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Searching the Map: Searching the Territory


When we say that Google searches the web, we don’t have it quite right. Google, and other search engines, spider the web— bring back an impression of what they find and deposit it into an index. When a search query is submitted, Google checks the map it’s constructed of the Web and provides results based on their snapshot.

This is where we must turn to Alford Korzybski, the father of general semantics. He reminds us to look at the space between the territory and its map.

“A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness”

Search engine optimization is the process of teaching the territory to look more like the map. In this case we have a landscape that wants to flatten itself into the shape of the map. The reasoning is that only by using a map could something be found. After all, you can’t just ask someone walking down the street.

In order to have the best and most accurate search results, one must construct the best map. But the territory is live earth, it changes from this to that, expands, contracts and sometimes parts of it disappear all together. The map must be continually updated, a drawing that’s never finished. Can we ask a question of the snapshot taken 4 months ago? How about ten minutes from now?


And here’s where we must turn to Borges and his thoughts on maps, territory and the exactitude of representation:

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.

So one might ask, in the real-time web, is there a map worth looking at? Or is it the territory itself that we seek to uncover, locating the swarms of attention that congregate across the digital landscape. Not the representation of the thing, but the thing itself. Perhaps we could just ask someone walking down the street.

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One Comment

  1. I spent a time living and working in Los Angeles, driving a truck as many as 300 miles a day without leaving the county. The Thomas Brothers map book( ) was an essential tool when not going to a repeated destination. I often would look at the map before just to visualize my maneuvers and get the lay of the land. They sell new versions each year and would claim 10's of thousands of changes to the known terrain which they had updated. Of course this is before GPS, GoogleMaps Mobile or any of the other tools we have today.

    For many of us the major intersections are enough, Hollywood and Vine will do as where we need to get is neither new or arcane enough to require a real time update. It still cracks me up to look at the satellite view of my own home and see trees that were cut down years ago and a neighbor's car that has spent many winters on the scrap heap. What of the dynamic nature of the web, of the conversations we have, of the answers to the questions we pose, of the information we seek?

    For those who see the difference of real time, this is not a matter of scholars buried in archives or forensic archeologists with a paintbrush slowly dusting off a bone fragment in the setting sun. It is a case of an active monitoring based on the interaction with others and where our minds currently see the importance of our attentions, the keywords not all ego bound or spoon fed. Maybe we haven't shared all the lines we have drawn in our own thoughts, but entered them into Track and are waiting for them to cross in the delta of words and images that stream to us. This is not search but a monitoring of possibility, the hybrid connections once only imagined coming to life in real time and we can witness, interact or help shape them if this particular reality becomes available to us in a way we can filter and understand.

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