want a deep dive into how the map-territory relationship plays out in the design world, check out this classic talk by Ethan Marcotte.
Although, to their credit, Pew Research notes “Generational cutoff points aren’t an exact science.” Michael Dimock, Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins