Language is a Map (pdf with notes)


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The Ignite talk I gave at WPPStream Athens in September 2012 (pdf with notes). It explains the role of General Semantics and the work of George Simon in shaping my approach to the world.

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  • Interesting, on several levels. I particularly like this quote 'We become the sum of our experiences and the stories we've told about them' ... though it's not clear from the context whether its origin is Tim O'Reilly, George Simon or Alfred Korzybski.
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Language is a Map (pdf with notes)

  1. The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think. Edwin SchlossbergSunday, October 28, 12I open many of my talks with a quote from Edwin Schlossberg. This talk explains why this quote captures so much of my approach to what I doand how I do it. I think it’s also very relevant to folks in advertising and media.
  2. Language is a map that can help us see more deeply Alfalfa Oat Grass Orchard GrassSunday, October 28, 12When I first moved to Sebastopol, before I had horses, I’d look out at a meadow, and all I’d see was grass. But eventually, I got a language forwhat I was looking at, and could distinguish between alfalfa, oat grass, orchard grass, rye grass, and many more. Language is a map that lets yousee, and think, things that you couldn’t see without it.
  3. George SimonSunday, October 28, 12I first got this idea in 1973, when I worked with a man named George Simon. He wasoriginally a scout leader, but he ended up teaching workshops at the Esalen Institute, atthe heart of California’s “human potential movement” in the 70’s.
  4. Alfred Korzybski: General SemanticsSunday, October 28, 12His work began with some of the notions of Alfred Korzybski, a writer and thinker fromthe 1930s who created a movement that he called “General Semantics.” Korzybski’scentral notion was that language is a map that helps us to see the world more clearly.
  5. “The map is not the territory.”Sunday, October 28, 12One of Korzybski’s best-known statements - “the map is not the territory” - is echoed inthis famous painting by Magritte. Korzybski focused on aberrations in thinking - racism- for example, as the result of “bad maps” that guide us astray because we mix up theword with the thing, and don’t go back to what’s real. He used to feed people dogbiscuits from a tin whose label was covered up and not showing them till people had saidhow tasty they were, as a way of illustrating how labels preconceive and bias experience.
  6. Korzybski’s “Structural Differential” was a training device to help recognize the process of abstractionSunday, October 28, 12
  7. The real world is represented by a parabola because it’s open ended and effectively infiniteSunday, October 28, 12
  8. Our individual experiences leave out much detail of the events that triggered them. And none of those experiences are identical.Sunday, October 28, 12
  9. We label our experiences. The problem is that many of us get lost in labels and forget they aren’t the underlying realitySunday, October 28, 12
  10. We become the sum of our experiences and the stories we’ve told abut them A C “Beingness” “Identity” B D “Experience” “Map”Sunday, October 28, 12My friend George noted that this was a good description of the process of cognition, and addedanother element, that we make what we take in (including the map), part of who we are.
  11. Knowing where you are in the process helps you to correct your map A C “Beingness” “Identity” B D “Experience” “Map”Sunday, October 28, 12Korzybski used to have people finger the structural differential when they were talking tounderstand when they were going back to look at reality, and when they were just in thelabels. George led workshops at Esalen in the 1970s teaching people how to sense wherethey were in the process. That had a huge influence on my ability to see things freshly.
  12. Positive Reframing • Free Software --> Open Source • dot com bust --> Web 2.0Sunday, October 28, 12So, for example, in 1998, I played a big role in reframing how people thought about freesoftware,, and helped give it a new name, “open source.”In around 2002, I wrote a paper called “Remaking the Peer to Peer Meme.” In that paper, Iused a diagram I called a “meme map” to show how I’d transformed the storytelling aboutfree software
  13. Sunday, October 28, 12into the storytelling about open source software. I know these are eye charts from here,and there’s no way you can read them now, but I’ll put the slides up on slideshare, andeven better, you can go read the original paper.
  14. Sunday, October 28, 12When you look at any of our events, there’s ultimately some rewriting of the meme mapin each of them. Web 2.0 was about distinguishing companies that survived the dotcombust from those that didn’t. Strata is about defining the new field of data science. Velocityis about making clear that the applications of the web depend on people to keep themrunning, unlike past generations of software that were simply software artifacts.
  15. ACCRSSunday, October 28, 12And a big part of meme engineering is giving a name that creates a big tent that a lot ofpeople want to be under, a train that takes a lot of people where they want to go. Afantastic example of this is Maker Faire, started by my colleague Dale Dougherty. Heshowed the common threads that ran through things as disparate as [logos on thescreen]So, don’t just think about storytelling, think about mapmaking.