Guide to Future-Present Archetypes Part 5: Schematic Maps


UCSD robot mouse.

When attempting to map out the Future-Present, there is not just one map to consider; there are three. These three categorical types of map—our mental maps, symbolic maps, and broken maps--are each a schematic layer in our effort to perceive the world, and it is in their dissonance that the world actually exists. We must identify not only what these maps are, but what they are when they fail. In the fractures, one sees the spidering web of weaknesses, the many possible scenarios of rupture that select without warning. Reality is unpredictable, bursting from its constraining archetypes. And yet it is uncannily similar to all the breaks we’ve seen before, like a river delta resembling a tree.

The first category of map resides somewhere in the brain, perhaps in the hippocampus. It is through these networks that our neurology gives us a sense of space that we might try to express, record, and share with others. In studies performed on mice, “place fields” have been identified in their hippocampal neurons. Everytime the mouse passes through a particular known place in its terrain, a burst of action potential fires through the same neurons. We know less about the human brain, but it is clear that our hippocampus is important to forming memories, and that larger hippocampi correlate with people who have more detailed place knowledge, London cab drivers, for example. Somewhere, lurking inside the chemical differences between the inside and outside of neurons, in the minor voltages and in the ever-changing and evolving cell pattern of our neuroanatomy, is a material record of what we mean when we sense our geography. We cannot read this map— we can only think it. We express this map’s imperfections via our senses. When this map fails, we feel lost.

The second map is spoken aloud, in the possibility of uttering a symbolic map. Humans are never content at forming schema and just keeping them to themselves. Our schemas are meant to be shared, explained, inscribed, and signified. But the topology of these symbolic maps are as complicated and multifaceted as our neurology. It was Alfred Korzybski who constructed the phrase so relevant to our contemporary times, as the second part of a statement first spoken in 1931:

A) A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory...

B) A map is not the territory.

One of the primary tenets of Korzybski’s theory of general semantics is that we give too much credence to our abstractions. We shorten the distance between our judgment of a thing and what that thing “is” until they are one of the same. What the world “is”, is comprised of our accepting a map as easily as we hear an uttered judgement, in the time of its hanging in the air, only as long as it takes to be spoken. The structure of a map may or may not be like the land, but a structure of a map is something that we know. We read it, and we know that it symbolizes space that is habitable. When this maps fails, we are not lost— we just don’t know where we are.

The third map, manifested famously in a particular instance by technology, was actually two maps— or the difference between two maps. When iPhone users updated their devices to a new version of the operating system in September 2012, they discovered that not only had Apple replaced the Google Maps program with a new Apple Maps program, but there were serious usability discrepancies between the two. Turn-by-turn driving directions had been added, but public transit directions had been removed. Search functions were lacking in the brand-new Apple Maps, as the hard work done by Google Maps to verify place data was no longer accessible. And the Street View data, meticulously collected by Google employees with 360-degree cameras on the ground for years, was replaced by an aerial “3D” view feature, that left odd glitches in the data: for example, portraying underpasses as solid walls, and making bridges over water appear melted.

The switch of map platforms, a decision made on the corporate level, betrayed what each of these platforms really were— a complicated stitching together of massive amounts of descriptive data, GPS information, and aerial photographs. Each of these two maps was actually millions, if not billions of maps. What allowed the map to be perceived as singular, and to make it useful as a means for orienting oneself in real space using a mobile device, was the seamlessness of the platform’s presentation of very similar data. The data— the maps themselves— were not dissimilar from each other. But the skip between one program’s presentation of the map data and the other’s, as it was presented for human reading, made all the difference.

The Apple Map “problem” is hardwired into our human capacity for navigation. Even if Apple had the time and resources to replace Google Maps with a program that was seamless and indistinguishable, this problem would have resulted at some point. It has before, and it will again. It could be a crash in the server, a forced downgrade to a phone without GPS maps, or any other real world issue that would separate us from seamlessly absorbing that useful abstraction of the map. We know that our sense of time-space is internal to our brains, and we know that the map is not the territory. But we don’t realize that our ability to use a map is because of the seamless integration of thousands of previously observed maps, of preconscious data visualizations in our perception and mind, of mental schema, and of their historical entanglement. Until, the occurrence of the glitch. Then we see the scaffolding of schema that underlies our perceptions. When this map fails, we are not necessarily lost, and not necessarily unaware of our location. At this point of failure we are conscious of how much of the world we know is only a map.

