Two types of maps

Different types of maps have different uses. What they make legible is what they make possible. A map that emphasizes bike paths is useful to a cyclist, but its lack of topographic information makes it useless to a civil engineer, even though both refer to the same territory.

Similarly, maps as I define them have multiple uses, two of which I’d like to name. Both “describe what exists” by prioritizing the faithful abstraction of particular patches of reality, and both emphasize patches of reality that consist of hard, seemingly unsolvable problems. Yet these two maps differ significantly in their treatment of such problems.

Sympathy-oriented maps:

  • Show things are they are. Improvement usually looks like an increase in the fidelity of an existing map. The more ambitious tackle territory that is relatively unmapped. Buffy the Vampire Slayer articulates the experiences of adolescence and early adulthood with notorious precision, but it’s in season six’s portrayal of post-high-school aimlessness that the show really ventures into Parts Unknown.
  • Focus on the internal. This is usually accomplished via metaphor: “internal transformation writ large” is a common narrative technique. On Buffy, battles with adolescent “demons” like conformity, sexuality, and authority become battles with literal demons. The audience enjoys recognizing the structural similarity of the conflict in the story to their own remembered internal conflict.
  • Provide validation. Sympathy is what you do when you can’t solve somebody else’s problem, or shouldn’t try to. Instead, you confirm the reality of their problem. Weirdly, this makes them feel better even though nothing else has changed. We probably enjoy sympathy because for most of human history, nearly all problems were unsolvable. In the ancestral environment, cooperative anesthesia was likely a helpful adaptation. Since so many of the problems of growing up seem unsolvable, it makes sense that Buffy’s accuracy provides much-needed succor.
  • Are diverse and abundant. Anybody can make a sympathy map because we all have more or less the same spectrum of emotions. But only novelists and playwrights can make good ones, right? Wrong. The internet has become a planet-sized, crowdsourced map factory, generating memes, gifs, and TFWs for nearly every conceivable aspect of the human experience, no matter how subtle. That’s quite a market for validations.
  • Are implicitly pessimistic. Sympathy maps take human nature for granted. This is admittedly a bit like saying music takes the human range of hearing for granted, but the assumption that no aspect of human nature might be a problem to solve amounts to a window of legitimate complaint. Which is sad. You don’t have to be a diehard transhumanist to enjoy speculating about what would happen if “growing up” were solved. What other problems would arise instead? (There’d be no Buffy, for one.)
  • Are NOT: Cliches. Someone who sees your reality in a fresh way will be  more skilled at confirming it. Cliches are stale abstractions, so they are only weakly effective as validations.

Solution-oriented maps:

  • Show things as they might be. If sympathy maps traffic in recognition, solution maps traffic in implications. For now, human nature is stable, so sympathy maps can always refer to it. Unfortunately, this means sympathy mapmakers are less likely to investigate the effects of technology and institutions on human nature, and all the weird, unexpected stuff (good and bad) that happens when a major technological or institutional shift occurs. Solution maps create intuition pumps for the consequences of such a change, especially the unintended consequences. The Wire is an unusually solution-oriented take on the drug war. Notably, the third season’s Hamsterdam subplot features a fed-up police major who creates a free zone for drugs and prostitution, to mixed results.
  • Focus on the external. A good street map doesn’t lavish detail on individual trees. Similarly, solution maps trade nuanced depictions of internal experiences for nuanced depictions of the interlocking systems that cause them. The Wire juggles dozens of characters at every level of policing and the drug trade, but we seldom learn more than a first or last name and minor identifying detail about each. More would only be a distraction.
  • Improve discourse. A good map reduces the time you spend being lost. By moving conversations away from misleading framings, solution maps make it harder to get stuck in motivated reasoning, which ideally also improves large-scale coordination. The Wire is no fan of the drug war, but nor does it argue legalization would be without costs. Major Colvin’s free zone sharply reduces violent crime, but unrestricted access to drugs causes some addicts to go into freefall. The Wire helps push the conversation toward cushioning that freefall.
  • Are rare and ghettoized. Most current solution maps are hard science fiction. I’d like to see more dramas with hard sci-fi’s rigor, but I understand why I haven’t. To make a solution map, it’s not enough to know the human heart. You need some domain knowledge too. David Simon and Ed Burns, the creators of The Wire, have a combined 33 years of experience in journalism and law enforcement, all in Baltimore. That’s a high bar.
  • Are implicitly optimistic. Good solution maps reveal interesting new problems. Bad ones punish hubris. The Greeks were wrong, there are no gods to punish us for flying. This doesn’t mean flying won’t create new problems, it’s just better to not run from the challenges they present. Like Stewart Brand said, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” By replacing intractable gods with maybe-tractable institutions made of people, The Wire turns Greek tragedy into one of the best solution maps ever.
  • Are NOT: Covert sympathy maps, specifically those that hide behind metaphor and allegory. If a work is criticized because it’s supposedly realistic but doesn’t handle consequences well, one can claim it’s just metaphor/allegory, and therefore exempt from rigor. But if no one criticizes it on that basis, it’s a deeply thought-provoking meditation on reality. Ultimately it’s only taken seriously to the extent that no one probes. Beware increases in the complexity of pointing devices without any proportional increase in the complexity of the things they point at.

2 thoughts on “Two types of maps

  1. John Nerst

    I feel like you’ve rearticulated the difference between empathizing and systemizing thought, or between the physical and the phenomenological, in an art context.

    Relatedly, while we have the “same” range of emotions as part of human nature on some level, I think individual difference on this is highly underestimated and that people like different kinds of fiction (or doesn’t like fiction at all) because it doesn’t sympathy-map everyone’s internal experiences equally well.


  2. Rob MacLachlan

    nice! Thinking about my own fiction writing, most falls into the sympathy class, which is interesting, since I grew up on SF. Also I like your writing. I think it’s gotten more articulate. Have to say that you left Twitter at a great time; it’s gotten anxious and ugly.



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