Of the reasons to be jealous of birds, the freedoms of flight usually takes top billing but the ease with which birds navigate should inspire more spite. Magnetoreception, the ability to detect magnetic forces, is powered by special Cry4 proteins in the eyes of birds which allows them to literally see the magnetic fields of the earth itself. How nice it must be to have migratory journeys simplified to following an innate path that is literally visible before your eyes.
Us humans, condemned to trod the earth’s crust, we make maps to cope with the fact that we’re missing the proteins of our avian kin. Ask a child to map their block and you may find that smells and intangible memories mix with concrete places and landmarks. Unfurl a pirate’s treasure map and what you see is a world of singular focus on the X that marks the spot. Pull up the map on the center console of a Tesla and you see the world through its ambulatory, electric eyes: highways in gray, charging stations in red, and little else. Walk into a government planning office and examine the view they have onto the world to see what has been erased or is slated for erasure: wetlands to become subdivisions or neighborhoods to become highways, all too often blackness becoming whiteness in ways both metaphorical and literal.
The worlds that maps give us are so reductive in nature that the things left off a map are usually more telling than the items affirmatively indicated on it. The concept of externalities may be the original sin of economics, but mapmaking is the practice that converts externalities from tools of convenience to tools of exclusion, by choosing what’s on the paper and what’s left off. At its best, this practice is conscientious and optimistic. More often the adoption of externalities is hastily naive, if not actively exploitative and conquering in the most vile ways. The history of modernist highways provides a place to dig in, including, naturally, the Motor City.
Fueled by the exponential expansion of the automotive industry, Detroit grew rapidly from 1900 to the 1950s, with a curve that parallels America’s fascination with the automobile as the vehicle of freedom. During these years, Detroit’s Black community was centered in the Black Bottom neighborhood which lay just East of downtown, named as such for its fertile soil enriched by the waters of the nearby river. When the US Federal government decided to double down on vehicular travel as the American form of mobility, $25B in Highways Act funding was made available to build new highways, including the Chrysler Freeway which would connect the city of Detroit to its metropolitan region. The thing about highways is: they take up a lot of space and that means they need to be mapped.
Before gray concrete gored arcs through American cities, racial prejudice inscribed invisible boundaries, so-called ’red lines,’ across the same territories to create areas where African Americans could not receive mortgages or own homes. Redlining stymied the creation of Black wealth, which is problematic prima fascia, but exponentially more so when lack of access to capital holds a community back from accumulating financial wealth and political power. When viewed through the lens of a federal highway planning map, that lack of wealth and power looked like “slums,” which meant a void to be filled through “urban renewal” and an “opportunity” for locating a highway.
This “allowed” the powers that be to locate Federal highways in places that would be “least disruptive” to existing pools of wealth without complicating the analysis. The map that was used to plan the Chrysler Freeway could not see blackness, and so the heart of Detroit’s African American community was rent apart. Black homes and businesses were razed, the freeway was built, and for decades Detroit has been encircled — strangled really — by a moat of highways. Detroit is not the only place where being left off the map led to disastrous consequences for a thriving community.
The “scare quotes” used above are indeed scary because this was not the act of individual racists operating in secret, but of systemic bias enacted through myriad small decisions and acts. It would be nice to have a grand conspiracy or singular bad actor to blame for this history, but instead we have systemic racist bias converted into externalities that need not be considered, those biases inscribed into maps, maps used to inform policy, and policy decisions eventually carved into the earth by bulldozers. The maps that preceded Detroit’s Chrysler Freeway were blind to the realities of culture, community, and humanity (all inconveniently hard to draw as reductive symbols, it should be noted). With those externalities rendered invisible, off the page like some lost explorer falling off the edge of an ancient, cartographically flat earth, the maps used to plan Detroit’s highways were incomplete in the most basic ways, and the people utilizing them were overconfident. Had the human-factors been factored in more humanely from the start, Black Bottom would likely still be black and Detroit would have had more subways and buses, but that’s a different story.
Living as they have in the shadow of oppressive policy decisions for some decades now, activists and organizers in Detroit have made efforts to put the invisibles back on the map, as an act of uncovering the history of the city and as a protection against future harms. Geographer Dr. William Bunge called his efforts “oughtness maps,” by which he meant those showing how the city ought to be. Bunge and Gwendolyn Warren ran the Detroit Geographic Expedition and Institute which focused on the racial disparities of the city in the 1960s by collecting qualitative and quantitative data about Detroit and presenting it in legitimizing formats such as technical maps and charts, in effect using the repurposing tools of oppression to center the lives of the oppressed. If poor decisions stem from poor maps, the question is then, how do we make it impossible to have such shoddy maps?
