Digital Garden of Paul

The Map Is Not The Territory

From: The Map Is Not the Territory

Maps are imperfect by default. It's a result of being reductions of what they represent. The reduction is what makes a map useful to us. Realising that maps are imperfect is important to keep in mind when we think through problems and make better decisions.

Quoting: Farnam street: In 1931, in New Orleans, Louisiana, mathematician Alfred Korzybski presented a paper on mathematical semantics. To the non-technical reader, most of the paper reads like an abstruse argument on the relationship of mathematics to human language, and of both to physical reality. Important stuff certainly, but not necessarily immediately useful for the layperson.

However, in his string of arguments on the structure of language, Korzybski introduced and popularised the idea that the map is not the territory. In other words, the description of the thing is not the thing itself. The model is not reality. The abstraction is not the abstracted. This has enormous practical consequences.

In Korzybski’s words:

A.) A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory.

B.) Two similar structures have similar ‘logical’ characteristics. Thus, if in a correct map, Dresden is given as between Paris and Warsaw, a similar relation is found in the actual territory.

C.) A map is not the actual territory.

D.) An ideal map would contain the map of the map, the map of the map of the map, etc., endlessly… We may call this characteristic self-reflexiveness.

The problem is not that maps are an abstraction. We need them to be abstract to be useful. The problem is that we often don't understand our maps or their limits. Another issue is that the human brain takes great leaps and shortcuts in order to make sense of it surroundings. The tendency is is to over-apply a powerful model. Using models in situations where it doesn't apply.

The Map Is Not The Territory