In the background of the internet lies this ongoing discussion of epistemology. It’s an important discussion with links to crowd source algos, big data, and even AI. Perhaps it’s a stretch to include maps, which after all mean to represent “exactitude in science” or JTB, Justified True Belief. On the one hand we have the prescience of Jorge Luis Borges concisely represented by his single paragraph short story.
Del rigor en la ciencia
… En aquel Imperio, el Arte de la Cartografía logró tal Perfección que el mapa de una sola Provincia ocupaba toda una Ciudad, y el mapa del Imperio, toda una Provincia. Con el tiempo, esos Mapas Desmesurados no satisfacieron y los Colegios de Cartógrafos levantaron un Mapa del Imperio, que tenía el tamaño del Imperio y coincidía puntualmente con él. Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil y no sin Impiedad lo entregaron a las Inclemencias del Sol y de los Inviernos. En los desiertos del Oeste perduran despedazadas Ruinas del Mapa, habitadas por Animales y por Mendigos; en todo el País no hay otra reliquia de las Disciplinas Geográficas.
-Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes,
Libro Cuarto, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658
translation by Andrew Hurley
On Exactitude in Science
…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
-Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes,
Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
As Jorge Luis Borges so aptly implies, the issue of epistemology swings between scientific exactitude and cultural fondness, an artistic reference to the unsettling observations of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shiftiness, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions .
Precession of Simulacra
On the other hand Jean Baudrillard would prefer an inversion of Borges in his Simulacra and Simulation
“The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory”
In a less postmodern sense we can point to the recent spectacle of Nicaraguan sovereignty extending into Costa Rica, provoked by the preceding Google Map error, as a very literal “precession of simulacrum.” See details in Wired.
We now have map border wars and a crafty Google expedient of representing the Arunachal Pradesh according to client language. China sees one thing, but India another, and all are happy. So maps are not exempt from geopolitical machinations any more than Wikipedia. Of course the secular bias of Google invents an agnostic viewpoint of neither here nor there, in its course presuming a superior vantage and relegating “simplistic” nationalism to a subjected role of global ignorance. Not unexpectedly, global corporations wield power globally and therefore their interests lie supra nationally.
Perhaps in a Jean Baudrillard world the DPRK could disappear for ROK viewers and vice versa resolving a particularly long lived conflict.
We are all more or less familiar with the filter bubble phenomenon. Your every wish is my command.
“The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.”
George Orwell, 1984 p185
The consumer is king and this holds true in search and advertising as well as in Aladdin’s tale. Search filters at the behest of advertising money work very well at fencing us into smaller and smaller bubbles of our own desire. The danger of self-referential input is well known as narcissism. We see this at work in contextual map bubbles displaying only relevant points of interest from past searches.
With google glasses self-referential virtual objects can literally mask any objectionable reality. Should a business desire to pop a filter bubble only a bit more money is required. In the end, map POI algorithms dictate desire by limiting context. Are “personalized” maps a hint of precession of simulacra or simply one more example of rampant technical narcissism?
In the political realm elitists such as Cass Sunstein want to nudge us, which is a yearning of all mildly totalitarian states. Although cognitive infiltration will do in a pinch, “a boot stamping on a human face” is reserved for a last resort. How might the precession of simulacra assist the fulfillment of Orwellian dreams?
Naturally, political realities are less interested in our desires than their own. This is apparently a property of organizational ascendancy. Whether corporations or state agencies, at some point of critical mass organizations gain a life of their own. The organization eventually becomes predatory, preying on those they serve for survival. Political information bubbles are less about individual desires than survival of the state. To be blunt “nudge” is a euphemism for good old propaganda.
The line from Sunstein to a Clinton, of either gender, is short. Hillary Clinton has long decried the chaotic democracy of page ranked search algorithms. After noting that any and all ideas, even uncomfortable truths, can surface virally in a Drudge effect, Hillary would insist “we are all going to have to rethink how we deal with the Internet.” At least she seems to have thought creatively about State Dept emails. Truth is more than a bit horrifying to oligarchs of all types, as revealed by the treatment of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Barrett Brown.
Enter Google’s aspiration to Knowledge-Based Trust: Estimating the Trustworthiness of Web Sources. In other words a “truth page ranking” to supplant the venerable but messily democratic “link page ranking.” Why, after all, leave discretion or critical thought to the unqualified masses? For the history minded, this is rather reminiscent of pre-reformation exercise of Rome’s magisterium. We may soon see a Google Magisterium defining internet truth, albeit subject to FCC review.
“The net may be “neutral” but the FCC is most certainly not.”
According to Google: “Nothing but the truth.” I mean who could object? Well there seem to be some doubters among the hoi polloi. How then does this Google epistemology actually work? What exactly is Justified True Belief in Google’s Magisterium and how much does it effectively overlap with the politically powerful?
“The fact extraction process we use is based on the Knowledge Vault (KV) project.”
“Knowledge Vault has pulled in 1.6 billion facts to date. Of these, 271 million are rated as “confident facts”, to which Google’s model ascribes a more than 90 per cent chance of being true. It does this by cross-referencing new facts with what it already knows.”
“Google’s Knowledge Graph is currently bigger than the Knowledge Vault, but it only includes manually integrated sources such as the CIA Factbook.”
“This is the most visionary thing,” says Suchanek. “The Knowledge Vault can model history and society.”
Per Jean Baudrillard read “model” as a verb rather than a thing. Google (is it possible to do this unwittingly?) arrogates a means to condition the present, in order to model the past, to control our future, to paraphrase the Orwellian syllogism.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell, 1984
Not to be left behind MSNBC’s owner, Microsoft, harbors similar aspirations:
“LazyTruth developer Matt Stempeck, now the director of civic media at Microsoft New York, wants to develop software that exports the knowledge found in fact-checking services such as Snopes, PolitiFact, and FactCheck.org so that everyone has easy access to them.”
And National Geographic too, all in for a new science: The Consensus of “Experts”
“Everybody should be questioning,” says McNutt. “That’s a hallmark of a scientist. But then they should use the scientific method, or trust people using the scientific method, to decide which way they fall on those questions.”
Ah yes the consensus of “Experts,” naturally leading to the JTB question, whose experts? IPCC may do well to reflect on Copernicus in regards to ancien régime and scientific consensus.
Google’s penchant for metrics and algorithmic “neutrality” neatly papers over the Mechanical Turk or two in the vault so to speak.
Future of simulacra
In a pre-digital Soviet era, map propaganda was an expensive proposition. Interestingly today Potemkin maps are an anachronistic cash cow with only marginal propaganda value. Tomorrow’s Potemkin maps according to Microsoft will be much more entertaining but also a bit creepy if coupled to brain interfaces. Brain controls are inevitably a two way street.
“Microsoft HoloLens understands your movements, vision, and voice, enabling you to interact with content and information in the most natural way possible.”
The only question is, who is interacting with content in the most un-natural way possible in the Truth Vault?
Will InfoCrafting at the brain interface be the next step for precession of simulacra?
Is our cultural fondness leaning toward globally agnostic maps of infinite plasticity, one world per person? Jean Baudrillard would likely presume the Google relativistic map is the order of the day, where precession of simulacra induces a customized world generated in some kind of propagandistic nirvana, tailored for each individual.
But just perhaps, the subtle art of Jorge Luis Borges would speak to a future of less exactitude:
“still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”
I suppose to be human is to straddle exactitude and art, never sure whether to land on truth or on beauty. Either way, we do well to Beware of Truth Vaults!