Note — Feb 23, 2020

Sense-Makers vs. Map-Makers

In this latest piece in his weirding series, Venkatesh Rao hits on something quite useful in the way he views map-making and sense-making. I’m not convinced they are as opposed as he says, but he’s presenting a way of understanding the two, and of using them to frame how people understand and respond to complexity, which I find relevant and worth keeping around.

I’ll also mention that even though he’s talking about systems, events, or trends (climate change, global ethnonationalist populist wave/anti-globalism, coronavirus, rise of China, etc.), I gather that multiple maps can also be seen as multiple fields and disciplines, and his text read as being about sense-making transdisciplinarity, and finding understanding across domains.

Map-makers try to make one map that accounts for everything they see happening to things they care about. Then they try to craft narratives on that one map. Maps can be wrong or incomplete, but they aren’t usually incoherent or entropic, because they represent a single, totalizing, absolutely interested point of view, and a set of associated epistemic, ontological, and aesthetic preferences. […]

Sense-makers on the other hand, try to come at the territory using multiple maps, as well as direct experience. Theirs is not a disinterested point of view, but a relative, multi-interested point of view. We want various points of view to agree in a certain limited sense, lending confidence to our hope that we’ve made sense of reality through triangulation. […]

No individual map is sufficient or necessary, and together, they can be more than just wrong or incomplete. Unlike a map, sense-making — which is a ongoing process, a flow of situation awareness, rather than an object — can also be incoherent and entropic. Like a fluid flow, sense-making can experience shocks, sonic booms, transitions from laminar to turbulent, and so forth. […]

That’s what a weirding is. A sense-making failure in response to a shock. It is similar in many ways to the “collapse of the OODA loop” caused by a hostile adversary, but in the case of large systemic shocks, the adversary isn’t another player. It is the overwhelming complexity of the system itself.