Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Of Maps and Territories

I'm in Michigan for the week, having spent today at Grand Valley State University, giving a guest lecture in Corey Anton's class, talking about McLuhan and media ecology, and giving a public lecture this evening on digital communication (for an earlier version, see my earlier post, Eight Bits About Digital Communication, Media, and Culture). Corey is a member of the Media Ecology Association's Board of Directors, succeeded me as editor of the MEA journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, and recently joined the Board of Trustees of the Institute of General Semantics, and in fact we had some nice talks in between events about Alfred Korzybski and general semantics. So it seems only appropriate to post this video here, which circulated on the MEA listserv a little while ago, under the subject heading of The Map is Not the Terriority:

And there you have it, a hard-earned, hard-learned lesson! If only we could really get the point through to actual government officials, politicians, and policy-makers, that the maps that they draw up of any given situation are never going to be entirely accurate and they have to prepare for the unknown, and that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, or as Robert Burns so eloquently put it, "The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agley." And what are plans, after all, but maps of things yet to come, things that will be, or things that may be.

The great general semantics scholar Wendell Johnson famously said, "To a mouse, cheese is cheese; that's why mousetraps work," going on to note that human beings treat words in the same way, as static and unchanging. But the worlds of mice and men can be turned upside down in a moment, and that's what Robert Burns was saying in his famous poem from 1785:

To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion,
Has broken nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell-
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley,
An'lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e.
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

And so Burns ends with the distinguishing characteristic of human beings as a class of life, that we engage in time-binding. And speaking of time, I better go, I'm traveling to Eastern Michigan University tomorrow, to give a lecture there on Thursday, if all goes according to plan...

1 comment:

Bruce I. Kodish said...

I knew Hermen Neutics and his brother Melvin, too. What a funny guy!