What is meant by ‘Map’ in ‘Map vs territory?

‘I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts’

Andy Warhol

In the post The Map is not the Terrain I explain why our ideas about reality are not reality, yet here I wanted to unpack what is meant by Map, in the Map vs Territory dichotomy.

Below it outlines what encompass the many maps we use to navigate reality, express our ideas on it and more.

Science and technical

Map reading

A map can be a real map, of say terrain, or it can be a technical schematic of an electric circuit or and architects plans for a building or space. It includes all the technical data about anything we can think of. Which we use as tool in order to do our jobs.

Like a doctor will have learned much information about the human body, a carpenter using plans for a table or chair. Or the schematics of a car used by a mechanic.

Another map is what Thomas Kuhn calls a Paradigm, this is to do with how we see the reality and cosmos as whole. So there was Ptolemy and the geocentric cosmos. Then a paradigm shift occurred, where the the big picture changes as we see reality in a whole new way. We let go of the idea the earth was at the centres of the cosmos then another map/paradigm took it’s place without the earth as its centre.

Another is the Miasma basis for disease paradigm, where there was some kind of foul or polluted air that caused cholera, the black-death and other diseases. It was replaced by the germ theory that recognised disease can be caused by microorganism like bacteria ad virus spreading around.

Narrative and Metaphor

Hercules fighting the Nemean lion by Peter Paul Rubens

Maps are also the narratives we tell about reality and existence.

For example history books, narratives in religion. The stories well to ourselves about ourselves. So films, computer games and literature. Allegorical tales that are supposed to explain ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

It can include hero stories, to the religious creation myth and how the cosmos comes to be.

We use tropes, similes, metaphors, turns of phrase to outline a story. Narratives are explanations used long before science turned up.

Metaphors, similes and idioms are also used in our everyday language to communicate with each other. For example ‘shooting fish in a barrel’. Or ‘taking candy from a baby, ‘stem the tide’, English is full of such imagery.

This shows that language is indicative of how we think about the world, and how we think the world works.


Painting, Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer above the sea of fog
Caspar David Friedrich – Wanderer above the sea of fog

Two-dimensional art like Fine art, comics, illustrations and other such stuff that’s painted, printed on paper, canvas etc. It’s never a precise depiction of reality, but altered, imagined, bent. To recreate a 3D scene on a 2D surface.

It’s also photography, where it’s about real things but with the use of image editing and filters, the result is a twisted version of the original.

I’m also talking about art like sculptures, artefacts. Pottery, statues, obelisks, object d’art. Such as Michelangelo David, Eros and Psyche.

These are depictions of ideas we have, religious often, but also imaginary fictions. They offer lessons, stories, and explanations of anything from ourselves to the whole cosmos.

Virtual reality

Rome Total War 2 by Creative Assembly – depicting a siege battle.

New technology gives us new types of maps. Simulations are the little worlds we build inside computers, and they are becoming more and more realistic, and complex.

Computer games the best example. Such as Assassins Creed Odyssey, which recreates ancient Greek city-states of Athens. But with all the boring travelling parts cut short to keep the focus on the narrative and the action.

There are sandbox-style universes where whole worlds are created for people to explore outside the story-line. From Grand Theft Auto games to Elite Dangerous and its procedural generated 400 billion stars.

Science also creates virtual realities in by simulating nature. Such as models of star formation, traffic patterns, the synthesis of proteins in a bacteria.

All these are two or three dimensional maps but with the extra dimension of time.

All of the maps outlined above capture what we know or what we believe. They mediate how we think about reality.

How we look at it, navigate it, feel about it, what we can, or should do in it. They show what we know about reality using the languages we have invented.

These maps have many names, paradigms, model, theories, hypotheses, painting, drawings, and more, but they are all abstractions of reality. We think using them, solve problems with them, enjoy them, compare them, improve them, question then.

The key point here is to remember they are ideas about reality not reality itself. We create ‘things’ with our thoughts, when there is no thought there is ‘no-thing’

These are the massive variety of ways we depict the reality that surrounds us. Narratives, equations, models, simulations, games, art, objet d’art, stories, imagery and more. We often forget our ideas about reality are varied and numerous.

Some maps, like science are descriptive, laying out how the world works, others types from religion can be prescriptive too, telling us how we should behave.

‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’

Sherlock Holmes

It’s because we think about reality using these maps, and they are so widespread an ubiquitous, that the biggest mistake we make is forgetting we invented them. They are abstraction of reality, not reality itself, the Map is Not the Territory. It’s when these virtual worlds become more compelling and more desirable than the reality we do face.