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Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Map is not the Territory

@seabird20 recently reminded me of the illusion (identified by Alfred Korzybski, founder of general semantics) “of mistaking the map for the territory”. In his book They Have A Word for It, Howard Rheingold names this illusion as "Maya: the mistaken belief that a symbol is the same as the reality it represents".

The context for this was a Twitter discussion on the Gartner Hype Curve. Of course the Gartner Hype Curve is just a map, not the territory it purports to describe. But I argued that we still have a right to complain if any map is not fit-for-purpose: if the map sends us to the wrong part of the territory, we blame the map.

Chris replied: "Now that is ascribing a lot of power to the map. But yes we do blame it when we get lost and are following it!"

We can contrast this with Miroslav Holub's story (borrowed by Karl Weick) of the Hungarians in the Alps, in which the soldiers reach their destination despite using the wrong map. (You can find the poem on the MonkeyMagic blog.)

@j4ngis comments: "With wrong map you get a good chance to discover new things. And experience some surprises. Right map only takes you there."

I guess the best-known example of that would be Columbus trying to reach India by sailing West. Got his sums wrong. Idiot.

Yup! (says @j4ngis) We need more idiots like that to make real progress. And to save this planet. @j4ngis then adds a beautiful story about (US) indians using buffalo skin as "map". Follow (random) wrinkles as paths to find meat in NEW places. Graham Hill interprets this as "an interesting use of a random walk on a fitness landsape to find new high peaks". But, just as in Holub's story, it only works if the people using it think it's a real map.


  1. It not only works if people think it's a real map. It works also if we treat the map as real. Letting it guide us into new and unknown paths.

    Taking a map of Sweden and use it in Alabama will most certainly create new experiences when you try to find Stockholm. It will create new experiences AND a lot of new opportunities.

    Correct maps sometimes keeps us too well on track. And we might miss opportunities only found when deviating from path suggested by map. Using an incorrect map as real map will automatically help you deviate...

  2. Given that many North American cities are named after European cities, I just had to check if there actually was a city called Stockholm Alabama. There could easily have been, but I couldn't find one on my map of the USA; I guess that settles the question, doesn't it?

    So I fall back on Paris Texas - not just a city where you might not expect to find it, but also a film (by Wim Wenders) which Newsweek described as "a story of a sprawling, powerful, richly endowed land where people can get desperately lost".

    Is there a Paris Texas Hilton?