Mapping as Selection

from Teaching / Thinking Tools / Semiotics 2002 03 13

Mapping as Selection

An email from bkMarcus [pk’s son] on Making Maps


I just got off the phone with you and found this message in my mailbox:

An image began to assemble itself in his mind, a chauvinistic map of the world where the island of Britain loomed largest while the other countries and concerns were only black boxes, inputs and outputs. As an economic model it was unsound, but as a strategic picture it had the enormous advantage of focus, of resolution.
page 217, The Star Fraction, by Ken MacLeod

I sent it to myself this morning as a reminder to address map-making. It fits very well with what we were just saying to each other on the phone.

“As an economic model it was unsound, but as a STRATEGIC PICTURE it had the enormous advantage of FOCUS, of RESOLUTION.”

It occurred to me reading that passage this morning (on work days, I wake up with coffee and a book) that ALL maps are strategic pictures. Modeling the economy is not the protagonist’s purpose at this point in the story; for that he’d need a different map, a different focus, and a different resolution.

First RAW’s summary of Korzybski’s 3 points:

[Robert Anton Wilson]
(a hero)
[like pk, a Korzybskian]

(1) The Map is not the Territory.
(2) The Map cannot represent all the information of the Territory.
(3) We can make Maps of other Maps.

OK, here are the 2 quotes I promised you on the phone:

RAW: “The purpose of a map is to simplify.” [That might not be a word-for-word quotation. I’d have to listen to the tape again.]

bk: “The purpose of a map is NOT (as we so often say it is) to represent the territory, but rather to negotiate between the signals from the territory and the current purpose of the map’s user.”

So not only is it a mistake to confuse the map with the territory — it’s even a mistake to think the map represents the territory. I’m reminded now of Gregory Bateson and his “dormant principles” (was that the term?) where attributes are taken to be somehow inside the objects, rather than relational states between object and perceiver. The map is a functional negotiation of the world — a world which we can never access except through other maps.

“Who is the master who makes the grass green?”

I think I’ve been reading Korzybski Rule #2 for years as “The Map is failing to be the Territory” (very Platonic) or “The Map is lesser than the Territory” (very Cartesian). And I think Korzybski himself (or RAW representing Korzybski) understates #2. Not only can the Map not represent all of the Territory, but it shouldn’t TRY TO — or it’s failing to be a map.

R. A. Wilson talks about the billions of signals our nervous system receives each second, about the hierarchy of processing within the nervous system — reflex arcs, reptilian brain, mammalian brain, primate brain, human consciousness — and how the process of perception has to throw out 99% of the signals so as not to overwhelm us. The throw-this-data-away rule is based both on perceived relevance of the information, and potential dissonance. And the dissonance, of course, is based on the current maps.

This brings me to the point I’ve been trying to work out inside my head for the past few days:

Just as there are natural languages and artificial languages, and just as the two share certain properties (which is why we call them both languages) and have essentially distinct properties (which is why we have the 2 distinct adjectives to describe them), I think it’s important to recognize that there are similarly Natural Maps and Artificial Maps.

The natural maps are built into our nervous systems, by genetics, maturation and development, where development is years of interaction with our environment. And our environment is both physical (in which case the signals are coming (theoretically) from the territory), and social (in which case we’re interacting primarily with signals from other maps(!)). We call these perceptual maps, cognitive maps, epistemologies, world views, opinions, understanding, etc.

The artificial maps are the standard connotation of the word ‘map’ — road maps, geological surveys — as well as other forms of graphing. But there are also artificial maps that we build inside our nervous systems. We do this through education, both formal and informal, through deep thought, through psychotherapy in general and through neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) in specific. RAW lists many other techniques for this, which he usually calls “Consciousness Altering” or “Meta-Programming”. He also calls it I-squared, intelligence studying intelligence.

I’m willing at this point to claim that all of these maps — the natural, the artificial, the unconscious and the deliberate — adhere to the rule I state above: they are functional negotiations between the signals from outside of us, and the purposes inside of us.

Note: I introduced bk to Ken MacLeod but bk introduced me to Robert Anton Wilson! (and I saturated bk with Bateson starting at age twelve.)

2003 03 09

A current series of emails between pk & bk are illuminating enough for me to gather into a new Tools module on Knowledge.

2003 03 24

bk is reading Hayakawa on semantics and last night we discussed another deep distinction to complement Korzybski’s map/territory distinction:

signal / symbol.

bk reports the claim that a chimpanzee can be taught to drive but not to be safe around traffic lights. At the red, the chimp will stop: in the middle of the intersection. At the green the chimp will go: smack into the middle of the grid-locked intersection.

Thus: signal is more directly related to cause than symbol.

I reminded bk of my note in the parent file for my semiotics section that more people are killed crossing with the light than against it: if the light flashes don’t Walk, the flout-law looks for himself. I also told him how my fishing-friend, Ron, recently got broadsided by a driver when he was jammed in an intersection as the light changed. “I didn’t want to block the intersection,” the woman explained after she drove into his passenger door. So: not all humans distinguish signal and symbol all the time. (And I hesitate to believe outright that no chimp could ever make the distinction.)

I shall invite bk to add more input on signal/symbol as he proceeds with his studies of semantics.

2009 07 31

A Bedlam of Korzybskians!

Good, clever, profound: dialogue about epistemology, about map / territory! Great. But never think for one second that any of the above points compromize Korzybski’s basic caveat-distinction: the map is not the territory. Do not therefore infer that maps are not important, useful, indispensable …

And beware: distinctions can make for new confusions.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in pk Teaching, semiotics, thinking tools. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Mapping as Selection

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