“It is abstraction in its precise, literal sense… complete absence of quality, a differentiation purely by quantity and by applicability to every kind of commodity and service which can occur on the market.” [1]

At first, there was the territory. On a cold, cold night, the man drew a map on the wall of a cave and never stopped working on it. The map was created both to strip out and put into relief elements from the territory. Some elements were stripped out because the territory is such a complex, nebular space; hence, it was important to compress its information. Meanwhile, certain elements were highlighted because the map’s primary function was to be useful.

Over the past century, we have come to better understand the human cognitive process, which has taught us that the dichotomy between the maps and the territory depicted is embedded in our inner nature. Instead of seeing, we perceive. Our brain can build mental pictures from vast uncorrelated arrays of electromagnetic waves in microseconds, sorting through thousands of possible options.

The human brain’s ability to create mental maps for compressing and underscoring elements of the territory, reality itself, is now thought to be a major selective criterion.[2] It is for example at the center of UCI’s cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman’s interface theory, which assimilates the way our perception works to a computer’s graphic interface.[3] This ability is far from being exclusive to our species. Hoffman found behaviors in jewel beetles suggesting that they rely on internal cognitive heuristics for various tasks, including some necessary to their survival – which make them try to mate with empty beer bottles after mistaking them for females, nearly causing the extinction of their species. The jewel beetle metaphor is sufficiently eloquent to illustrate the maps’ ambiguity.

Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, coined the expression, “The map is not the territory”. It entered history thanks to Borges’s On Exactitude in Science, which is “certainly one of the most recognizable, even most canonical texts in spatiality studies” according to Robert T. Tally Jr.[4] In this story an emperor wants to create the most accurate map of his empire:

“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.”[5]

As any abstract model, maps are characterized by their utility value. The best maps are the ones that allow us to comprehend semantic information efficiently. Mapping fills a void and compresses the territory into a simplified version. Recognizing one of the postmodern era’s most prominent characteristics, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard studied the overtaking of the territory by the maps.

The first gold coins were minted in Lydia, 2700 years ago. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo recalled the first time he encountered paper bills and how impressed he was by this man-made abstraction that replaced its gold counterpart:

“In this city of Kanbalu (now Beijing), is the mint of the Great Khan, who may truly be said to possess the secret of the alchemists, as he has the art of producing money… With these pieces of paper, made as I have described, he causes all payments on his own account to be made; and he makes them to pass universally over all his kingdoms and provinces and territories, and wherever his power and sovereignty extend. And nobody, however important he may think himself, dares to refuse them on pain of death. And indeed, everybody takes them readily, for wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Khan’s dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them just as well as if they were coins of pure gold.”[6]

The progressive uprooting of money would peak on a sunny day of October 1976, when the most widely used unit of account, also known as the US dollar, would finally become totally independent from gold. To this day, fewer and fewer people use cash. Salaries, bank account balances, and a person’s savings are nothing more than numbers on a screen. The veil that used to hide the grounding of the economy, materialized through its close links to gold, now characterizes the abstract, independent, and autonomous existence of a rootless economic system. Money has become the embodied prototype of what Baudrillard calls a simulacrum, defined as – “never what hides the truth – it is the truth that hides that there is none.” As he puts it, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real”.

This phenomenon is not solely restricted to an all-encompassing tentacular monetary system. After the division of labor which enabled the need for a standardized method of payment like gold coins, division of knowledge was the next logical step. The polymath idea, the Renaissance-inherited humanist concept of a man able to concentrate a large chunk of his time period’s human knowledge, remained viable until the end of the 18th century. One could find late remains of this defunct ideal among influential figures from the second half of the 19th century such as Charles Sanders Peirce or Hermann von Helmholtz. As human knowledge became increasingly granular, philosophers’, scientists’, and intellectuals’ fields of focus had to become narrower. Von Helmholtz contributed to topics as diverse as neurophysiology, electromagnetism, and aesthetics. In modern times, a sociologist who would attempt to contribute to the field of quantum physics – or vice-versa – would be considered, in the best case, to be a charlatan. In The Abstract Society, a premonitory book from 1970, Zijderveld explained that our fields of investigation are “so abstract and obscure that not only colleagues within the same discipline but even experts within a single specialty have difficulty understand each other’s issues.”[7]

As a result of what Habermas calls specialization of knowledge, and Zijderveld names intellectual Taylorism, most of our technologies became indistinguishable from magic.[8] All their complexity is under the hood. To a naive observer, planes are a way to get from point A to point B, if A and B are separated by a large distance or by the ocean. Flying machines’ inner complexity – the laws of aerodynamics, the internal combustion engine, and the embedded electronics – is a black box, unironically. In the same way, the complexity of computer architectures, from bottom to top, from the electronic hardware to the UX, has become too broad for one to master alone. Being unable to apprehend the complexity behind everyday objects does not stop us from manipulating them thanks to mental models. The simplest maps are the ones that associate a means to an end, like the ones that bind the object “airplane” to its end (move X from A to B). In the case of modern computers, these maps can take the form of operating systems that use standardized, attractive graphic interfaces with sparing use of skeuomorphism (interface objects that mimic their real-world equivalent, a simulacrum’s mise en abyme) for simplification. Hidden as such, the reality of the technology dissolves itself in the simplicity of its representation.

