The Specialist and the Map

In my Saturday’s FR newspaper, there is an interview with Ernst Pöppel which is titled “The Specialist and the Map“. Not convincing me, he tries to counter the argument of his student that she can look up everything in Wikipedia:

“This is not the point about the knowing of facts. The point is that I feed them to my brain, such that the brain can work with them. The creativity, i.e. what we make out of the facts, is not in the Internet. […] Of course I cannot know everything about the world. […] Nevertheless, we need something like a map of knowledge. At the same time, however, I need to focus on a very special topic.”

The map is great metaphor when thinking about what can be looked up and what needs to be in the brain. hegauBefore there were maps, it was certainly necessary to have all the detailed facts about each nearby creek and hill in one’s own brain, or to employ an expert guide who had the details in their brain. Once you own a map (even an analog paper atlas), you can always look up these facts: just consult the place index, find the appropriate grid square, and “zoom in” with your nose closer to the map. Then you get facts about place points, and furthermore, you get plenty of relationships, as well: hierarchical relationships such as river catchment networks and mountain ridges, or cross-hierarchy knowledge such as a pass connecting one creek valley road with another.

This pattern of points and links, can be applied to all knowledge domains, because most facts can be expressed as points and relationships. Maybe it is not always a simple RDF triple such as “creek A, flows into, river B”, but in principle, all facts can be broken down to such constructs.

All such factual knowledge can be looked up. It’s a bit more tricky with comprehending and understanding. On one hand, these can also be expressed by relationships, for example, like: “A occurs due to B”, or “the whole complex of A interacts in such and such way with the complex of B”, or “Ah-ha! Lego piece A snaps into Lego piece B !”. On the other hand, you cannot learn these relationships from looking them up, because understanding requires that you make the link yourself, and to make the experience of “snapping” the two lego pieces autonomously by yourself. But do you have to memorize it? No, for later use, you may well look it up in your notes — or on the Web.

So there is still no need for knowledge in the brain? It could be argued that it is the higher levels/ larger scales of the map that can be, or should be, in the in-brain cache storage, to gain an overview of orientation and compass points. But then again, you can also zoom out of a smaller scale map, and if you apply the necessary cartographic generalization (e.g. enlarging fonts of city names and drop villages), you can quickly search the “big picture” for the aggregated facts and the more important facts.

So what can be looked up and what should be already in one’s head? I think the difference is between searching something on a knowledge map, and browsing the map: If I only need to find a certain point, or a certain line, on the knowledge map, then I can look it up. But if I want my own Rich Picture, I need my map in my own brain.

Clearly, the searching is associated with what McGilchrist calls the “Emissary” mode, while browsing applies the mode of the “Master”. For finding patterns in large mosaics of experience, or in entire sets of relationships, I need the browse mode. Even for non-fuzzy problem solving, I need to “look around” in my solution “space”.

More (may be skipped).

There are many more applications of the map metaphor. If I just need to find a place, I won’t even need a 2D map because satellite navigation will take me there in a linear fashion, and I am sent to my goal in a rather patronized fashion (emissary).

The white spots on the map will gradually be filled, and the “uncharted territory” will be charted and mapped, by ambitious scientists. Maybe in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, the territory is not “mapped”, but the “tracings” of the creeks and hills, or the respective discovery routes, are charted?

Regarding the understanding and comprehension, it is interesting that “The Beginner’s Guide to Deleuze” advises “do not bother trying to comprehend or understand the text.” — thanks to Sarah for the annotation! So the insight must come through a different mode?

For browsing the map I need the literacy of how to zoom in into the map and how it is like to discover uncharted territory (i.e., some areas of depth). And I need the literacy of how to zoom out and do the cartographic generalizations, without getting lost in over-simplifying abstractions that just substract some points.

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2 Responses to The Specialist and the Map

  1. Jim Stauffer says:

    You bring to mind my trapping experience back in the mid-80’s, traveling with an experienced Tlicho (Canadian Indian) trapper on a 12-horsepower snowmobile. I had the analog map somewhere in my pack, but he had the tracings of the land in his mind.
    So yes, there is a depth of knowledge not available in Wikipedia, but it won’t come from a lecture either. It’s one thing to listen to an elder tell about thin river ice, but being out in the cold and knowing he’ll keep you from falling through, you realize just how complex learning really is.

  2. x28 says:

    Thanks very much for the wonderful illustration! So your Tlicho was a teacher in Downes’ sense: Modelling and demonstrating.

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