Note — Jun 21, 2020

The Righteous Joy of Finding the Right Simplifier

Another excellent read from the symposium. This time Bryan Boyer considers maps, how they are all incomplete because they simplify and schematize reality, thus not including things that the mappers weren’t looking for. He looks at Detroit, redlining and highways, then at Soviet Russia’s maps of foreign territories, and of course Borges’ map the size of a country. The useful insight though comes when he flips to these new maps, the digital twins of cities which are slowly coming into use to plan and prototype urban change, automation, and optimization. Those maps are of course also incomplete, carry assumptions and blindspots.

Boyer wraps all of this with thoughts on racism, black lives matter, the current pandemic, professional silos vs hesitations to trust, and finally the growing gap between our sensing and measuring abilities, and our capacity for making sense of it all. One conclusion is that perhaps a moral compass is more important than a map.

Redlining stymied the creation of Black wealth, which is problematic prima fascia, but exponentially more so when lack of access to capital holds a community back from accumulating financial wealth and political power. When viewed through the lens of a federal highway planning map, that lack of wealth and power looked like “slums,” which meant a void to be filled through “urban renewal” and an “opportunity” for locating a highway. […]

It would be nice to have a grand conspiracy or singular bad actor to blame for this history, but instead we have systemic racist bias converted into externalities that need not be considered, those biases inscribed into maps, maps used to inform policy, and policy decisions eventually carved into the earth by bulldozers. […]

Even a map the same size as the territory has only a limited nomenclature to record the highest moments of human culture, let alone the anguish of humanity’s lowest, and it should be remembered that this is the point of maps: the mapmaker simplifies the world by leaving most of it out. […]

Black Lives Matter has to be a rallying cry in 2020 because America has collectively ignored that fact, choosing to externalize the suffering of people of color in a way similar to how the industrial economy has externalized the cost of carbon. Both kill people and both are perpetuated by over-confident decisions based on dangerously over-simplified conceptions of the world.