Saturday, November 10, 2012

Mercy College Video Lecture 2: Cognitive Mapping in a 5D world en route to Eutopia

 Transcript of the Video Lecture:

Greetings fellow voyagers. For my relational summary this week I'd like to take a look at the topic of Environmental Perception and Cognition which Bell writes about in Chapter 3 of our textbook. In particular I want to explore the areas of Cognitive Maps, the discussion of which starts on page 70, and Wayfinding, which they discuss on page 88.

I'd also like to model for you how to go about your own relational summaries.

The first thing I do is flip through the chapter and look at the parts I underlined and at the notes I made in the margins as I was reading it. I notice, for example, that on page 71 the author has a diagram of Lynch's five elements for a cognitive map.

He identified Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes and Landmarks. We are told, and here is my first quote,

“As a planner, Lynch was among the first in his field to try to understand such subjective concerns as people's feelings about the quality of their environment and how their perceptions could be used in environmental design.” The text informs us that Lynch's book “the Image of the City” remains a classic reference in cognitive mapping.”

I notice that on page 72 my margin notes say “One person's path is another's edge: Khan El Khalili contested meanings”. What did I mean by that? Why did my brain react to the textbook this way?
See the way I read books is that I REACT to things the authors say and try to get into a dialectical conversation with them. I don't just nod and think, “well, he's the expert so let me just try to memorize what he says” I think, “hey... that sentence or paragraph makes me uncomfortable, it reminds me of something I observed when I was living in Egypt about how the rich treated the poor. Let me see if the author can help me understand what I expereinced!”.

The point that struck me about Lynch's categories when I read them in Bell is that he said they were SUBJECTIVE – in other words they didn't reflect REALITIES about the environment – they reflected perceptions of the people in that environment. And each of us has different perceptions. In other words, Lynch's work was important to me in my quest to fix a broken reality because he made explicit that maps are NOT objective.

We'd like to think they are, or more appropriately, the people who pay for them to be made would like to act as if they were, but the truth is they are not. This is why James Scott from Yale insisted we understand that “the Map is NOT the territory”.

Just take a look sometime on Mercy campus and see where the “official paths” are, and where students have carved out their own muddy path across the lawn. And notice how many times grounds keepers have to keep posting signs saying “keep off the grass” and how many signs exist everywhere saying 'restricted area – keep out'.

The fact is that all space is contested space and everybody would draw a different map if they had their way. In Egypt's famous bazaar market, Khan El Khalili, a road way was created by the government that cut the community into two pieces. On one side of the highway they kept the tourist market, which increasingly sells goods made to look like there are authentically Egyptian but mostly imported from China. On the other side of the highway they left the old craftspeople whose dying arts in handicrafts cannot earn them a decent living. To make matters worse, they only created a couple of bridges spaced far apart, and put a fence on both sides of the road and a tall traffic barrier in the middle. The net effect was to completely cut the poor community off from the major market and to keep tourists from being able to easily access old Cairo. This increased poverty tremendously.

On the map the intent could be seen, from a bird's eye view, to increase efficiency – a more of less straight line from the Nile and downtown Cairo to the airport road. But a bird's eye view doesn't take in the daily lives of the people and their needs, and the “view from on high” is typical of planners who work for governments ruled by the wealthy elites who really do think they are above the rest of the population. They literally do “look down” on the poor, if they notice them at all.

The same planning debacle was famously done by Robert Moses to New York. The famous book about this infamous man is called “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” and if I hunt on Google I find some interesting readings about how he used path planning to increase poverty in Manhattan. In an article called “Did Robert Moses Ruin New York City?” found at, JOAN MARANS DIM says,

“ Moses, with his maze of highways, left an unforgivable stain on New York's landscape. Ride the Cross Bronx Expressway or Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and you'll understand why old timers who once lived in the neighborhoods they afflicted still curse him...Moses was a zealot who built a city for automobiles and those who could afford automobiles. And therein lies Moses' greatest flaw. He cared not a whit for the working stiffs, who didn't need or couldn't afford an automobile. In 1929, when the Second Avenue Subway was proposed, Moses wasn't keen on it. In 1942 and again in 1954, when the city attempted to build that line, Moses prevented funds he controlled from being allocated to the project, preferring instead to spend them on building expressways between his bridges through densely populated neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn
IMAGINE IF MOSES HAD TEMPERED his actions with consideration of the needs of all the people. Picture the Triborough Bridge (now known as the RFK Bridge, in honor of Robert Kennedy) with a rail system connecting Manhattan to La Guardia and Kennedy airports. Picture a Second Avenue line. When Moses gained power in 1924, New York City had one of the world's most modern subway systems. When he was ousted from power in 1968, it had one of the worst-maintained systems.”

