. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these Excessive Maps did not satisfy and the Schools of Cartographers built a Map of the Empire, that was of the Size of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless and not without Pitilessness they delivered it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and the Winters. In the Deserts of the West endure broken Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole country there is no other relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658
— Jorge Luis Borges, On rigor in science (translated by myself, and here’s why )
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must return to [Borges’] fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.
— Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations
(Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser)
The map is not the territory.
— Alfred Korzybski
Imagine we had invented airplanes and automobiles but no modern mapping or positioning systems. Without precise maps or GPS, we could go very fast and very far, we could stumble onto wonderful places to visit, we would occasionally meet long lost friends. We would even be able to communicate at great speed by bringing documents and packages back and forth between a set of specific, well-known locations.
However, it would require enormous effort to make these experiences repeatable, consistent, and therefore reliably useful. Without appropriate navigational tools, pilots and drivers would have to rely on tedious record keeping and inefficient behaviors to describe a path — for example, keeping multiple copies of various partially accurate maps to stitch together something that may resemble a reasonable course to take, or using imprecise mechanisms to establish their positions. These pilots would often spend a lot of time on tasks that have nothing to do with traveling itself (like organizing all those maps), it would take them longer than necessary to reach even common destinations, and, perhaps frequently, they would get completely lost. This is perhaps not that different from what things were like, for example, for pre-Enlightenment European explorers. Every once in a while, the imprecision and unpredictability of incomplete information would pay off, as in someone “discovering” an unknown continent. But, most of the time, it was a fairly inefficient way to go about visiting our planet.
The Internet today is a vast, ever-expanding territory for which we have built great vehicles, but no modern maps. Instead, what we have is the equivalent of 15th century mapping technology to navigate in a world that lets us, and perhaps even requires we move at 21st century speed. We have no equivalent of GPS for the information landscape we inhabit. No accuracy. No context. All we have are scraps and notes we take along the way, feeble markings on dog-eared charts that become outdated almost as soon as they are created.
Furthermore, this analogy oversimplifies the problem in one important regard — the “vehicles” of the Internet not only travel the territory but also expand it. You can add information explicitly (e.g., post a photo) or create new information implicitly by simply navigating it (e.g. View counts on a video).
On the Internet, we quite literally create new roads as we walk.
The Internet as a “territory” is to some degree like that in Borges’ story: it creates the illusion that it and the map are one, that they are inextricably linked and interdependent, but they are not.
Modern systems and services are great at externally directed consumption. The digital mechanisms we use to navigate our present, the now, are increasingly sophisticated about putting new information in front of us.
But in almost every context, self-directed navigation through the vast ocean of data that we increasingly live in has become more difficult, and when we attempt to combine this with purpose and need for specific information (an article that we heard about, a document we created long ago, etc.) the task becomes even more difficult. Some of us are constantly trying out new organizational techniques for our folders, bookmarks, documents; most of us just make do with what we have.
Notifications are used across devices and software to trigger actions from us constantly, but in many cases their intent is not to aid or inform — not because they are necessary or useful, but because the product or service in question wants to accelerate growth, increase “engagement”, or increase revenue.
In response, operating systems started to include a “Do Not Disturb” feature that can be activated manually or automatically at certain times (e.g. at night). This is a useful feature, but the question we should ask ourselves is: Why it is so necessary? It isn’t just the number of services or apps that counts here. It is also that these apps and services lack or ignore simple elements that should be at the forefront in a world in which we are awash in devices and sensors. Awareness of context and time, along with adaptation to the circumstances of the person using the software are not common design parameters in our software and services. In the few cases when they are considered they are not given as much importance as they deserve, or they are implicitly sidestepped in the service of revenue or growth or some other internal metric. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it should be an explicit decision (even explicit to people using the product) and it rarely is.
Modern systems also require relatively precise inputs to work efficiently and correctly. Take “Searching” for example: before we can search for something, we have to know not only what we’re searching for but the specific technique for how to find it. To begin with, ‘search’ has by now largely become synonym with ‘keyword search.’ Any amount of disorganized, decontextualized information can, apparently, be managed effectively by typing a few words into a rectangular, two-dimensional box.
And there’s no doubt that if you understand the metaphors and abstractions involved, search as it exists today can be both an efficient and powerful tool. But, if you don’t, it can actually be counterproductive. Google is a spectacular achievement of a scope that is hard to overstate (even if rarely acknowledged) and a wonderful tool, but there can be a vast difference between someone who knows how to use it and someone who doesn’t, not unlike a person asked to find a particular book within the Library of Congress when they don’t have a clear understanding of how their filing system works.
“Search,” in general, presumes that what you’re looking for is differentiated enough to be separated from everything else by using words, or, even more explicitly, a sequence of unicode characters.
Consider that for a moment.
Even in the specific case of keyword search, words as they exist for us, in our heads, in speech, in writing, have context, nuance, pronunciation, subtlety. All of that is lost when we have to reduce what we are thinking to pure symbols, to just type—and having a remote system work based not on what we mean, but what it thinks we mean.
Search as it exists today is a tool designed primarily to find one element that shares one or two characteristics (typically keywords) with many others but has some fundamental difference that we can express symbolically. However, what we need is, more often than not, to be able to create or resurface connections across personal knowledge strands, the ability to find a specific item among many that are alike when we can’t define precisely what sets them apart.
If search engines aim for finding a needle in a haystack what we often need is more like looking for a particular grain of sand on a beach. When “searching” for something that we’ve seen it is more frequent to recall the context rather than the detail. “That website we looked at in the meeting last week” is a more frequent starting point than one or two keywords from the website in question.
In other words, this is not merely an issue of expertise or experience using the product, it is a fundamental problem rooted in the lack of subjective contextual information: subjective to the person using it, subjective to their situation, their place, who they are, the time it is, what they’ve seen in the past, the subtle and unique features of the landscape of their experience and knowledge.
Evoking, on the other hand, is something that people excel at: correlating, incrementally building up thin strands of information into coherent threads that allow us to pull from them and bring what we’re looking for into view.
We’ve become mesmerized with the territory and forgotten the map — for example, when the structure of websites rather than that of the information in question determines indexing and results. Or: a message with to, from and cc is not the pinnacle of expression of small group interpersonal communication dynamics but we can see clearly that so far we have failed evolve it in meaningful ways.
If we are to move past the current mire of software that remains stubbornly stuck in systems, modes of operation, protocols and interfaces created decades ago, if we are going to manage to break from interfaces that are barely one step removed from their paper-based counterparts, we will need software that doesn’t rely so deeply on how information is created, manipulated and stored. We are people, not users.
We connect — time, place, related ideas, half-remembered thoughts, sensory information, even feelings, all take part in the process of recall.
Software that in some sense “understands” and can help or even guide us through that process is what we should aim for, and figure out how to build. Software that adapts to us, instead of the other way around.