The Future-Present archetype we are encountering is not GPS, not our neurology, nor the ability of us to understand and make maps. It is the map that necessarily comes apart in our hands. It is the somewhat disconcerting revelation that the schema we use to understand history and our place in it, are it. To feel lost is a crisis of our person, and to have one’s recorded position displaced is a crisis of data. But to have the concept of a map devolve, is not so much a crisis of history, but its most visible presence. We have folded the Future-Present so deeply into our perceptions of the world, that sometimes we see it best when we fail to see it, when the overlapping schema we have stitched into our conception of everything becomes unthreaded, and we can look into the seams. In between the frames? Only more seams behind it. Seams, as it is said, all the way down.

Augmented reality presents opportunities to both extend and collapse the sense of self across spacetime. There is a deep revelation in this technology that promises to show us the hidden attributes of the world around us. It can be confronted as an occult technology in that it simultaneously reveals the hidden and offers a hidden view. What we see through AR can reinforce our personal experience of the world - what I see may become radically different from what you see - while simultaneously allowing us to share access to a common dataset underlying physicality - what I see contains the same rich detail as what you see. In this there is a path of algorithmic containment just as we see in all current algorithmic content streams, reinforcing what you like and filtering out what you don't. This is something that celebrates our individuality while robbing us of the agency to grow and see differently. If our adaptation requires seeing problems in new ways, will algorithms dull or enhance this ability?

- Chris Arkenberg

If we invented a technology that broke our mental schema for good, would we realize it in time? We map the levees around our cities, to be prepared for their inevitable ruin and failure. But what of the failure of the levees on the maps themselves? What of the failure of the levees in our conscious thoughts? These berms may not erode nearly as quickly, but that is not to say their are impermeable. Consciousness has always been too big to fail, but that is no guarantee.

The fans of [Future-Present] tech are indeed cross-disciplinary in their vocations. It may be more useful to look at the personality traits that incline a person towards such interests. They are hardware folks fascinated by the mechanics of functionality, the specs & schematics, the operational capabilities and engineering tolerances. They are military buffs into the tools of power & survival, the nuances of geopolitics, and the flow of milspec into civilian space. They are tech geeks looking for signs of their scifi fantasies coming to life; activists guarding civil liberties and revealing corruption; cybernetic psychologists tracking the ingression of the algorithm into the body; coolhunters & trendwatchers, analysts & futurists fed by the Edge, always propelled towards the precipitous drop into tomorrow. These types of orientations often emerge in childhood, reinforced by formative experiences and natural abilities. But as expressions of imagination, objects of novelty, and tools of functionality, technologies - especially the radical ones - always captivate our attention.

There may also be deep evolutionary structures compelling us to pay attention. Maybe something within our psyche is projecting into our technologies and demanding that we keep pushing forward, to the West, out to space, into the inner unknown. We are planners, after all, always watching the horizon to be prepared for tomorrow.

- Chris Arkenberg

It is good that we have so many people paying attention. The deep evolutionary structures that Chris suggests might be our only hope for survival. Our schema may be doomed to shatter, but saving grace is that we seem innately driven to construct replacements. The schematic opportunities in the Future-Present may be few or many, but considering these things from a variety of relative perspectives should hopefully keep us from fatally surprising ourselves.

[Identifying the Future-Present is] a framing thing. We have subconscious biases about who should be doing what. I’ve had male friends watching their kids on the playground— and people come up and ask “where’s the mom?” because no one assumes that the father would be with the kids on the playground. These are subconscious schemas about who should be doing what. It’s rarely malicious, it’s just part of our culture. It’s like taking the red pill in the Matrix. Once you learn about gender schemas, you totally see it everywhere. Sadly, there’s no going back. It’s not an unqualified win. 

