On the Merits of Maps

If maps intend to represent landscapes of inconceivable complexity in a conceivable fashion, and if we intend to make them, it seems worth first considering the uses of such representation and the worth of those uses. We are tasked, merely by nature of being conscious, with reducing the incomprehensible to the comprehensible. Growth, or the maturation of consciousness, is fundamentally a process of adjusting our maps to increasingly coincide with the reality. This is largely a subconscious process- viewed in the light of developmental psychology, map/territory discrepancies could be seen as the source of cognitive dissonance that drives movement through stages: when the predictive abilities of magic prove themselves insufficient, we look to mythic; when mythic’s fail we look to rational, and so on (or not). Interestingly, our culture’s stage of development affects, in turn, the degree to which map/territory discrepancies generate cognitive dissonance- that is, if we live in mythic bumfuck Kansas, the predictive failures of the bible won’t bother us much. It would be, as a side note, easy to confuse dissonance resulting in predictive failures with recognition of predictive failures- recognition might result from dissonance but not vice versa (except maybe after rational?) That is, one can point out m/t discrepancies in the Bible (a not-too-predictive map) but such pointing out would lead very few to abandon a mythic worldview.

Anyway, none of this is really the point. The question we’re concerned with here is about consciously constructed maps, the ones that overlay and are informed by these unconscious interpretive frameworks (which they may, in turn, inform??) To what end to we construct maps other than the schema granted to us by whatever stage we find ourselves in? To what end to we endeavor to adjust our assumptions to coincide with reality? One hopes this task is worthy in and of itself- but a cartographer cannot take such appearances too seriously.

The uses of geographical maps translate pretty well into the uses of cognitive maps: in developing navigable microcosms we enhance our ability to a) figure out where we want to go or, if we already know that, b) how to get there. As a topographical map reveals elevation despite being flat, so can cognitive maps reveal the vertical dimensions of consciousness- wherein lies what might be one of the most pertinent uses of maps today: to provide dimensionality to the postmodern flatland model. So given the question: what is good that is proportionally linked to the accuracy (or indeed the presence) of our maps? We now have a couple answers: the ability to see where we want to go and the ability to get there, or put differently to link or intentions with our actions (walking in the right direction). If, for example, we intend to do good, and we are given a map that tells us this involves slitting the throat of a virgin as a sacrifice to a god, or going on a mission to convert Nigerian peasants to Mormonism, our map has failed us. In short, reality is big and our minds are small and God invented maps to mediate the difference.

Maps are ultimately the interface between subjective and objective realms, the window through which we ‘in here’ look ‘out there;’ their inaccuracies are opacities that accentuate that distinction. Cartographers might do well to approach their work with some paper towels and a bottle of Windex and not stop scrubbing until it wouldn’t occur to anyone in their right mind that inside is somewhere other than outside. And at a certain point such scrubbing might involve a lot more sitting and a lot less blogging.


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