The territory and the map

The Map is not the Territory by Claudio Gatti
The Map is not the Territory by Claudio Gatti

Recent responses to my article on Mirrors prompted me to attempt to clarify the approach in that article. I think there is a fundamental philosophical discovery to be made in what I try to say, and indeed some of those responses confirm that. But it is as much a path to discovery to me as it is to my readers.

Architects create models. Indeed they do.

People, human beings, use language. Certainly.

The two things are related. In fact they are the same cognitive function, with the same effect. It is creating a map of the world, and through that faculty called language being able to transfer that map to others without requiring them to actually have the same sensory input you had in prompting (and enabling!) you to create that map.

It is also called symbolic representation. What we human beings also do, one might say beyond creating those maps, is manipulate those maps, play with them, morph them. Sometimes so much so that in effect the result is a new thing, unrelated to any original sensory input, a map of a world that can only be called imaginary. This is called symbolic manipulation.

Symbolic manipulation is tremendously powerful. Those imaginary worlds are evoked with those maps. This is what we humans did for countless centuries, roaming the savannahs, sitting by the fireplace in the dusk, and telling stories. The power of storytelling — or should I say story-listening? One listens to a story, and immediately the images spring to life. You have no problems experiencing the story as vividly as you experience your “real” life.

We cycled through a series of powerful inventions that created ever powerful maps, after that first creative leap of genius that created language: drawing, writing, the printing press. Until we stumbled on an invention that was the same, but also in some fundamental way totally different. I am now referring to the invention of the modern computer.

I think that, in order to realise the tremendous hidden promise of this invention, we should learn to see what is different from the previous inventions, not what is the same. What is different is that within a computers’ vast memory and ever growing processing powers those maps are beginning, tentatively and for now awfully handicapped, to hatch and spring to a life on their own. Until now those maps only lived in our minds, and the maps we created were static, representations frozen in time: pictures, writing. That is changing, and that change is a fundamental one, of that I am growing more and more convinced.

Some of the “worlds” we have created are almost entirely “imaginary”, that is, you cannot actually say they are related to sensory inputs or physical experience. The entire financial system is an example of such a world. However what we usually create in our computer systems of that “world” is static representations. Our accounts are not really “alive”. We do not let them. Why can we not let our credit account figure out how to manage itself? Why not create a new insurance product that is alive and tries to sell itself and compute the best business model based on knowledge regarding risks it accumulates itself during its deployment? It may sound somewhat convoluted, but the actual system I envision is not much different from what is usually created. The devil is in the details, and with this other approach I advocate only a few things need change (see the Active-Passive Pattern for an explanation on one of the characteristics of such a system).

For more, you will probably want to read these related articles:

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