Of maps and territories

[None of the thoughts in this post are original. I’m writing it anyway, because I figure the more people write about the basic idea behind this, the better: everyone will word it a little differently and reach a somewhat different audience, so each new post about it will increase the likelihood of more people coming in touch with and understanding the idea behind it. So here goes!]

This is a map of Austria (full size here):


This is also a map of Austria (full size here):


And this, as you may guess, is also a map of Austria (from Wiki):


They are all similar in some ways and different in others.

All of them contain blue lines and blue areas that correspond to bodies of water. If you correctly identified your location in real life in relation to what these maps depict (no small feat in and of itself) and followed the map to a blue place, you’d find a lake or a river. (You’d also find water in places not colored blue on the map: rivers, lakes and ponds deemed too small and insignificant to be mapped, impermanent puddles left over from the last rainfall, private and public pools and others.)

All of them also depict Austria’s funnily-shaped borders, and quite noticeably so. But if you tried to find the borders in real life, you might just find yourself in the middle of a forest, or a random meadow, or an unmarked and entirely unspectacular stretch of railroad tracks. If you followed a road, though, you might find markings, border control booths, and signs informing you there’s a border here. You wouldn’t find any actual borders, though.

Borders are a purely social construct: they don’t exist independently of human society and its agreements (or disagreements). Country borders are not an observable or measurable object in nature. We’ve made them up, assigned meaning to them, and built signs and booths and sometimes physical barriers based on them, and thereby made them observable in some places and meaningful in terms of their consequences (the rights and obligations of the people within a country’s borders).

Two of the maps contain information on the names of mountains, bodies of water, and cities. Like borders, these are socially constructed, and you may or may not find signs of them in real life.

The third map contains no names at all, not even the name of the depicted area, but depicts elevation levels in great detail. The first map contains plenty of names and prominent lines depicting roads, but has no information at all about the country’s topography. The second map has some of both: names and topography, but no roads.

Which map is correct?
Well, all of them. Each conveys some true information about the depicted territory.

Which is the best?
That depends on your criteria.

You could argue that the third map is the map that most closely corresponds to the territory: except for the borders, all of what it depicts corresponds to reality outside of social conventions. If all names were forgotten or changed (somehow mysteriously leaving the borders intact), it would still be true, while the other two maps would become grossly inaccurate.

You could also argue that it’s pretty useless: sure, it tells you a lot about where you’ll have to walk uphill, but do you really need that information? Isn’t it much more important to know whether there’ll be a road for you to drive on, or a city to stay in? How valuable is a map if it doesn’t let you know where you’ll find a settlement, get run over on a highway, or stumble through a forest?

If your most pressing question is how to get around by car, you’re best served by the first map, although the second one would be better than nothing (and the third one would be useless). If you don’t have any specific questions and are just interested in a quick overview of Austria, the second map might be the best choice: it balances sociopolitical and topographical information and makes cities, state borders, and the general layout of the terrain easy to grasp.

It would be possible to create a fourth map that carries more information than all of these three combined: detailed topography, information on cities and roads not included in any of the original three, information on many more lakes and smaller towns, information on railroads, on tunnels, on population density, and more. Such a map would be more complete than all of the maps above. However, it would also be difficult to read due to the density and abundance of information, and to answer any specific question, you’d have to look past most of it anyway. Completeness does not necessarily make for the best option: presenting all the information in multiple separate maps is a more sensible and ultimately more efficient approach.

Language works like a map: it aims to convey information about some territory (literally, such as information about the objects present on my desk right now, or more abstract, such as information about thoughts, intentions, past or future events, etc.). It does so via a shared representational system – just as both of us learned at some point that blue lines on maps usually correspond to rivers in real life, both of us learned what kind of objects the word “bottle” refers to.

There is nothing linking the sounds or squiggly signs of the word “bottle” to the actual object, just as there is nothing linking a blue line to an actual river. It’s perfectly possible for two people to have wildly different ideas of what the word “bottle” means – plenty of words exist in two different languages with different meanings, and neither meaning is wrong. Even with a shared language, different people will likely imagine slightly different objects when told to imagine a bottle: one might imagine a big, long-necked green glass bottle, one might imagine a small plastic bottle, another a dented metal field bottle. Most likely, the bottle they imagine will be a prototype: sort of an average they formed by learning about many different bottles.