Thermonuclear war is among the worst reasons to inspire careful mapmaking, but mobilize brigades of cartographers, it nonetheless did. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union applied its substantial resources to map the world so that it could be ready for the eventuality of invading foreign territory. These maps, compiled through aerial photography and accounts from on the ground spies, represent enemy territory down to the scale of 1:10,000 in some cases, which is large enough to identify individual buildings and roads. They’re filtered through the lens of important and necessary information for invaders, locating such critical features as airstrips, which bridges will support the crossing of tanks, and where oil refineries are to be found. Though beautiful as artifacts, these maps are factually incorrect, showing towns that don’t exist and other misplaced elements. These errors are not the result of discriminatory simplifications, as in the case of the planning that preceded Detroit’s Chrysler freeway, but instead are evidence of the Soviet mapping effort struggling to deal with the weight of its own complexity. What they tell us is that even under the threat of potential nuclear annihilation, and with a global superpower’s resources at your disposal, the best maps are still poor representations of the world.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote of this constant cartographic frustration in his story, Of Exactitude in Science, describing an Empire where:
Co-founder & Partner, Dash Marshall. Visiting Assistant Professor of Practice, University of Michigan
"...the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point."
A map the same size of the country is one paltry attempt to make a map without simplifications, errors, or externalities, and Borges teaches us that this level of exactitude is an asymptote, not an obtainable goal. Nevertheless, not everyone reads Borges and so today’s version of the perfect map he wrote about is called a "digital twin," which is a highly detailed 3D model used to understand a city.
With a digital twin, cities can run virtual simulations of new policy or urban planning efforts, such as exploring what would happen when a development is brought downtown or how mobility would be affected by adding a new bike lane. Last century, planners used static maps to make decisions about the highways in Detroit that were bereft of important dimensions; could the next generation lean on digital twins to avoid the same mistakes?
Singapore has had its own "Virtual Singapore" under development since 2015. Though admirable, this digital twin is still primarily concerned with physical behaviors, like the changes in sun and wind patterns around a proposed new building. Despite the fact that the company building Singapore’s model, Dassault Systems, is in the business of ‘lifecycle management’ software, the representation of life in digital twin models is still far from satisfying. Somewhere right now in the physical territory of Singapore there’s an act of protest that’s missing from its digital twin. Maps, even extremely detailed real-time updated digital ones, continue to frustrate human attempts to truly grasp the world around them. Even a map the same size as the territory has only a limited nomenclature to record the highest moments of human culture, let alone the anguish of humanity’s lowest, and it should be remembered that this is the point of maps: the mapmaker simplifies the world by leaving most of it out. That puts the onus on the map reader to act accordingly, which is anything but guaranteed.
Despite the fact that maps are always constructed with externalities or simplifications, and despite the fact that those externalities can so easily be weaponized, the level of mapping activity underway today is larger than it has ever been. GPS-powered location services underpin a vast array of digital services now, from restaurant reviews, to ride hail apps, to 911 phone calls. Numerous companies are compiling digital mapping infrastructure, both geographically such as Open Street Maps, and more abstractly in the form of tools like D3 (Data Driven Documents), which is a code library used to build simple visualizations of large data sets. Here it would seem that the relationship between maps and complexity is akin to that between highways and traffic: the former should lead to a cessation of the latter, but is almost always an inducement instead. Where the activist designers of the 1960s crafted beautiful maps and graphs of the extent to which human behavior was straining the health of planet Earth, today’s activists code similar maps and visualizations, now interactive, far more detailed, and translated into scores of languages.
In that sense, The Center for Complexity is not just an institute at RISD but a description of the human condition in 2020: you are the center of your complex world, just as I am the center of mine. Seeking to conquer the intricacy around us, we reach for ever more precise, even more nimble tools, and we should probably be excused for doing so because *more and stronger* was the formulation of choice throughout the modern era. If life is nasty, brutish, and short, is it surprising that the instinct is to brute-force our way to solutions, even if that means Borgesian mapping of the entire world inch by inch? “Solutions” earns scare quotes here as well, because this is one species whose imminent extinction we can happily celebrate. “Solutions,” per se, are the simplified form of vigilance in the way that maps are the simplified form of understanding. Both are dangerously incomplete.
In June of 2020, society is beset by systemic racial injustice, faltering democratic institutions, global pandemic, and a climate catastrophe that is still in its infancy. Humanity has obtained the ability to see and understand the impacts of these multiple, intersecting challenges, but we still grasp for ways to collectively make sense of and act upon them. If there were a way to reliably map these issues we would surely do it, and it’s admirable that folks are trying. But if maps are not the answer, what could be?
