Topological Maps: Don’t Even Go There — unless, perhaps, you wish to mention the exceptional case in which the map *IS* the territory

One of my friends since many years (who has taught me a lot about the way people might think or perceive stories, digest experiences, come to understand their life, etc.), namely Jean Russell, has posted some interesting remarks about the metaphors she uses (at times, I guess) to understand “the Internet”:

So much of our experience of computers and the internet in the last 50 years has been disruptive. People didn’t know they wanted it, didn’t know what it was or what it did. And when one introduces such things, we use metaphors to bridge from the familiar to the new. Your domain is like your home. Your Home Page. Email is like mail but sent over the computer.

And along with these metaphors come a set of protocols and expectations. If I buy a domain as a home, then I don’t expect other people to have control there. I am responsible for keeping it tidy and inviting other people there. I can get a prefab home or make one myself.

And these are all really helpful ways of using metaphors to help a new disruptive innovation gain traction in the world.

However, if we want to BE disruptive in our innovation, we want to look for a different kind of metaphor. Websites are not just like homes, they have some features that homes do not and lack some features that homes have. If we use models of the familiar in creating our innovations, we aren’t likely to be very disruptive at all.

For many years now, I have attempted to drum home the distinction between domains (addresses, web sites, virtual land, etc.) and websites (the HTML and similar “content” built up on top of the virtual property [note that I view all of the content -- whether it is considered "artificial language" or "natural language" -- as content; some people consider parts of this content -- e.g. HTML coding, especially "metatags" and such -- to be something other than content... I'm not exactly sure what, but they apparently consider it to be special in some way]).

Yet whether land or property or building or whatever virtual real estate analogy, all of the above do not draw attention to one of the most noteworthy differences between domains and “real world real estate”: When it comes to information, the map may in fact actually be the territory!

Think about it: When you think of an elephant, do you think of the elephant as an astronaut? Or perhaps climbing the Empire State Building? I would say that before having read those two suggestions, you probably hadn’t thought of elephants that way. You might have thought of elephants standing, eating, sleeping, … — but probably not writing computer programs. Your experiences of elephants have probably included things your brain associates with such concepts as “stand”, “eat”, “sleep”, etc. and when you think of an elephant, you may very well be inclined to also think of such topics. Perhaps thinking of “eating” might even motivate you to get up and get something to eat (see also “Words as Puzzle Pieces“).

Words describe elements of relationships. We cannot think about sleeping without thinking of whatever thing that is sleeping. Some things sleep while standing; other things sleep while lying down on mattresses, with pillows, in beds. The things which your mind conjures up with any particular word may very well have more to do with the way your mind works than it has to with anything in the “real world”. Much like you may associate a certain fragrance with an early childhood experience which might somehow be linked to that scent, you may also associate concepts with each other based on how your cognitive map has stored linked or related concepts.

Perhaps one of the great challenges for creating information retrieval systems that are able to “disrupt” the status quo is how to make it easy for people to distinguish between information sources that are about “cooking food” (versus e.g. “cooking the books”) and information sources that are about “buying food” (versus e.g. “buying a video game”). “Food” by itself is only a beginning: It is but one piece of a puzzle that needs to match up with other concepts. Bringing these concepts together to build a story from these elements will probably involve building complex networks that are not necessarily related by “real world” proximity. Thinking about information as if it had something to do with the way paper books have traditionally been stored on shelves is a sure-fire way to miss the boat.

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