Cartographic omissions

The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented. It is indifferent to its pictures and to its picturers. But maps organise information about a landscape in a profoundly influential way. They carry out a triage of its aspects, selecting and ranking those aspects in an order of importance, and so they create forceful biases in the ways a landscape is perceived and treated.

It can take time and effort to forget the prejudice induced by a powerful map. And few maps exercise a more distortive pressure upon the imagination than the road atlas. The first road atlas of Britain was produced in 1675 by John Ogilby. It was a six-volume work, which claimed to be the only ‘Ichnographical and Historical Description of all the Principal Road-ways in England and Wales’. Ogilby’s maps showed a scrupulous attention to landscape detail: they depicted not only roads, but also the hills, rivers and forests that the roads ran round, along, through and over.

In the centuries since Ogilby’s innovation, the road atlas has grown in ubiquity and influence. Over a million are sold in Britain and Ireland each year; twenty million are thought to be in circulation at any one time. The priorities of the modern road atlas are clear. Drawn by computers from satellite photos, it is a map that speaks of transit and displacement. It encourages us to imagine the land itself only as a context for motorised travel. It warps its readers away from the natural world.

Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, pp. 8-9) discusses how maps can impact the way we perceive a place. This goes well beyond the map not being the territory. A map, like any good model, is wrong, but useful. For driving one place to another, a road map is a useful model. But maps are also a sort of language, and the language we use can influence the way we think.

Road maps are designed to be task-focused. They allow you to plan a route from Point A to Point B. Turn-by-turn navigation does this job even better. Road maps and turn-by-turn navigation are successful because leave out a great deal of information, but what is left out changes our perception. Instead of being aware of the surrounding landscape, we’re aware only of our own route through it, focused only on the blue line that draws us forward toward our destination. Everything else drops away.

The road map is only one way of representing a landscape. For the traveller who merely wants to move through the landscape, it is probably the right tool. For the traveller for whom the journey is the landscape (perhaps this is an explorer, not a traveller), there are other maps that show what road maps have left out: the topography, the history, the ecology, the geology. Of course, there is also everything that no map shows, and that’s where things start to get exciting.

Grandmother sources

The histories I’ve written have often been hidden, lost, neglected, too broad or too amorphous to show up in others’ radar screens, histories that are not neat fields that belong to someone but the paths and waterways that meander through many fields and belong to no one. Art history in particular is often cast as an almost biblical lineage, a long line of begats in which painters descend primarily from painters. Just as the purely patrilineal Old Testament genealogies leave out the mothers and even the fathers of mothers, so these tidy stories leave out all the sources and inspirations that come from other media and other encounters, from poems, dreams, politics, doubts, a childhood experience, a sense of place, leave out the fact that history is made more of crossroads, branches and tangles than straight lines. These other sources I called the grandmothers.

Rebecca Solnit’s idea of grandmother sources (from A Field Guide To Getting Lost, pp.58-59) is a neat shorthand way of referring to a problem I have with many books. I find that non-fiction (and to an extent, fiction) books that I get enjoy most explore a topic, rather than building an argument. Strangely, this is true even when I agree with the argument that is being made. The inevitable exclusions and cherry picking that such an approach requires result in a work that lacks depth. On the other hand, openly and honestly exploring a topic—including stories and facts that might interfere with a simple, straightforward narrative—results in something I can immerse myself in and return to again and again. These are the kind of books that I learn something from every time I read them.

Solnit’s grandmother sources, and my preference for books that use them, strongly reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s plea to reject the single story in order to empower and humanize people that might not fit into the dominant narrative. It also brings to mind Matthew Chalmers’s idea of beautiful seams that allow many digital tools to flourish, rather than one dominant tool.

There is also something of Franklin’s gambit here: post-hoc rationalisation disguised as considered and informed decision making (though there are those who are honest enough to admit that most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive) . This results in a teleological history—the inevitable march of progress, manifest destiny—that erases stories from the past and obscures the many possibilities and opportunities of the present.

