Language is a Map (keynote file)


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

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  • Wish I had read/seen this when I was 16, or maybe 18... Thanks!
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  • Very interesting!

    Nit: typo on Slide 10: 'abut' -> 'about'
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  • I 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 do and how I do it. I think it’s also very relevant to folks in advertising and media.\n\n
  • When 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 for what I was looking at, and could distinguish between alfalfa, oat grass, orchard grass, rye grass, and many more. Language is a map that lets you see, and think, things that you couldn’t see without it.\n\n
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  • I first got this idea in 1973, when I worked with a man named George Simon. He was originally a scout leader, but he ended up teaching workshops at the Esalen Institute, at the heart of California’s “human potential movement” in the 70’s. \n
  • George had the notion that you could create useful “maps” and “languages” that described the evolution of human consciousness from far into the past and into the distant future.\n
  • His work began with some of the notions of Alfred Korzybski, a writer and thinker from the 1930s who created a movement that he called “General Semantics.” Korzybski’s central notion was that language is a map that helps us to see the world more clearly.\n
  • One of Korzybski’s best-known statements - “the map is not the territory” - is echoed in this 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 the word with the thing, and don’t go back to what’s real. He used to feed people dog biscuits from a tin whose label was covered up and not showing them till people had said how tasty they were, as a way of illustrating how labels preconceive and bias experience.\n
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  • One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he suddenly interrupted the lesson in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. "Nice biscuit, don't you think," said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog's head and the words "Dog Cookies." The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to throw up, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. "You see, ladies and gentlemen," Korzybski remarked, "I have just demonstrated that people don't just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter." Apparently his prank aimed to illustrate how some human suffering originates from the confusion or conflation of linguistic representations of reality and reality itself.\n
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  • George represented this idea (and some others that he took from Indian thinker Sri Aurobindo) in this “map” of the perceptual process. \n
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  • My friend George noted that this was a good description of the process of cognition, and added another element, that we make what we take in (including the map), part of who we are.\n\n
  • Korzybski used to have people finger the structural differential when they were talking to understand when they were going back to look at reality, and when they were just in the labels. George led workshops at Esalen in the 1970s teaching people how to sense where they were in the process. That had a huge influence on my ability to see things freshly.\n
  • So, for example, in 1998, I played a big role in reframing how people thought about free software,, and helped give it a new name, “open source.”\n\nIn around 2002, I wrote a paper called “Remaking the Peer to Peer Meme.” In that paper, I used a diagram I called a “meme map” to show how I’d transformed the storytelling about free software\n
  • into 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, and even better, you can go read the original paper.\n
  • When you look at any of our events, there’s ultimately some rewriting of the meme map in each of them. Web 2.0 was about distinguishing companies that survived the dotcom bust from those that didn’t. Strata is about defining the new field of data science. Velocity is about making clear that the applications of the web depend on people to keep them running, unlike past generations of software that were simply software artifacts.\n
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  • And a big part of meme engineering is giving a name that creates a big tent that a lot of people want to be under, a train that takes a lot of people where they want to go. A fantastic example of this is Maker Faire, started by my colleague Dale Dougherty. He showed the common threads that ran through things as disparate as [logos on the screen]\n\nSo, don’t just think about storytelling, think about mapmaking.\n
  • Language is a Map (keynote file)

    1. The skill of writing is to create acontext in which other people canthink. Edwin Schlossberg
    2. Language is a map that can help us see more deeplyAlfalfa Oat GrassOrchardGrass
    3. George Simon
    4. Alfred Korzybski: General Semantics
    5. “The map is not the territory.”
    6. Korzybski’s“StructuralDifferential”was a trainingdevice to helprecognize theprocess ofabstraction
    7. The real world isrepresented by aparabola because it’sopen ended andeffectively infinite
    8. Our individualexperiences leaveout much detail ofthe events thattriggered them.And none of thoseexperiences areidentical.
    9. We label ourexperiences.The problemis that many ofus get lost inlabels and forgetthey aren’t theunderlying reality
    10. We become the sum of our experiences andthe stories we’ve told abut them A C “Beingness” “Identity” B D “Experience” “Map”
    11. Knowing where you are in the processhelps you to correct your mapA C “Beingness” “Identity”B D “Experience” “Map”
    12. Positive Reframing• Free Software --> Open Source• dot com bust --> Web 2.0
    13. ACCRS