It’s not a totally design-based thing; it’s about the way we learn. If you have a schema or a mental model of what a used car salesman looks like and how they behave, it’s useful. If you think the person you’re buying the car from has your best interests in heart, that’s not good. The idea of framing, that once things are pointed out to you it’s possible to see them as part of a larger whole, is part of a broader psychology. “Culture is all the things you do that you don’t know why you do them”... I don’t know who said that originally. I didn’t realize I was Canadian until I moved to the US. I apologize to people when I bump into them, even if it is totally their fault. That was a thing I did without thinking until I was in a place where that did not happen, and then I became aware of it. That’s the nature of culture.

- Deb Chachra

It is a chicken-and-egg question to ask if we develop schema-altering technologies by accident and then react to them, or whether we create technologies that purposefully incite new schemas as a way to seek new perspectives. It’s been suggested, in the conversation surrounding Venkat Rao’s “Manufactured Normalcy Field”, that our development of technology is done in such a way as to seek novelty, or alternatively, seek as little novelty as possible. Perhaps neither is truly the case. Technology doesn’t want anything that approaches the meta-schematic level of “novelty”, nor do human beings. Our desires don’t function on the semantic level of mapped culture theory. We don’t seek novelty, it is with the schema of “novelty” that we are able to describe what we have produced. Like Deb suggests, it is not whether or not the human schematic response to an instruction or a piece of technology is perfectly correct, or of a particular discourse. The framing we give a thing is the ultimate significance of that thing, for better or worse. But it is not that thing. Our experience of consciousness is a cataloging of shadows.

I feel optimistically that there is a sort of archive impulse. There are people who like going to libraries and taking out books. But people also make photo albums, collect cookbooks, etc. People like to form multimedia databases. There’s a connection to memory through objects and other media artifacts. This wouldn’t get you into an Ivy League school or even get you an A in a class. But there is an archive fever. People like setting up a system and fitting things into it. Even through Facebook, people are engaged through this sort of activity. With the internet--just like the release of the Kinsey report--suddenly we realize, “my God, everyone’s doing it.” It’s allowing more people to engage in these conversations, and it’s revealed that all along people were into this. They just didn’t live next to an academic library.

I don’t know if this means that this is making more people like that, or just revealing them. But it is definitely allowing people to do things that they had been wanting to do all along. There are people with incredibly detailed photo albums. It’s the same impulse, to organize info, brought into the mainstream.

- Geoff Manaugh

Art may serve as a strategic reserve of schematization. Rather than simply mapping the quickest route from point A to B, we have people who hide data in brick walls, or embed codes in the ambient surface patterns of nearly any object. The shortest distance is a line that can be cut, but the wider net of meaning in a space can survive a blockage in the flow. Schematically, art complicates rather than simplifies. Not everyone is economizing and minimizing. Others are obscuring, obfuscating, and accentuating until the basic becomes the baroque. The same impulse that drives us to aesthetically tile the world’s into 3D maps also causes us to add apopheniac tags to the world, making some sort of pattern— or better yet, making so many opportunities for new patterns that the patterns begin to fade into noise.

There's no danger that people are actually and literally going to make everything they can dream up. There's been something of a lowering of the barriers to aping Thomas Edison and tinkering in an industrial lab, but there are still plenty of genuine barriers, and they'll weed out the people who are delusional about their maker chops. It's quite hard to make effective things, especially without some hard-won understanding of the tools and the grain of the material.

The Makers scene is like what happened in publishing, in music, and in video, but it's for objects. There's a lot of semi-effortless music and video around nowadays, too, but if you think you're gonna compose like Wagner and film like Fellini, well, you won't.

—Bruce Sterling

The truth of society’s open schematization of the world is that there are no standards, no rules, and no moderating authority. There is no grand design, and no underlying pattern to be discovered, other than the patterns themselves. Schematization can bring amazing things to light, bury important things deep, and dissolve away into its component pieces in seconds. We are left standing in the middle of this map, watching one edge crumble away while we draft and paste additions onto the other, wondering what will happen to the area seemingly supporting our weight.