 

Storylistening

What’s the future of storytelling? I think it has a lot more to do with listening than telling. I think leaders discover so often how they can get stuck in their own story. It’s a great story, but no one is listening. They may be in the room, but no one can hear them. The only way they’re going to hear them is for the leader to listen to them first. Storylistening has to come before storytelling.

John Maeda discusses his idea of story listening as a part of The Future of Storytelling 2014.

I like the idea of storylistening. What I like more is the idea of “getting stuck in their own story.” In many ways it’s like Tolstoy’s screw on a larger scale.

Franklin’s Gambit

We have been encouraged to believe that there might be a science of decision-making – a scientific procedure that should lead every conscientious person to the same objective answer. The distinction of the great business leader, the measure of financial acumen, would rest only in their ability to arrive at the objectively right answer faster than anyone else. I call this concept of scientific decision-making Franklin’s Rule, after the great American polymath Benjamin Franklin, who set it out in a famous letter to the English scientist, Joseph Priestley. Franklin explained that one should make decisions by listing pros and cons, and attaching weights to each item on the list.

But Franklin knew perfectly well that people – including himself – did not really make decisions this way. He went on to observe how ‘convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable person, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do’. This is Franklin’s Gambit – the process, so common in business and politics, of constructing elaborate rationalisations of decisions that have already been made on different grounds. Consultants’ fortunes have been made on the basis of Franklin’s Gambit.

John Kay discussing obliquity.

Retrospective certainty

I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.

Bill Watterson, Some thoughts on the real world by one who glimpsed it and fled

Beautiful seams

And this leads us, finally, to the concept not of the seamlessness of designed experience, but of “beautiful seams.”

This term was coined by the late Mark Weiser, a pioneer of ubiquitous computing and the Chief Technologist at what was at the time the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Instead of the discourse of smooth, distinction-obliterating, disempowering seamlessness which was then (and is to a significant degree still) dominant in discussions of ubiquitous information processing systems, Weiser wanted to offer users ways to reach into and configure the systems they encountered; ideally, such seams would afford moments of pleasure, revelation and beauty.

From On the ground running: Lessons from experience design « Adam Greenfield’s Speedbird

Update (November 7, 2010): Matthew Chalmers’ paper on Seamful Design and Ubicomp Infrastructure has more on Weiser’s idea of beautiful seams.

Weiser describes seamlessness as a misleading or misguided concept. In his invited talks to UIST94 and USENIX95 he suggested that making things seamless amounts to making everything the same, reducing components, tools and systems to their ‘lowest common denominator’. He advocated seamful systems (with “beautiful seams”) as a goal. Around Xerox PARC, where many researchers worked on document tools, Weiser used an example of seamful integration of a paint tool and a text editor (Weiser, personal communication). He complained that seamless integration of such tools often meant that the user was forced to use only one of them. One tool would be chosen as primary and the others reduced and simplified to conform to it, or they would be crudely patched together with ugly seams. Seamfully integrated tools would maintain the unique characteristics of each tool, through transformations that retained their individual characteristics. This would let the user brush some characters with the paint tool in some artful way, then use the text editor to ‘search and replace’ some of the brushstroked characters, and then paint over the result with colour washes. Interaction would be seamless as the features of each tool were “literally visible, effectively invisible”. Seamful integration is hard, but the quality of interaction can be improved if we let each tool ‘be itself’.

To me, this sounds very much like a well-implemented API.

Regaining a kind of paradise

Chimamanda Adichie has given what has to be one of my favorite TED talks of all time. In The Danger of a Single Story she discusses the problem with listening to just one story to the exclusion of all others.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…

The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar…

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity…

When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

Those are the highlights of the talk, the phrases that struck me as I was listening to it. You’ll want to hear the whole thing, though, for the stories she weaves through the entire talk.