If you thought this essay would resolve into a neat answer to that question you’ve been looking at a faulty map yourself, but there are promising tremors coming from the streets at this very moment. The protests across America that have grown in scale over the past two weeks are a beautiful example of the ability of the people to confront oversimplified and harmful depictions of the world. Black Lives Matter has to be a rallying cry in 2020 because America has collectively ignored that fact, choosing to externalize the suffering of people of color in a way similar to how the industrial economy has externalized the cost of carbon. Both kill people and both are perpetuated by over-confident decisions based on dangerously over-simplified conceptions of the world.
To find a way forward, it’s useful to think again about what maps do for humans. A map as an object is a piece of paper, usually flimsy, and more often than not susceptible to getting soaked in the rain. Despite its fragility as an object, the map is also a deceptively capable comfort blanket. Maps symbolize a surety. They are confidence flattened into paper, and that confidence is exactly the problem. So if we find ourselves unable to make use of maps both literal and conceptual because of their implicit biases and incompleteness, the work is to replace maps as a tool that not only helps us navigate the complex world, but helps us do so with some modicum of confidence.
Wiping racist actions and systems off the map will entail centering centuries of accumulated suffering attached to, and shame stemming from, discriminatory practices including those of the redlining described above. It is clear that the experiences of individuals and societies who continue the work of processing the past, exciting the present, and hastening the future is going to be deeply emotional labor. The goal while working through these challenges must be nothing short of a just society, like the Black Lives Matter protests are demanding. I suspect that victory in that effort will entail working more deeply on the conceptual models that underpin current institutions and systems. It starts with collaboration.
When one receives the convenient confidence of a map, it’s as if one is collaborating and an invisible group of predecessors to understand the world. They struggled here first so that I may pass with ease. This invisible collaboration is what makes maps conceptually similar to another feature of the contemporary world: silos of knowledge and effort.
In a world of silos, collaboration happens by trusting others enough to build your work upon theirs. The ability to exclude some aspects of the world from your decision-making is what allows you to focus on a few things in your silo while trusting that other humans are focusing on different things in their own silos. Without the ability to trust others, specialization is impeded and silos are duplicative.
So when we gather together as flocks of strategic designers, thoughtful scientists, and concerned policymakers bemoaning the stifling role of silos, we must also confront the fact that we are broadcasting our hesitations about trusting others who are not present, as well as decisions and realizations that have been made in our absence. Workshops or studios that attempt to "get the system in the room" and seek to work from "first principles" exhibit these characteristics. Worthy goals, yes, but limited in scale to relatively small numbers of people. If silos are clusters of adjacent vertical efforts, more horizontal organizational alternatives favored by the design community are akin to rafts: lashed together provisionally and better at floating atop waves of complexity, but only large enough for a few people at a time.
That works counter to much of what we know about scale in 2020. Pick a statistic, plot it against time, and wait for the "hockey stick" to appear with the dots on plotting up and to the right exponentially. The plot of COVID-19, carbon, computing power, and countless other statistics shows a similar curve. The figure of the exponential is so familiar now as to feel haunting, but one condition continues to resist: Trust. In a moment when compound increases feel normal, for good and bad alike, trust evades this pattern by refusing to scale any which way but linearly, built in small atomic bonds between individuals. Managerial structures and their silos offer a way to stretch circles of trust, but anyone who has worked inside a large organization knows that trust can only be stretched so far. No matter what kind of fancy technology or organizational schemes are used, trust, like hands, is ultimately held between people.
Stories are grandiose and compelling, but myopic and parallel; excel is out of the question; science is a belief system among many; history is written by the winners; and maps are drawn with the invisible ink of exclusion. No gods can be found to weigh in on unresolvable matters, and the king’s throne has been sawed apart, burnt to ash, and pummeled into warpaint. Though this may not be understood as a paragraph brimming with optimism it should nevertheless be read as such. The frightening optimism of moments when there’s no truth to be had is that we face the future unburdened by lazy assumptions or half-baked answers. In 2020 we are good at acknowledging the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous reality around us, but are we any better at acting with eyes wide VUCA?
Yes, and the evidence is in the streets right now, championing intersectionality in the intersections and anti-racism on the roadways. This is a society calibrating itself through emergent protest actions arriving after too many years of accrued police violence and systemic racism. The civil rights era will undoubtedly be used as a comparison to the events of today, and those historic moments provide a moral compass rather than a map. What we’re seeing under the banner of Black Lives Matter is that painstakingly bringing previously-ignored activities like police violence into the daylight can catalyze collective anguish into political change.
It is important to note that this is not the work of widely known leaders but of countless organizers who maintain an abiding sense of true north. None of the people involved in this fight have the convenient confidence of a map showing the path forward, and there’s no way to make systemic racism simple. On the contrary, it is not simplicity that the movement has but a meaningful and potent simplifier: Black Lives Matters.