“The map is not the territory,” the philosopher Alfred Korzybski famously wrote — a pithy reminder to always doubt what we think we know about the world.
Korzybski’s wisdom feels timely again. Successive, global crisis events – financial, environmental, public health — have hammered home the lesson that we cannot afford to be passive map-takers. Every map embeds choices about what to pay attention to and what to ignore. And in a time of rapid change, these choices can expire fast.
So yes, it’s time to recheck the relationship between our maps and our reality. But it’s a bigger rethink than our classic conception of “maps” suggests. Contrary to Korzybski’s famous dictum, nowadays the map often is the territory. Or the map makes the territory. Or the map actively hides the territory.
Our maps and the territory relate in at least four distinct ways. Maps can be descriptive or creative. They can describe the world as we see it, or they can describe the world as we want it to be. The territory can be the source or the destination. It can be the inspiration for our maps. It can also be where we end up by following them.
Each relationship offers its own peril. Each begs a distinct question to spark your original thinking and reimagine the world around you.
Here are four insights to expand the horizons of your next reality check.
The map is not the territory…so what are we excluding?
Korzybski’s original dictum derives from his 1933 work, Science and Sanity. It was written as a lecture to scientists. A decade prior, in 1921, Albert Einstein offered another famous quotation about the difference between maps and territories before the Prussian Academy of Sciences.
“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
Both Einstein and Korzybski were begging their learned audiences to uphold a core tenet of the scientific method: no one has direct access to ultimate truth.
Instead, empirical thinking is a bottom-up approach to creating knowledge: the careful observation of many particular things, giving rise to a general theory that fits the facts.
The problem is some models prove so useful at generating accurate predictions, it’s hard to remember that in a deep sense they’re also wrong. But the moment we confuse our theory for The Reality, we stray into the top-down approach of faith-based thinking: starting with a few first principles to generate many false beliefs. (The earth was made in 7 days, therefore humans and dinosaurs must have coexisted.)
Mistaking our working truths for The Truth is, in the words of the Indian polymath Shyam Wuppuluri, “a form of intellectual harakiri that prevents us from understanding that thing better.”
It’s not a slippery slope. It’s a serious search.
As truth and science becomes more politicized, this tenet of bottom-up knowledge-making can easily be twisted to dismiss any maps we don’t like. Since all maps are “wrong”, all maps are equally valid – right? (And I prefer mine, thank you very much!)
This rhetorical manoeuvre enjoys tremendous popularity in the world today.
It’s not the take-away Korzybski and Einstein intended. Its basic flaw is to assume that all mapmakers are equally satisfied with their work. The bottom-up view on mapmaking is that since all maps are “wrong”, all maps can be improved. So: what are you doing to improve yours? The difference between a dangerous fiction and a useful fiction is the strength of the search for what’s wrong with it.
A map must be wrong to be useful
It’s also worth keeping in mind that a map must be wrong, in some sense, in order to be useful. Lewis Carroll makes this point in a short parable from his final novel, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1889):
In the scene, the main characters meet Mein Herr, who confesses that he has just lost his way and needs to consult his pocket-map:
"What a useful thing a pocket-map is!" I remarked.
"That's another thing we've learned from your Nation," said Mein Herr, "map-making. But we've carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?"
"About six inches to the mile."
"Only six inches!" exclaimed Mein Herr. "We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!"
"Have you used it much?" I enquired.
"It has never been spread out, yet," said Mein Herr: "the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."
The real world isn’t a closed system, but the map must be. It’s the edges that make a map both useful and wrong at the same time. The biggest assumption of every map is that the boundary makes sense. And so these edges are often the most interesting feature. The dragons lurk in the choices we must make in how to orient, frame and limit the territory to fit the page.
What do your maps exclude?
The map is the territory…so what else are we causing to exist?
In a digital age, we need to update some popular intuitions about how maps and territory relate.
For example, the overall point of Carroll’s story above still holds: a map must be wrong to be useful. But his scorn about scale no longer applies.
Maps "drawn" at a one-to-one scale are commonplace today. City planners may work with computer models that are 1:1 representations of the city, down to the level of every inhabitant, in order to predict and plan traffic flows.
What is the scale of Google Maps? That's up to you, the user. Behind the scenes, a lot of thinking is being done to try to standardize which features display at what scale. Zoom in quite close, and the map starts to display interior layouts of buildings. Zoom out quite far, and the map starts to display national boundaries and the names of continents.
Maps bigger than the territory are also commonplace – in the realm of the small. Researchers in every university, lab and hospital routinely work with magnified images of microscopic territory.
What remains true in the digital age is that, in terms of the information they contain, the map is finite and the territory is infinite. (An electron microscope can show a coronavirus many times larger than life. But it does not show the molecules, the atoms, the subatomic particles, the strong and weak forces between them…)
In a digital world, this distinction is more crucial now than ever.
From one-way flows to feedback loops
The classic map – a physical sheet of paper representing a geographic territory – suggests a one-way relationship between reality and representation. We see the territory, we describe the territory, but the territory exists separately.
Today, many of our maps co-exist in a feedback loop with the territory they describe.
This is true of many of the apps we use daily on our mobile phones. Take the e-scooter app, Lime. You go into the app, you reserve a vehicle, and the territory changes for every other user. For other users, that scooter disappears.
What about dating apps, like Tinder? A growing body of research now shows that dating apps are transforming social norms of courtship. If you are not on the app, it can be difficult, possibly offensive, to approach someone in real-life with romantic intent. ‘Who gave you permission to walk up and say hello to me?’ If you are on the app, courtships that felt dangerous or taboo in real-life can become much easier.
The app is the territory.
