The Map is (not) the Territory

A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.

— Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 1931

We will kick off the Soft Sentience Working Group (for lack of a better name) with the question: “what is a map?” The first session will focus on the concept of cognitive mapping, exploring the relationship between the map and the territory it seeks to represent, understood both from social theory and fundamental neuroscience research. This begins to address one of the two working definitions we have forwarded for the map, what we had referred to as embodiment – projecting in to create a working representation of the world. Each of the readings included address this in one way or another – i.e. how we situate ourselves in the world vis-à-vis the maps we draw (in our heads or elsewhere), and the limits of these representations.

This session’s readings include the first chapter of the classic text The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. This chapter outlines Lynch’s broader understanding of the interrelation between our cognitive maps and the shape and legibility of the city.  Other chapters from this book will be added soon.  The second piece, by Marxist and Post-Modern social theorist Fredrick Jameson, takes up Lynch’s idea of the cognitive map, expanding it to describe mental and social processes we use to bridge the gap between everyday experience and the larger social and economic order (i.e. “ideology”). Also included is a This American Life episode on mapping that explores how different kinds of maps – and thus different images of the world – can be generated through different sensorial regimes, with great pieces by the cartographer Denis Wood and the late, great Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold.

Scientific texts include two foundational texts for the “cognitive map” theories of the brain. The first is from Edward Tolman (1950s). The psychology building at Berkeley is named after him and he not only fought the battle (lost the battle in his lifetime but has now been vindicated by modern neuroscience) against B.F. Skinner and the Pavlovian stimulus-response behavioral absolutists, he also got thrown out of his Professorship at Berkeley during the Red Scare for refusing to sing a loyalty oath and standing with the students; he was eventually re-instated after going to court. Also included is two chapters from the classic 1970s book by John O’Keefe, discoverer of place cells, on the discovery and neurology of the hippocampus as the site of cognitive maps.


  • Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, 1960, pp 1-14 + additional chp TBD
  • Fredrick Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping”, 1990, pp 1-9
  • The American Life, Episode 110: Mapping, 1998
  • Edward Tolman, “Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men”, 1948
  • John O’Keefe, The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map, 1978, pp 63-101
Denis Wood, Everything Sings, Map of Phone, Cable and Power Lines




UDM Roadmap

This is the preliminary class diagram for the UDM platform. The main goals in my mind in how this should be constructed is to make the structure as flat as possible, while still allowing it to be flexible to future changes and added complexity. This builds off the approach of Processing to create lean coding environments that are easily accessible to designers.


As the UDM is envisioned as a pedagogical tool as much as a design tool, its structure is intended as an introduction to basic Object Oriented programming (and design) paradigms. Key principles, such as inheritance, composition, “encapsulating what changes”, etc. are viewed as both as a way to ensure code reuseability and reconfigurability, as well as teaching tool for introducing and developing Object Oriented Design as an urban strategy – i.e. “Object Oriented Urbanism.” A key point of encapsulation includes the state objects, which define object behaviors, and ensure that any behavior can be reused, replaced and/or overlapped.

The UDM will be built with GeoTools library, which provides geometry types and the full functionality of a GIS platform.


Octopus Cartography

Hyperallergic has assembled a great collection of 19th century maps employing the caricatures of octopus as a motif to represent perceived threat from omni-directional, spreading “tentacles of power” of an alien, in-human, or otherwise denatured global economic or military power. Frank Jacobs expands on this, outlining the “Cartographic Land Octopus” as a particularly insidious trope of cartographic space, drawing on fears for Kraken-like creatures from the deep, “its ugly head is the centre of a malevolent intelligence, which is manipulating its obscene appendages to bring death and destruction to its surroundings.” Many of these maps are drawn from the excellent PJ Mode Collection at Cornell that focuses on “Persuasive Cartography” from the 15th century onward.




Glass Bead Games

I had the chance to read this great interview of Keller Easterling and Benedict Singleton by the editors of The Glass Bead, a fantastic site in itself, and a great reference for the “mapspace as gamespace” project now in conception – this page in particular is a great articulation of the idea. I am familiar with Easterling and her work on the spatial software of the city, but Singleton was new to me. I will be digging more into his work. His unpacking of plot, plotting, the plot, plot twists, etc. here is great:

If you trace the conceptual history of ‘plot’, you find that before around 1500, the term refers solely to a marked-out site, an area of land. Over the next century or so, the term’s meanings proliferate to the point where their connections are no longer immediately obvious: drawings, narratives, and seditious plans are all called plots. The underlying logic that guided this development illuminates an alternative conception of design in a very striking way.

Plot’s initial, spatial meaning, the demarcation of an area, transferred into the language of the workshop. One plots out a design on paper before acting on other, more expensive materials. So a constructive sense of plot arises, relating to diagrams, maps and charts. And within a few decades, this graphical ‘plotting’ was adopted into the lexicon of the early modern theater, where its artisanal meaning deepened into a narrative sense: plotting as the arrangement of people and things over time, so as to tell a story.

Up to this point, ‘plot’ shares a substantial similarity to ‘plan’. Both words couple the idea of a spatial arrangement with a schedule of unfolding action. Plot’s connection to territory (and the politics of its division), cartography, and stories make it, perhaps, the richer word. But most interesting is that, on the back of its theatrical use, plot acquired a further, specificallysubversive, sense, which planning does not possess: plotting as the subtle orchestrations of an unseen director, manipulating the course of events from behind the scenes.

So ‘plot’ encodes a particular form of creativity, too, which can be glossed as the production of a plot twist. This is the point at which one plot is subverted by another one, just as the routines of the bank, the placement of cameras, the structure of the vault and the peccadilloes of the manager become the raw material of the heist. Put another way, plotting is always re-plotting: discerning the contours of an unfolding situation and locating the opportunities it presents for ‘leverage’–points in space and time at which an action can generate an effect disproportionate to the physical effort put into it. A plot, we might say, is a plan invested with this kind of underdog intelligence.

In a kind of closing of the circle, ‘site’ (the original meaning of plot) remains critical to this idea of the creative twist or what we might call the kick–the moment where one plot is derailed by another. Rather than conjuring an image of how the world should be and then trying to force it into being, plotting takes a site’s particular structure, its fixity or at least predictability, as the platform for new and potentially unlicensed operations. Recovering the full sense of plotting, as an intervention that starts from a point of comparative weakness and proceeds through guile and ingenuity, forges a deep conceptual link between the creation of artifacts and political intrigues, dissident stratagems, and other ruses.

some vids: