Even A Really Big Map Is Not The Territory

Even A Really Big Map Is Not The Territory

You know what I found out about sixteen year olds yesterday?

The first thing they do after getting hit by a van is check their phone.

Walking to the office after a morning meeting, a kid leaps like a gazelle from this corner into traffic, right across from our building, just as a van was turning into the street.

He bounces off, back onto the footpath, leaps back to his feet, clutches his left arm with his right, immediately drops his left arm and then pulls out his phone. Not to make a call or assess whether it was damaged, no. It was like a reflex action. Something has just happened, must look at the glowing rectangle. Weird.

I quickly cross the road to see if he’s all right. A crowd of the kid’s friends do the same. (That would explain the gazelle leap… catching up with his friends on the other side of the road. Honestly, how did any of us make it to adulthood??)

As I’ve gone to great pains to spell out, I’m not a doctor. But even I can tell his left arm is broken. (The clue was the large, angular break in his forearm.) I ask him if he wants me to call an ambulance. He pulls out his phone again, so I think no. One of his friends asks “are you updating your Facebook?!” They laugh. Clearly enough time has passed to see the funny side.

I ask again. One of his other friends suggest that maybe someone should go and find the Deputy Head. (Actually, this was when I cottoned to their age because they weren’t in uniform.)

It’s a good suggestion. Nobody moves. The kid looks at his phone again. Man, kids are idiots. This is when I realise -gods help them- that I am what passes for an adult in this situation so I tell his friends to help the kid across the road into my office and out of the driving rain. The distressed and apologetic van driver accompanies us.

We seat the kid on the couch in reception and I get the receptionists to call an ambulance. The glowing rectangle is finally put to good use when the accident victim himself calls the Deputy Head who promptly arrives.

And then in an unwanted flashback to parts of my own childhood I find myself explaining an incident to a Deputy Head and then giving him my details. Obviously this was so the police could come and take my statement. The ambulance arrives, the kids disperse and I go to my desk.

The map

Quicker than expected, a couple of police officers emerge from the elevator onto our floor and ask for me. (In front of the new HR manager. My first thought is to diffuse the situation by making a joke about that heroin lab I have set up in the conference room but I judge this probably isn’t the right crowd. Professional!) I take them to a meeting room so they can collect my statement.

“From what you saw, was the van driving too fast?” It was faster than I would have taken the corner but it certainly wasn’t excessive or dangerous.

They shoot me a look like I’m some misguided femme fatale playing coy with the hardened gumshoes about the location of my dead husband’s prize racehorse, but I was just trying to be honest. “In situations like this, witness testimony can go a long way in determining whether or not charges will be pressed so I’m going to need you to answer that. In your opinion was the van driving too fast?” I think to myself… actually that’s a different question. In my opinion the van was driving too fast, but that doesn’t mean the van was driving too fast. Am I the only one in this room who cares about how big the divide is between those two questions?

That’s when I notice the tiny incident pads they are writing this up on. And I mean tiny. Like maybe 2.5 times the size of a Post-It pad. It had little boxes to tick as to whether this was a fatal (!) accident and maybe two inches of lines where they would hand write my ‘statement’.

For some reason this really alarms me. We train these people not to find the most accurate answer to a situation, only the least complex. And then we give them guns.

The whole edifice of how Power builds Truth, from global wars down to parking tickets, is somehow revealed and I have an extremely existential moment. The unreliability of memory, the inconsistency of personal experience, the sheer ambiguity of meaning in anything… I do media strategy and chaos magic. Ambiguity is where I live. Good magic relies on it.

Ambiguity is not where these London Met officers live. Even though the van may have appeared to possibly take the corner slightly faster than I would have based on my view of the incident from where I was standing, I make the call. “No.”

One of the officers has been writing while I have been talking. He reads out what he has written down. In no way does it match either what we have been discussing or my own recollections of the incident but it ends with the assertion that the van was not driving dangerously. “Happy with that?” I sign.

I walk the officers to the front door and watch them leave. Standing in reception I think about maps and territories, worldviews and worlds. What scale does a map have to be before we can be confident in its depiction of the territory? 1:1? Even then I would be suspicious because there are fewer places for ambiguity to hide, fewer opportunities for me to be wrong. I don’t know where my map is taking me but I do know that I will never get there if I’m not allowed to be wrong.

Magic is the best map I have found so far because it is simultaneously the biggest and the most ambiguous.

If you set out with a Post-It map then you are already lost.


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  1. 1
    Andrew B. Watt

    I went to a local community meeting yesterday about the proposed construction of a new 24,000 sq.ft. retail space on the north side of the street across from three of my city’s architectural gems: a park dedicated to our fallen veterans from Revolution to Afghanistan; a luxe mansion built by a Yankee clipper captain of the early-mid 1800s who made rich off selling American goods and Indian opium to the Chinese in exchange for porcelain and silk; and a Roman Catholic church built by Italian immigrant masons in the late 1800s and early 1900s as an exact duplicate of the church from their home town in Sicily. It’s no place for a Chipotle and a Starbucks, of course, except of course that it is — the very essence of chaos magic and ambiguity. If the national brands of the 21st century can’t find a home next to the relicts of the last two hundred years.

    And yet these three pieces of architecture, and the new building’s siting and design in relationship to those, carried almost no weight with the (heavily opposed) audience, in comparison to the ghost of a woman killed in the crosswalk ten years ago; and the opposition to national brands making an appearance in a town that’s almost unique that I know in NOT having national chain restaurants and retailers downtown.

    Not being trained as a chaos mage (does one get trained in Chaos magic??) I see things perhaps a little differently, but still see the ambiguities in the maps, plans and elevations we were given last night. A quartet of 16×24″ foamcore canvases showing plan, elevation, site design, and side view is no less definitively Power manufacturing Truth than your experience with the policemen. The power of Church and veterans, of Corinthian columns on a historic house, of ghosts in the crosswalk (no motor-biking Nazi visions here, but maybe some Viet Nam veterans?), of kids in strollers crossing the road in the face of traffic… It was amazing what the developers’ (and disapproving audience members’!) maps left out.

    I turned to my seatmate during the discussion, the mother of one of my students and a university professor here in town, and said (knowing her interest in religious ideas and the ‘maps’ of mindfulness that those lay on the landscape), “This building should be built. There’s too much energy in the dragon line of the highway to prevent commercial development, because no one wants to live in the houses that close to a major road.” (Because this is how *my map* is drawn, seeing the 1,000 year-old corridor that connects the pass over the hills to the west with the river to the east, and the dragon energy or ley lines carrying all the traffic along…)

    And she turned and STARED at me. “What’s a dragon line?” she said.

    And I smiled, and shrugged. However good my maps are, they have to leave room for her worldview, too, and for mine, and for the developer’s, and the architects, and the ghost of the woman in the crosswalk. We’re living here together: the maps don’t have to agree with each other, as long as we recognize that we belong to the same territory.
    Andrew B. Watt´s last blog post ..Taiji Day 265: 100 Days to Go // Oh my look at the time!

  2. 4
    Simon Tomasi

    > For some reason this really alarms me. We train these people not to find the most accurate answer to a situation, only the least complex. And then we give them guns.

    Fortunately only a small number of ‘specially trained’ police officers in the UK have guns. However, if they get called out to a situation in which a suspect is thought to have a gun – the suspect often ends up getting shot whether they actually have a gun or not.

    I think that the Met. police’s map is best defined by “what will hold up to scrutiny in a court of law”?

    You’re right, magic is indeed the best map due to it’s size and ambiguity. Lots of hiding places :-)

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