The interface function of simulacra is as good at hiding bounded knowledge as for raw logistical complexity. One might be amazed by the supply chain for a grocery retail store, for instance, which can deliver fresh products thousands of kilometers from their place of harvest under heavy constraints. Despite that, once at the supermarket, this upstream logistical complexity is unseen by the customer. The grocery store is a living simulacrum, a physical interface between local customers and a silent transnational black box. The packaged piece of meat on the top shelf is the simulacrum that hides the process from the breeding to the transport of the slaughtered livestock. In the same ways, power networks and bureaucracy are similar marvels of cartography. Would it not be reasonable for a kid to ask “when did meat start to grow on supermarket shelves?” in the same way that they would ask, “how does a switch light up the room?”

Like in Borges’ short story, in some spatiotemporal deserts at the edges of the map, the territory can become discernable. When the rhizomatic complexity that we take for granted slips away momentarily, whether for a power outage or a global pandemic, we are reminded, if such things exist, of the territory’s substance and essence. The map blurs our awareness and consequently our ethics. The top shelf meat’s immorality vanishes through the abstraction of its supply chain.

Maps are accommodating. John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln showed in Stealth Democracy that Americans still want a democratic government. However, contrary to a commonly held belief, they want to minimize the space that the democratic process takes in their daily life. They want the effects without the causes: an open political system that guarantees their freedom while being low maintenance and invisible. The stealth democratic system is similar to the map that hides the bureaucratic territory inherent to any complex political machinery. It seamlessly permeates every aspect of our life without our awareness. For the outsider, stealth democracy seems like an autonomous, independent system, yet it requires resilience to endure the numerous attempts to undermine it.

Only when the map is torn, or when the observer wanders in remote rocky lands, can we see the territory apparent again. When facing the failure of our democracies, or contrasting it with the lack of freedom in foreign lands, we can get a glimpse of how valuable this system that we take for granted is. Maps, like stealth democracy, are a first-world privilege. Being able to live more-or-less comfortably while willingly being blind to the underlying mechanism that govern the different policy-making processes of administration is a luxury that a small percentage of the world’s population can afford.  

As Baudrillard puts it:

the territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own.”[9]

Do we still have a grip on the desert of the real now? “Deterrence, abstraction, disconnection, deterritorialization”.[10] Is it Heidegger’s unheimlich, this permanent feeling of not being home? The map comes first, and we dwell in it. McLuhan stated that, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” Should we despise the importance maps have in our lives? Does the territory even have an intrinsic value? It is as the weight of a philosophical tradition puts an emphasis on truth, authenticity and realness is wrestling with the cartographic cultural and economic logic of post-modernity.

In The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, Benjamin Bratton imagines the Stack, a vertical planetary-scale computational entity made of 6 layers (earth, cloud, city, address, interface, and user). The Stack is an accidental megastructure, self-governing and evolving on its own. It represents a map of our contemporary world. According to Timothy Morton’s terminology, the Stack is the ultimate hyperobject; objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity. 

In a surprising parallelism with Marco Polo’s recollection of the Chinese’s paper money, Bratton mentions in The Stack:

“One effect of planetary computation on economic geography is the virtualization of sovereign currencies into n-dimensional abstractions and the consequent disturbance in the force of money to represent the exchange value of commodities, assets, work, and debt. What does money point to? The ultimate reference of a currency is always mythic (“Gold? Seriously?”), but when it is reduced to absolute pulses of light, the link between a currency, the value that it contains, and the thing or process that is exchanged for that currency becomes even more unwound.”[11]

One could conclude that the loop is looped. However, as the map is getting farther from the territory faster than ever, the challenges of our time will question every abstraction we live by. Are our maps resilient enough to resist the territory’s uprising, or do we end up like the jewel beetles in love with their empty beer bottles?

Header image by the amazing Ben Sack https://www.bensackart.com/

[1] Sohn-Rethel, Alfred (1978) Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology. London: Macmillan.

[2] Hoffman, D. D., Singh, M., & Prakash, C. (2015). The interface theory of perception. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 22(6), 1480-1506.

[3] DiCarlo, J. J., Zoccolan, D., & Rust, N. C. (2012). How does the brain solve visual object recognition?. Neuron, 73(3), 415–434.

[4] Tally Jr, R. T. (2018). In the Deserts of Cartography: Building, Dwelling, Mapping. In The Map and the Territory (pp. 599-608). Springer, Cham.

[5] Borges, J. L. (2002). Of exactitude in science. QUADERNS-BARCELONA-COLLEGI D ARQUITECTES DE CATALUNYA-, 12-12.

[6] Polo, M. (1918). The Travels of Marco Polo (No. 306). JM Dent & Sons.

[7] Zijderveld, A. C. (1970). The abstract society: A cultural analysis of our time (Vol. 819). Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

[8]  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is the third adage of Clark’s Three Laws, from his essay Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination published in 1962.

[9] Baudrillard, J. (2020). Simulacra and simulations, Routledge.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bratton, B. (2015). The stack. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 182, 169.


One thought on “An Oasis in the Desert of the Real: On the Relationship Between Map and Territory

  1. Pingback: Nouvelles de mai 2021 | Azurisme

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