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The Map As Big As the World: the problem of total knowledge

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 Societies have always relied on information processing of some form. It is said that writing begins with counting marks (numbers) for recording inventories and accounts.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Poetry and literature as a written expressive form come much later.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Recording seems to be is a fundamental linguistic process. It never stops. No wonder then that as societies develop and grow they become ever more bloated with data.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Note that language is important here – without communication human knowledge would never grow, it would be nothing.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 On issues to explore is the link between data collection and power (has there always been this link?).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 We live in extraordinary times because of this link. Data about us[1] is endlessly collected and recycled. Wealth is generated from it.[2] Power is applied with it.[3] There can be no government without it.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 Our modern concerns about data collection and the misuse of data including both its misinterpretation and its reductionism seems to have begun in the 19th Century. Dickens was a significant opponent of the rise and use of statistics to quantify social issues such as poverty and child exploitation.[4]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 We live in totalizing times. After all, if our data is a key economic driver then the more data you give up the more money someone else makes, or the more control they have over you.[5]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This old and ancient impulse is now fulfilled with fast, capacious and dynamic digital libraries of data.[6] It’s now about Big Data.[7]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 There are dangers here. It is often said that the more dangerous and megalomaniac a regime the more obsessively detailed becomes its information gathering, the more tyrannous its uses – the Nazis are such an example.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 In an ‘information dictatorship’, the State and the Government may routinely interrogate huge, interconnected databases, asking and answering their own questions with only indirect reference to the democratic civic body. Everything turns on the use of the word ‘indirect’. Even while accepting the need for a state to work in some degree of secrecy and confidentiality there has to be democratic checks and balances in place to monitor this.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 If these go we are in trouble.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Are we in trouble?  … …

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 One indicator: our society suffers from the immature fallacy that the data you have the better off you are.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 No. More data only has a marginal effect on what you could infer from a small amount of data. So, the overhead on collecting more data is of questionable cost-benefit value:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 We are drowning in details; we have mountains of facts but very little useful information. People agree that the right way to deal with this is using metrics.”

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In education certainly, we live under a sort of mini-totalitarianism, ever since SATS became compulsory for every child in the land during 1991-98, education has laboured under the delusion that educational standards are best monitored by collecting performance data on every child … at great expense and for little marginal gain.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 A second fallacy is to being to believe that your data is the real thing.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 For example, in a new building that has been added to the complex where I work, the workers who have been moved in complain about the climate. The estates managers simply look at the dashboard in the plant room and say, “well the numbers are right, it’s all working as it should”, and that is the end of it!

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 It reminds one of those images in literature of the Map as Big as the World.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 I first came across it in a (very) short story by Jorge Borges “Of Exactitude in Science” in A Universal History of Infamy, Penguin 1984, (from the Argentinian).

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Of Exactitude in Science

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography. (p131)

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0  Just for interest here is another translation:

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0  On Exactitude in Science

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0  Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley Copyright Penguin 1999 .

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 1 From: https://notes.utk.edu/bio/greenberg.nsf/0/f2d03252295e0d0585256e120009adab?OpenDocument

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 The story was ‘appropriated’ by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1994) to illustrate the concept of simulation. The cartographers of an imaginary Empire “draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering exactly covering the territory” so that the real territory underneath the map is obscured. The people of this Empire come to relate more closely to this map than they do to the original territory underneath (they live, work, and play on it, etc.) When, eventually, the map becomes tattered and frayed, and ultimately disintegrates, the people become nostalgic for it, feeling that they have lost something. The real territory which is now revealed to them seems alien, unfamiliar.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 As a society, have lost touch with reality, knowing only our simulations of reality (made up of television, the Internet, etc.). This new “reality” (hyperreality á la Eco?) replaces and replicates the real thing. Like the Borges map we are comfortable in our new simulated world, unsettled if we stray away too long …  (See: http://foucault.info/Foucault-L/archive/msg05017.shtml)

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Umberto Eco has imagined the instructions for creating a 1:1 map in his 1994 book of essays How to Travel with a Salmon. In the essay “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire at a Scale of 1:1,” Eco presents the limitations of the undertaking in a detailed outline of instructions leading to a logical problem:

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 “When the map is installed over all the territory (whether suspended or not), the territory of the empire has the characteristic of being a territory entirely covered by a map. The map does not take into account this characteristic, which would have to be presented on another map that depicted the territory plus the lower map. But such a process would be infinite….

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Two corollaries follow:

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 1. Every 1:1 map always reproduces the territory unfaithfully.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 2. At the moment the map is realized, the empire become unreproducible.”

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 This map story has antecedents of course. Lewis Carroll imagined a 1:1 map in his 1893 story Sylvie and Bruno Concluded:

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 “What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 “About six inches to the mile.”

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 1 “Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got 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!”

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 “Have you used it much?” I enquired.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 “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 now we use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Then there is Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics. (ca. 1930)

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 “The premises of the non-aristotelian system [General Semantics] can be given by the simple analogy of the relation of a map to the territory:

  1. 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0
  2. A map is not the territory.
  3. A map does not represent all of a territory.
  4. A map is self-reflexive in the sense that an ‘ideal’ map would include a map of the map, etc., indefinitely.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Applied to daily life and language:

  1. 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0
  2. A word is not what it represents.
  3. A word does not represent all of the ‘facts’, etc.
  4. Language is self-reflexive in the sense that in language we can speak about language.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Our habitual reactions today, however, are still based on primitive, pre-scientific, unconscious assumptions, which in action mostly violate the first two premises and disregard the third. Mathematics and general semantics are the only exceptions.”  (From: http://esgs.free.fr/uk/art/ak1.htm).

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Other examples are to be found in this Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_map_is_not_the_territory

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0  The dream of a sort of super-database which holds complete records about everything or everyone that exists is compelling but socially and politically dangerous without the usual safeguards. And as yet we have only limited ideas what those safeguards could be.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0  

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 [8/1/2014} Ref the revelations about NSA, spying etc. Also this interesting article from GDN today. INcludes ref to idea of total knowledge: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/07/nsa-state-surveillance-security-art

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0  


54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 [1] Our “data döppelganger” (Brooke, H. 2010. The Silent State). The only trouble is you don’t own it or control it.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 [2] Google is the obvious candidate here. In billions of micro-payments generated from our personal data that we reveal whenever we use a Google service Google makes billions.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 [3] Brooke, H. 2010, The Silent State;  Brooke, H. 2011, The Revolution Will Be Digitised;  Morozov, E. 2011, The Net Delusion.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 [4] See Weinberger, D.  Too Big To Know. Chapter 2.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 [5] Information suckers

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 1 [6] See here for topical example: http://tinyurl.com/11Jun2012a

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 [7] http://tinyurl.com/11Jun2012

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Source: http://davidlongman.net/blog/notes-on-the-global-network/the-map-as-big-as-the-world-the-problem-of-total-knowledge/