Strictly speaking, this feedback loop between the map and the territory is not new. Maps have never been completely passive objects. They guide behaviour. Those behaviours change the territory, which over time changes the map. Europe’s earliest maps of North America were sketchy. They inspired European explorers to go fill in the details, which led to many of the cities that dot modern maps today.
What’s new is how overlayed they’ve become. For a growing variety of things (bicycles, scooters, cars, single people looking for a date), the map and the territory are merged. It’s hard or impossible to participate in the territory without the map.
And yet it’s still true that the map, unlike the territory, is finite. The former only lets us interact with a slice of the latter – the slice we deem important. There can never be full convergence, because more is happening in the territory than the map can ever show.
So what else are we causing to exist now? What else will we cause to exist, as augmented reality becomes commonplace?
The map makes the territory…so what are we failing to imagine?
Some maps capture our beliefs about the territory. But some maps express our desires for the territory. Instead of making a map that fits the world, we aspire to make a world that fits our map. The whole of human psychology, of yoga, of meditation, practices this direction of causation.
Geopolitics is full of examples of mapmaking-as-wish making. Take China’s sovereignty claims to the South China Sea, the so-called Nine-Dash Line. (One of the pleasing quirks of Chinese politics is the practice of turning concepts into Real Things by naming them, capitalizing them, and embedding them into the language of politics and policymaking.) The Nine-Dash Line is China’s map of how they want the world to be. Since its first publication in 1947, reality has shifted a lot closer to it.
Wrong is still real
There is a popular cartoon of a crowd of people approaching a fork in the road. The fork is labelled “Answers.” The left path is marked by an arrow that reads “Simple but Wrong.” The right path is marked by an arrow that reads “Complex but Right.” Almost everyone takes the left turn, and promptly walks off a cliff. Very few take the winding road to the right.
The takeaway is that we need to have the courage to reject simple truths to arrive at better ones – even if the way is difficult.
What the picture gets wrong is that all these people turning left do not all fall off a cliff. They go on living. They go on believing. More likely than not, they go on to shape the world that the few people who turned right must live in. Social media is the obvious example. The representation – right or wrong – can become our reality.
The map makes the territory. So what are we failing to imagine?
The map hides the territory…so what are we presuming without realizing it?
The hardest part of improving the relationship between the map and the territory is the mapmaker who stands in the middle.
The history of science is full of examples. Before Einstein, astronomers searched the skies for a planet Vulcan, which no one had found but which they knew had to exist. Newton’s Law of Gravity explained the orbits of all the planets, but Mercury’s orbit had some tiny wobbles that Newton’s equations couldn’t account for – unless you factored in the gravitational pull of a missing planet in orbit somewhere between Mercury and the Sun.
Einstein’s insight was that Newton’s Law was based on an untested presumption that everyone for millennia had believed was true without ever realizing it: namely, that space is absolute. It’s an empty stage, unaffected by the celestial bodies spinning within it.
What if it’s not absolute? What if instead massive objects like the sun cause the space around them to bend? That would explain why a planet very close to the sun, like Mercury, has a wobble that Newton’s Law can’t explain.
When Thomas Kuhn coined the phrase “paradigm shift” in his 1962 work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he was trying to explain why these presumptions get overturned when they do – and not before. He described presumptions as “historically available” things – meaning that they are a product of their time and place. It’s hard to overturn them (or even see them) before their time is up. For the astronomers who searched long years in vain for Vulcan, Newton’s Law had managed to explain the motions of all the other planets just fine. In the 1840s they had even inferred and discovered the existence of Neptune in exactly the same way: by noticing an unexplained wobble in a planet’s orbit (in that case, Uranus).
When everything fits the model, it’s hard to see past it. Kuhn concluded that “paradigm shifts” happen once the anomalies – the stuff that doesn’t fit – become more interesting to us than the stuff that does. And that can take time to accumulate.
Our presumptions stipulate what can exist and what can happen in the real world. We cannot see without them, and they warp what we can see. So what are we presuming now?
Opportunities for action
What are the presumptions we cannot see?
What are we failing to imagine?
What else are we causing to exist?
What are we excluding?
One thing all these questions have in common is that they are difficult to answer for people who think the same way we do – and easy to answer for people who don’t.
We live in a moment where it's very easy, in theory, to get help from people who think differently. But it's often hard in practice, in part for reasons we explored back in From Tunnel Vision to Lateral Vision. Here is a practical next step for individuals and organizations to launch the exploration...
Lead with your draft. One of the traditional views of leadership is that leaders know where to go and how to get there. That expectation is changing. More and more people are willing to take part in something ambiguous. It can feel more real, more true, than clarity. People get that the world is complex. People doubt that clear, simple solutions exist.
If you can articulate some of the broad strokes of the problem you’re working on, you will find many gifted intelligent people who are happy to gather around your draft and help you improve it.
That draft might include headings like:
- Tension: What’s the gap you feel between the way things are and the way they should be?
- Context: Why is this relevant to other people? (Without giving context, it’s difficult to gain commitment.)
- Beliefs: What are some of the assumptions you do recognize in your own thinking?
- Intentions: Why is this important to you? What's at stake for you in this?
Invite stakeholders into your maproom. This landscape of questions can be a site of meaningful, influential engagement with your stakeholders. Can you describe how you look at the world and how you act in the world by talking in each of these quadrants? Can you create space for your stakeholders to offer their perspectives on these questions?
These questions can be a new part of your current conversations, or they can form a whole new conversation. Glance at the my Explorers’ Gym article to help you do some blunt stakeholder mapping, invite a mix of perspectives into your maproom, and let them lead you beyond the borders of your own thinking.