This abstraction – the fact that a single word can refer to many somewhat different objects – is necessary to have some shared representational system at all. After all, we can’t learn a new word for every single slightly different-looking bottle we encounter, and it’s not necessary, either: if I want to talk about glass bottles in particular, I can just say “glass bottles”, after all, activating a slightly different prototype than I would have if I had just said “bottles”.

However, it also introduces much room for imprecision. Most people would consider the sentence “birds can fly” true, even though many kinds of birds (penguins, ostriches, emus, kiwis, and probably more) can’t, and even more individual birds (juvenile ones, for example, and dead ones, which are doubtlessly still birds, but very much can’t fly). It’s a statement that is true about most people’s prototype of birds, but not of all animals those people would actually consider birds.

Another feature of abstraction is categorization. Categorization further distorts one’s thoughts: native English speakers who have learned to categorize certain colors as “light blue” and “dark blue” perceive them as more similar than native Russian speakers who have learned to categorize them as синий (siniy) and голубой (goluboy), while they perceive “blue” and “green” as less similar than native Vietnamese speakers, who know both of them as (ao). And even within a single language, the same territory can lead to wildly different maps – anyone who remembers the blue-black, white-gold dress can attest to that.

Some bottles are closer to some jars than to certain other bottles, and yet they’re still called bottles. Our thinking of them as bottles may very well obfuscate their similarities to certain non-jars. At the same time, they might be closer to the most dissimilar bottle than to the most dissimilar jar, or closer to the average bottle than to the average jar (or both).

Mapping the territory in prototypes and somewhat loose categories allows language the necessary flexibility to describe novel situations or objects. For example, there is no specific word for a piece of paper folded to resemble a bird, but “paper bird” serves perfectly well to give a listener an instant idea of the territory, and much faster so than “piece of paper folded to resemble a bird”. Should listener and speaker sit beside each other in front of a desk covered in origami animals, even just “bird” would suffice – the sentence “the birds are easiest to fold” makes zero sense applied to live animals, but any listener aware of the context would understand it immediately, and even without a context, pretty much anyone would understand that the birds in question are objects (paper, or maybe napkins, or some other foldable material I haven’t thought of yet) shaped to resemble birds. (And certain birds, at that – I’d wager that many people would think of cranes or swans, and very few or none at all would think of kiwis or ostriches.)

A rather famous surrealist painting by René Magritte points out this indexicality of language – a drawing of a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) written beneath it. The first reaction of most people to such a painting is to do a double take and try to see something else in the picture of a pipe. Hardly anyone immediately thinks: “Of course not, it’s a drawing of a pipe!”
A less high-brow example is a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean 2 in which Mary picks up a piece of cloth and says: “It’s a key”, only to be immediately corrected by Captain Jack Sparrow (in less than correct grammar): “No! Much more better. It is a drawing of a key.”

Metaphors take this indexicality and run with it, sometimes so much so that the metaphors become new words themselves: the first person to call a woman a “bitch” certainly didn’t mean to say the woman was literally a female dog, but to express some commonality of hers with actual female dogs they (well, probably he) knew, but the term stuck so much that nobody thinks of it as a metaphor any more, and today it’s a derogatory term for women (and, sometimes, men) just as much as a term for a female dog.

(The expression “to run with something” is itself not quite literal, although I’d be hard-pressed to say what exactly the literal meaning of “running” is: animals with legs can run, but so can sand through an hourglass, or a river down a mountain, or a completely motionless car engine. There doesn’t seem to be any single concept the word “running” maps to – its meaning varies completely with context.)

The variability of language over time, the shifting meanings of words, is another important feature. When mapping uncharted territory, people more frequently repurpose existing words and/or put them together in a new way than invent completely new words from scratch, usually in a way that makes them easier to understand: the term “microaggression” is an amalgamate of “micro” meaning small and “aggression”, and it’s most likely easier to understand and remember than an all-new word.

Such a repurposing has its weaknesses, however: I’ve personally filled pages upon pages with contributions to a seemingly endless discussion about whether the term “aggression” necessitates the intention to do harm on part of the aggressor (which is usually not the case with microaggressions), and the term “microaggression” morally condemns the person committing it.

The discussion remains unresolved to this day, which brings up the next point: are there right and wrong ways to map a territory, and if so, who decides which is which?

Stay tuned to find out! (Both because this has gotten pretty long already and because the answer is complicated as fuck and I’m just not making any progress at continuing this post, so maybe posting this part will give me the kick in the butt/fresh start I need to finally do so.)


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