Maps and mental models

Ocean Jangda
The Urban Toilet
Published in
8 min readAug 27, 2022

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source @NASA

A map is an orientation device. It’s a tool that helps the mind orient to a territory. It can be an approximation of territory in physical space, as with a traditional map, or it can be an approximation of territory in conceptual space, as with a mental model. Whether in the physical case or the conceptual one, maps are a form of structured information designed to help us orient to the territory at hand.

Reality and one’s perception of reality are two distinct things. Maps mediate between us and the objective territory we’re concerned with. They structure raw data to make it useful. I’ve long been curious about this idea. I’m obsessed with trying to understand how people orient themselves in the world. Life is so rich with information and data, how the hell do we make sense of things?

The art and science of cartography can give us some insight into that question. Cartography provides a beautiful analogy for the orienting intelligence of the human mind. Our incredible dexterity with mental models is rooted in cartography. Our capacity to form and use maps and mental models is one of the core aspects of what makes us human, but we engage with it so frequently and instinctually that it often goes unexamined. Here’s a quick story to illustrate this point.

At height of the Roman Empire, the polymath Claudius Ptolemaeus authored an eight-volume series of atlases and cartographic knowledge titled Geography. The Romans knew the earth was round, and Geography detailed a method of projecting the round planet onto a flat piece of paper. Its maps were the first to overlay the globe with a grid system, an innovation that is still used today.

As the Roman Empire declined some three hundred years after Geography was written, the book was lost. Then, almost a thousand years later, it was rediscovered by scholars in Constantinople. Soon after, the invention of the printing press made rare books a symbol of wealth, and Geography became a best seller amongst the European elite.

In the 14th century, an Italian navigator examined Geography’s map of the world and concluded that Asia could be reached by sailing west from Spain. This man was Christopher Columbus. If Ptolemy’s maps had approximated the terrain more accurately, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain probably wouldn’t have funded the expedition. But we all know how it played out.

Ptolemy’s scrupulous, yet incomplete approximations of reality were given authority in the form of the map he drew. But the map was just a cartographic document. More important was the mental model formed by Columbus and his investors as a result of the flawed map they were using.

This story illustrates the importance of the idea that the map is not the territory- both in the geographic sense and the conceptual sense. The process of mapmaking begins with observation. The cartographer’s capacity to reason and make useful observations mediates between objective reality and subjective approximation of it. That’s the basis of cartography and the basis of our ability to form mental models.

Mapmaking is the art of combining information with aesthetics. Aesthetics and design are just as important as precision and information. In the context of a physical map, that may seem obvious, but in the context of a mental model, it’s equally true and important. Details are generalized and patterns are extrapolated from generalizations. The abstract paraphrases the actual. Each element serves some functional end in alignment with the cartographer’s intention. Or, with consideration of context and scale, elements are cast aside to maintain the clarity that makes the model useful. Observations are made, features are noted, and the model takes form.

Whether forming a map or a mental model, the process works the same way. Aesthetics determine utility. Every mental model has a unique purpose that guides the aesthetic process of observation, generalization, and extrapolation. We need to be able to use the model to organize information- to hang facts on the latticework of theory, as Charlie Munger puts it. One’s aesthetic taste, values, and judgment determine how and where the facts are hung.

There is a long-sought intention in cartography to better model the terrain of the physical world. The collective knowledge contained in geographic maps is ever expanding. From the crude star maps painted in Lascaux cave over 18,000 years ago to the near-infinite complexity of GIS today, time has brought increasing clarity, efficacy, and specificity.

The same could be said of the human pursuit of knowledge. What firmness do we have to stand on as we make our way through a complicated and dangerous world? This is the cartographic domain of mental models; ideas about how to live well, how to problem solve in different contexts, principles that are true across time and space, and principles that are true in the specific domain at hand. Maps help us navigate the world by approximating how the territory is laid out. Mental models help us operate in the world by approximating how things work. They both come about by the same process and serve an analogous conceptual purpose.

