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May 14, 2009

The Google Map is not the Territory

#3 in a series on Experience.

Is the Google-Web combination a substitute for experience? Is experience important or just an anachronistic relic?

Knowledge management practitioners will tell you that capturing the knowledge-base of the entire domain is essential. So to rephrase my question: is the essential "body of knowledge" (BOK) online? If the BOK is not documented and indexed, the Google-Web solution (Goo-Web) won't be as complete or reliable a toolkit as a group of experienced humans. Or to rephrase again, is a mental map driven by Google and the Web operationally sufficient? I'm convinced that the mental maps from Google will have a wider effect than the cartographic GoogleMaps.

The puzzles posed by new technologies are things we've seen before, just with newer bells and whistles. People once learned to say, "the map is not the territory", which was an exhortation to remember that any abstract, symbolic representation of the world was by definition a limited view. There is similar wisdom in this line from a Swedish army manual: "If the terrain and the map do not agree, follow the terrain".

The full quote comes from Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, who said:
"A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness". This means is that our perception of reality is not reality itself but our own version of it, or our "mental map".

Rene Magritte was moved by Korzybski's insight to produce his famous series, The Treachery of Images, reinforcing the concept that the image or map is an abstraction of the reality.

The map is not the territory; This is not a Pipe

"Maps are never value-free images; except in the narrowest Euclidean sense they are not in themselves either true or false. Both in the selectivity of their content and in their signs and styles of representation, maps are a way of conceiving, articulating and structuring the human world which is biased towards, promoted by, and exerts influence upon sets of social relations. By accepting such premises it becomes easier to see how appropriate they are to manipulation by the powerful in society." Harley. J. B. "Maps, Knowledge, and Power," The Iconography of Landscape

Similarly, the body of knowledge presented by Google-Web-YouTube is an abstraction of reality, and to the extent that a gap exists between that abstraction and the real world, the Geezers and the Gurus may yet have something to contribute.

The thumbnail of the Geezer's lament is, "kids these days, all they know is Google this, Google that", which reminds me of Plato's Phaedrus. The story has Socrates telling the Myth of Theuth, the ancient God who discovered writing as a remedy for the failings of memory. Theuth's gift prompts King Thamus to bemoan the impact of the new technology (writing) on the human race, in the same manner that some bemoan the presence of Google and Wikipedia today. King Thamus says,
for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (link)

One problem with the inexperienced, within this framework, is that their maps are fundamentally uninformed, misinformed, and incomplete. The gap between the map and reality looms large, and the decisions made by the inexperienced suffer from it.
"Strategy is the art of making war upon the map, and comprehends the whole theater of operations. Grand Tactics is the art of posting troops upon the battle-field according to the accidents of the ground, of bringing them into action, and the art of fighting upon the ground, in contradistinction to planning upon a map."
        Baron Henri de Jomini
The inexperienced can only plan based on the mental map, and so at most they can attempt strategy, but have no background for tactics.

I don't believe that the Goo-Web combo is a replacement for experience, any more than 90-day-wonders are a substitute for veterans. I do believe that Google/Wiki/YouTube is a powerful and speedy tool with low-fidelity and zero context. Today's problem solver needs Geezers and Gurus, and needs the Goo-Web to bring in possible sources outside of the evident information horizon.

Probably unrelated view of the first introduction of books to replace scrolls:


Mark said...

This is a splendid post on a subject that has come to mind in one form or another many times. For instance, I have considered the web as perhaps a substitute for travel (which it may be for those who can't travel), and have found it lacking in that regard. But as preparation for travel, it is a marvel, and my travel experiences are greatly enhanced for having read "the map" beforehand.

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