Thursday, June 24, 2010

Abstraction

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.

7 comments:

E. W. Lynch said...

Good post. The implications of this brand of thinking are far reaching and it never fails to amaze me how often we fall back on the net of artificial classifications that we've created.

Also, this reminds me of my days on the survey crew where my only job was to go out into the field and take the complexity of a natural environment and turn it into quantifiable chunks. Stuff like that reminds me that anything you do can inform you on the peculiarities of the human condition. I presently work managing web design projects but I'm doing the same thing. I take an organic work process and try to force the things my team does into quantifiable blocks of "deliverables" and "project phases". It doesn't really matter that the work being performed doesn't always fit.

Lisa said...

Having taught animal taxonomy many times now to school children, I understand why people get hung up on the boxes. We want our information orderly enough that we can retrieve information we have collected and examine it closer. We can't have a separate "box" for each item, so we group them. I particularly like the platypus, because he gets a box almost to himself. He has to share it with the echidna (also called the spiny anteater, which creates confusion to some since it is not an anteater, though it is an eater of ants). Oftentimes the boxes are not neat and rearranging becomes necessary--but it's the system of boxes, not the actual content of the boxes, that gives the order.

Sometimes I resent the classifying into "boxes". Just yesterday, someone classified me as a political person, as opposed to her being an academic person. It was because I made a comment that she considered political, although it could also have been religious. So I was put into the political box, although I am a teacher, and therefore could equally be called an academic person. But by classifying me as a political person, she could dismiss my comments because her concern was only academic. It was convenient for her. Annoying to me.

L. H. Lynch said...

I like maps, too. I hang them up all over my room and stare at them. Sometimes, someone will tell me they're from a certain place, and I'll find it on my map, and think "gee, that looks like a pretty cool place; I'd like to go there." It doesn't matter that I can't actually SEE anything about that place on my map. It could be a the funny border of a country, or some weird peninsula, or a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. All I can think is "I want to go to there."

rklllama said...

Yes, excellent post Cous. I particularly enjoyed the platypus comments, it seemed to really make the point very understandable.

This all reminds me of how upset some people got when we revoked Pluto's planet status. It's still the same thing it used to be, we're just calling it something different (and in my opinion never should have called it a planet in the first place).

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Lisa said...

BTW: plural of platypus is platypuses AND platypi. The second sounds way cooler...

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