Geographic maps and the mental models that we depend on to understand our place in the world have always been interconnected. Each major advancement of the world map has brought a profound shift in humankind’s collective self-perception. One of these cognitive shifts was when people came to widely agree that the Earth is a sphere. That changed our understanding of how to map the geography of the Earth, but more importantly, it changed our mental model of life on this planet. We began to see the finitude of our terrestrial domain. It was a long time between the first observations of this reality and the time when maps would no longer depict the edge of the world, with ships cascading into the unknown.

Another major cognitive shift occurred when people came to widely agree that our sphere was not the center of the universe, as Ptolemy had believed. Heliocentrism is the astronomical model that first placed the Sun at the center of the solar system. This put all our terrestrial geographic maps into a terrifyingly vast cosmic context. No wonder people resisted it. The Catholic Church charged Galileo with heresy, placing him under house arrest for promoting Heliocentrism. It took another 300 years for the church to finally come around. This eventual acceptance marked the start of a long, slow transition from religious to scientific explanations of our world. If we are not the center of the universe, just what the hell is going on, exactly? That question helped birthed the scientific age.

The next big shift came as a result of the Apollo Missions to the moon. Seeing the whole earth, hanging in the infinite black abyss of space, was a profound experience for astronauts. Today we call it the overview effect. As Apollo 14 crew member Edger Mitchell put it after returning from the moon:

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch!’

The sight of our pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan famously called it, inspired a major cognitive shift in our collective imagination. A new mental model of humanity. We became culturally aware that we are all “in it together.” There are no political borders from that distance. We’re all just flying through the ether on the starkly singular Spaceship Earth. As Sagan wrote:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

This powerful new mental model is still sinking in. It’s credited with sparking the environmental movement that got going in the ‘60s. It’s driving massive growth in the private space industry. It’s foundational to the explosion of computing and digital information networks. We are getting more interconnected and becoming more aware of our global citizenship.

At their core, these global phenomena are rooted in the cognitive shift that resulted from seeing our planet from afar. Our collective pursuit of more a wholesome cartography of the Earth serves to help us understand our planet and its place in the universe. Similarly, our pursuit of a more effective map of reality serves to help us understand our place in the world. That’s what the 21st century has been about so far, and I think we’re just scratching the surface of what is to come.

These cognitive shifts play out on a global scale over long periods. In a more immediate, practical sense, we are each the cartographers of our minds. Our developmental paths wander and jog towards ever greater efficacy. From the moment we open our eyes as babies, we are forming the features of our maps. We measure the world with our senses as we pass through it and we learn from others by adopting their mental models. We often integrate the mistakes and biases of others through those models, without even knowing it.

Our models of reality are the underlying substrate that gives rise to our thoughts and actions. What we express is the sum of the elements that we have integrated. Our attitudes, thoughts, actions, and beliefs are expressions of our map’s aesthetics. The quality of our decision-making depends on the quality of our observations. We generalize details and identify patterns from generalizations. Features we don’t find useful or don’t like are cast aside for clarity, utility, or comfort. Other features that we don’t intend stubbornly remain, preventing us from seeing things as they are.

Perhaps life has its objective realities, like the terrain of the Earth. Perhaps they are just waiting to be observed, subjectively and imperfectly. This is the ethereal shared domain of science, philosophy, and religion from which all mental models are formed. The quality of our maps deeply influences the quality of our experiences.

The challenge is to be an effective cartographer. Update your maps of reality regularly and with humility. Respect the wisdom of the ages; the latticeworks of theory that have been tempered and tested by time have much to teach. Be ambitious and courageous; take risks for the sake of yet-unknown rewards. Those rewards may become the resources that drive the creation of more effective maps in the future. That’s how we push things forward.

Honoring the time-tested mental models of the past, while pushing the limits of what we know, requires that we hold often contradicting models in our minds at the same time. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

I’ll close with an idea as food for thought. Throughout history, those with the courage to explore the unknown have been rewarded with something useful to offer the world. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable with people who propose bold ideas or attempt bold plans, but history demonstrates that they are often just ahead of their time. When they win, we all win. That’s a mental model worth adopting.

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Ocean Jangda
The Urban Toilet

Urban technologist, communicator, real estate nerd.