What is Mapping?

lytecyde profile image Mik Seljamaa 🇪🇪 ・8 min read

Now, if you are used to talking to your imaginary friend about your map of the world, and keep finding holes and fixing them, you don't become very attached to the current state of it at any particular time. You do sometimes if you find an abstraction that was a wonderful surprise when you got it and has been useful, but now needs to go. It's always important to remember that the fun only adds up: if finding something was fun, finding something deeper is even more fun. Generally, though, you don't mind your imaginary friend knocking bits off the map if they don't work. So you don't mind real friends doing it either! When you see a thing in different ways you try to understand each others' maps and work through the differences. Two messy maps often point the way to a deeper way of seeing things.

Great thinkers are mappers. They rarely proceed by erecting edifices of great conceptual complexity. Rather they show us how to see the world in a simpler way.

Mappers experience learning as an internal process in response to external and self-generated stimuli. Packers experience learning as another task to be performed, usually in a classroom, using appropriate equipment. Particularly in the early years, efficient mapper learning requires internal techniques for exploring conceptual relationships and recognizing truths, while efficient packer learning focuses on memorization skills.

Aspects of mapper learning require a higher investment than packer learning, and this has consequences. An emphasis on succinct, structured knowledge means that low structured off-topic considerations can displace disproportionally larger issues from a problem the mapper is contemplating. If a child is trying to understand a new idea in terms of as much as possible of what is already known, then likely the child's awareness will be spread over as much core knowledge' as possible already. The requirement to then consider the questionShall I take my library books back today?', bringing with it conceptually networked questions such as Where is my satchel?',Will it rain?', `Will it rain tomorrow?' and so on is an imposition on the mind that a packer child would simply not experience in apparently similar circumstances. The packer child simply never has (for example) the form of the flows resulting from economic supply and demand curves (which might also actually be the same representations that are used to hold, say, parts of thermodynamic understanding) floating about to be displaced by a simple question about a library book.

Accepting a fact and being ready for the next is also a different process in mapping and packing. The mapper mind must explore the fact and compare it against core knowledge to see if it is a consequence that already has a place in the mapper's conceptual model of the world, or if it is in fact new fundamental knowledge that requires structural change.

Mappers are likely to be much more aware of the comparative reliability of information. Whereas packers tend to regard knowledge as planar, a series of statements that are the case, mappers tend to cross-index statements to verify and collapse them into more profound truths. Mappers are more likely to work with contingent thinking of the form: `If X is true then Y must be true also, Z is certainly true, and W is nonsense although everyone keeps saying it is the case'. Mappers are likely to be concerned about the soundness of packer reasoning.

An aspect of packer thinking that drives mappers up the wall, is that packers often seem to neither seek out the flaws in their own logic nor even hear them when they utter them. Worse, when flaws are pointed out to them, they are likely to react by justifying following logic that they cheerfully admit is flawed, on grounds of administrative convenience. The evidence of their own senses is not as important as behavior learned through repetition, and they seem to have no sense of proportion when performing cost/benefit analyses. This is because packers do not create integrated conceptual pictures from as much as possible of what they know. The mapper may point out a fact, but it is one fact amongst so many. The packer does not have a conceptual picture of the situation that indicates the important issues, so the principal source of guidance is a set of procedural responses that specify an action to be taken. The procedure that is selected to be followed will be something of a lottery. For the mapper, one fact that should fit the map but doesn't mean the whole map is suspect. The error could wander around like a lump in a carpet, and end up somewhere really important. Both parties agree that they should do the `logical' thing, but two people can disagree about logic when one sees relationships that the other has only ever been dissuaded from seeing.

Mappers have lots of good ideas based in profound insights into relationships that packers rarely have the opportunity to recognize.

Part of mappers' extraordinary flexibility and learning speed comes from the benefits of seeking understanding rather than data, but some of it comes from the sheer amount of playing with a topic they do. It is quite usual for mappers to spend every spare moment for a week wandering around a topic in their heads, and then spend all weekend focused on it. Mapper focus is a terrible thing. A few hours of it can produce breathtaking results where a team of packers could strive for months. Every IT manager who has ever had an effective mapper around knows this.

Mappers have a linguistic tendency to want to talk in terms of the form of the concentrated knowledge they reduce experience into. Although mappers often use different internal representations of a sphere of discourse, they are adept at negotiating mutually agreed terminology at the onset of discussions between themselves, and this is one way that mappers are able to recognize one another. Mutual recognition occurs because of this series of transactions where one party traces a route through the map, stops, and invites the other to pick up where they left off. The objective of the exercise is to align mental maps, but it also reveals the presence of the other's map in the first place!

