Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Jokes About Scale.

Yesterday I was listening to the brilliant podcast The Constant and was reminded of the very very short short story “On Exactitude in Science” by the one and only Jorge Luis Borges. It is one paragraph long and ostensibly about map. Here is the story in it’s entirety:

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a

single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety

of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the

Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and

which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so

fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map

was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the

Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are

Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is

no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suarez Miranda,Viajes devarones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

That’s all folks!

But not really. As with most of Borges, it is very funny, but it is also impossible to realize that at first.

It is really about maps and draws attention to the fact that a map is a simulation, not a fact. So really it is about simulation and how simulation itself is not fact. So really it is kind of about how fact is generally also not fact. So really it is about the unknowableness of all things. So really it is about everything.

Often this story is paired with an excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded which makes the funny a little more explicit:

"What a useful thing a pocket-map is!" I remarked.

"That's another thing we've learned from your Nation," said Mein Herr, "map-making. But we've carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?"

"About six inches to the mile."

"Only six inches!" exclaimed Mein Herr. "We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all ! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!"

"Have you used it much?" I enquired.

"It has never been spread out, yet," said Mein Herr: "the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight ! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."

See how funny that is!




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