I love maps. I haven't really given too much thought to why I love maps, but I suspect it's because they are an abstraction, a model of something that is real, but without the troubling overabundance of information that accompanies real things. Montana, for example, is ridiculous. It's a gigantic region of the surface of the earth, containing what is for all intents and purposes an infinite number of things. Rocks, trees, molecules, you name it. There's just too many of them for a finite being to take in. I can't look at Montana. That's where maps come in. They are finite things, which contain a finite amount of information, about something that is infinite. (Well, fine; maybe not infinite. Just very, very large.) Now Montana has visible boundaries, which distinguish it from the surrounding states. Now it's composed of a finite number (147,165 square miles) of things. Accept a given definition of a particular geographical feature (say, lakes, or mountains), and Montana has a finite number of them. Maps are a spectacular illustration (no pun intended) of how homo sapiens organize information: we categorize it. We put it into discreet, knowable packets. There are an infinite number of points between Billings and Great Falls, but there is a very finite number of miles. It doesn't really matter that there's an infinite number of points within a mile, merely that the mile itself is knowable. It doesn't even matter that the concept of a mile (5,280 feet) is highly arbitrary. What's a foot? Twelve inches, you say? What's an inch? It simply doesn't matter, so long as we agree on what it is, it's knowable. Why are Montana's borders where they are? Why aren't they somewhere else? It doesn't matter; they're knowable. We can comprehend them. We've put everything on one side of the line in the Montana-shaped box, and everything on the other side of the line elsewhere.
Both for work and personally, I use Google Maps somewhat frequently, which, given my love of maps, gives me a great deal of pleasure. Other users of the site will have noticed that the good people at Google have carefully stitched together a multi-layered quilt of photographs, taken by aircraft, spacecraft, and earth-bound photographers, giving their map of the world a terrific amount of detail. The thing is, I mostly don't use that part; there's too much information there. When I'm trying to get directions somewhere, I turn off all of the photo-graphical features, because I prefer the abstraction. I prefer the two-dimensional, simplified representation of the real thing, because it's more easily knowable. I do enjoy the photographs, and looking at places I've never been, but for actual information, I find the map too crowded when it contains every house and tree.
Getting back to abstraction (in the abstract), I do think it's funny when people (myself included) get hung up on our methods of organizing information. I shake my head every time someone drags out the old "platypuses (platypii?) are weird" meme, because to me they're really not more weird than giraffes, or for that matter, people. It's just that they have a particular set of characteristics which make them difficult to put into one of our (supposedly) clearly-demarcated boxes. People get hung up on the boxes. So do I, though: if there were a physical place on the surface of the earth which would be hard to draw on a map, I have a feeling that would make me terribly uncomfortable. It's quite strange to me, really, that humans have to try so hard to break down the gigantic universe of information into tiny, knowable chunks, and then we start to believe that the chunks are meaningful on some deeper level. It starts to matter that we've classified some people as a certain ethnicity, for example, and get lost in the fact that there are certain things that such classification does and does not tell us. In short, we can forget that we (or someone else) created the classification in the first place, because the reality was too complicated for us to comprehend.