Mappers advocate changing descriptions and approaches often because they see simplification benefits that are of high value to understanding, and whose map is it anyway? In social or administrative situations, this can cause confusion because the mapper does not realize that the packers do not have a map that they can move around in chunks. Mappers see packers as willfully ignorant, packers see mappers as confused. In software engineering contexts, this failure of communication leads to arguments about `churn'. The mapper wants to move from a large mass of software to a smaller one that is more robust because of its necessary and sufficient structure. The packers are not practiced at seeing the proposed new structure and see only a maniac who wants to change every single file in one go.

Mappers have a direct, hands-on awareness of the effectiveness of their reflections and so, in most areas, they have a sense of the universe in some unseen way playing fair' with them, even rewarding them with wonderful surprises when they look deeply enough. This often gives rise to aspiritual' or `mystical' element to their character, and often to unusually high spirits, even in situations where packers are despondent.

Mappers ensure that the known elements of a problem are held in their minds, before embarking on it. They draw on their own strength of character to find the motivation to do the hard work involved in keeping their background explorations going. To achieve a solution to a problem, a mapper engages all his or her strengths and is rewarded with elation or a sensation of betrayal if things do not work out well. Mappers are passionate' about dry' subjects.

Mappers excel at conceptually challenging work such as complex problem-solving with many inter-related elements. They can perform tasks requiring insight, or imagination, that packers simply cannot do at all. Best quality software engineering, mathematics, and physics, with genetics emerging as a likely area of unique contribution, are amongst mapper challenging science disciplines. Amongst the traditionally recognized arts, poetry and music are areas where the mapper faculty for manipulating structure is of particular benefit, although there may be value in redefining the `Arts' as what mappers do well. The very power of great art is only available to mapper thinking, because the artist uses a tone of sound or light, itself representative of nothing, but triggering the recognition of a deep structure. Pointing out the structure can then bring to mind instances of that structure, and the artist has added to the audiences maps!

All these differences are simply the consequences of one person having a big map built by a great deal of disciplined daydreaming, and the other not. That these profound differences between two clearly distinct groups of people exist is the major surprise of the approach proposed. It means that it is very unlikely that either kind is likely to have any appreciation of the other's state of mind.
Packing as a Self-Sustaining Condition

We live in an action-oriented society. It's been that way since we invented agriculture and developed a stable environment in which the tasks to be performed could be defined within. Not much thinking was needed. We have little experience of discussing and managing subjective, internal states - although they are as much shared experiences as external objects visible to all. We have a general heuristic that says we should confine our observations to the externally visible, which kicks in to prevent the exploration of subjective phenomena even before they have had the chance to give results and justify themselves.

When things go wrong, we seek to clarify action and capture better descriptions of more effective actions. In situations where flexibility is an asset, this leads to reduced aspirations. If things are proceeding according to the actions written on paper, they are deemed to be going well, and the opportunity cost is not considered.

Worse, the behavior of people trapped in lack of understanding can reinforce each other. If one person just doesn't understand what is happening, they look about them and see others apparently knowing what they are doing, feel vulnerable, because lack of knowledge packets is supposed to be a personal failure, and therefore they bluster. They stick their noses in the air and waffle about due consideration' andappropriate action' as if undue consideration' orinappropriate action' was also on the table, but don't suggest what the appropriate action might be.

The thing is, everybody is doing it! So the silent conspiracy to maintain the etiquette of bluster develops. If anyone violates the etiquette, that person will be assailed by inherently unclear objections and other pressures to `conform', apparently for the sake of it. These cannot be countered in action-oriented terms, only by reference to causal relationships that only one person is fully cognizant of. Mapping in a packing world can be a painful and depressing experience, particularly if one does not understand the shattered reality one's packing associates inhabit.

In pathological situations, this can lead to an infinite regress wherein every problem is addressed by attempting to delegate it to someone else, a procedure, or a blame allocation mechanism. It's rather like holding your toothbrush with chopsticks - if you are holding the chopsticks just like on the diagram, the brush up your nose and the paste all over the mirror are not your responsibility!

Remember, we've described the causes of this misery not by waffling about the human condition' or our colleagues' moral fiber', but practically, out of socially-conditioned avoidance of `daydreaming'!

Copyright (c) Alan G Carter and Colston Sanger 1997

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For additional material on this topic

  • The Pragmatic Journey - Andy Hunt, Dave Thomas
  • Metalearning Skills - Vivienne Ming
  • Clean Code - Bob Martin
  • Software, Faster - Dan Terhorst North
  • Stop Stealing Dreams - Seth Godin

Additional hints on how to get there:

  • keep a journal on self development and learning about software engineering
  • Practice self-regulation and delayed gratification at every opportunity
  • Practice other metalearning skills as part of the journey
  • Teach others
  • Figure out ways of getting into the flow, learn your triggers of flow
  • Meditate for greater self-awareness