Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Map Is Not The Territory

Tim O'Reilly gives an interview on the relevance of classical education to digital humanism:

The unconscious often knows more than the conscious mind. I believe this is behind what Socrates referred to as his inner "daimon" or guiding spirit. He had developed the skill of listening to that inner spirit. I have tried to develop that same skill. It often means not getting stuck in your fixed ideas, but recognizing when you need more information, and putting yourself into a receptive mode so that you can see the world afresh.

This skill has helped me to reframe big ideas in the computer industry, including creating the first advertising on the world wide web, bringing the group together that gave open source software its name, and framing the idea that "Web 2.0" or the "internet as platform" is really about building systems that harness collective intelligence, and get better the more people use them. Socrates is my constant companions (along with others, from Lao Tzu to Alfred Korzybski to George Simon, who taught me how to listen to my inner daimon.)

I believe that I've consistently been able to spot emerging trends because I don't think with what psychologist called "received knowledge," but in a process that begins with a raw data stream that over time tells me its own story.

I wrote about this idea in my Classics honors thesis at Harvard. The ostensible subject was mysticism vs logic in the work of Plato, but the real subject was how we mistake the nature of thought. As Korzybski pointed out in the 1930s, "the map is not the territory," yet so many of us walk around with our eyes glued to the map, and never notice when the underlying territory doesn't match, or has changed. Socrates was one of my teachers in learning how not to get stuck following someone else's map.

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