So this innocent diagram on page 71 of our book isn't so innocent after all. Planners like Moses use maps and the 5 essential elements to sell their ideas, and often their ideas “don't care a whit for working stiffs”. Ask yourself, “why isn't my house a landmark? Why are the houses of the rich and famous landmarks? Why is y district a district? Who made it so? Who made the ghetto the ghetto? Where is the edge that separates those struggling to get relief from the devastation that Hurricane Sandy created, and who created that edge? Is it possible that some of the destruction was caused less by Sandy than by the planners who carved up the city into districts and paths and edges? How does what is happening in New York mirror what happened in New Orleans a few years ago?

Yup, Environmental Perception and Cognitive Maps aren't the clean, uncontroversial areas you might imagine them to be! As Bell says on page 73, “In addition to the physical characteristics of a city or rural environment itself, you might expect that individual or cultural differences would cause people to place varying weights on certain environmental features.” This quote is about what Lynch called the “Legibility” of landscapes – remember that in Chapter 2 on page 45 Bell defined Legibility as “the degree of distinctiveness that enables the viewer to understand or categorize the contents of a scene – the greater the legibility, the greater the preference.” Of course our Bell reading is a textbook so it bends over backward not to be controversial. But Legibility has a long history in political economics and is something that Yale Professor James Scott talks about in his book “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed .

In that book legibility has many meanings.
Venkat, in his blog “RibbonFarm: Experiments in Refactored Perception” ( does a nice job of summarizing:

“James C. Scott’s fascinating and seminal book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, examines how, across dozens of domains, ranging from agriculture and forestry, to urban planning and census-taking, a very predictable failure pattern keeps recurring.  The pictures below, from the book (used with permission from the author from pages 16 and 17) graphically and literally illustrate the central concept in this failure pattern, an idea called “legibility.” .

States and large organizations exhibit this pattern of behavior most dramatically, but individuals frequently exhibit it in their private lives as well. Scott calls the thinking style behind the failure mode “authoritarian high modernism,”
Here is the recipe:
  • Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
  • Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
  • Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
  • Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
  • Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
  • Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
  • Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly
The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility.

So the quest for easy legibility turns out to be behind many of our failures in the quest for Eutopia.

Venkat goes on, explaining,

“High-modernist (think Bauhaus and Le Corbusier) aesthetics necessarily lead to simplification, since a reality that serves many purposes presents itself as illegible to a vision informed by a singular purpose. Any elements that are non-functional with respect to the singular purpose tend to confuse, and are therefore eliminated during the attempt to “rationalize.” The deep failure in thinking lies is the mistaken assumption that thriving, successful and functional realities must necessarily be legible. Or at least more legible to the all-seeing statist eye in the sky (many of the pictures in the book are literally aerial views) than to the local, embedded, eye on the ground.
Complex realities turn this logic on its head; it is easier to comprehend the whole by walking among the trees, absorbing the gestalt, and becoming a holographic/fractal part of the forest, than by hovering above it.
This  imposed simplification, in service of legibility to the state’s eye, makes the rich reality brittle, and failure  follows. The imagined improvements are not realized. The metaphors of killing the golden goose, and the Procrustean bed come to mind.”

I've now used at least 3 outside reading quotes in my relational summary so far, and a couple of quotes from our main textbook, so for brevity's sake I'll bring this section to a close, but I urge you to read Venkat's blog post, particularly his section on 'The Psychology of Legibility” and see how so much of what we are doing is trying merely to ease our own anxieties about what we perceive as the threat of “chaos”.

Making the world legible to us through simplification is important for our own wayfinding. The problem is that each person has a different cognitive map and a different sense of legibility and chaos. After all, how many couple fight precisely because the spouses have different ideas of what makes for an ordered, legible household and what constitutes an intolerable chaotic state of affairs?

This is an age old problem and goes back to the origins of cognitive map making.

Let me talk about cognitive map making as it relates to my experience:

Almost all animals, and increasingly robots as well, make cognitive maps. These are maps that stay inside the mind of the organism or machine and guide their movements.

Recently I had an opportunity to ride in the self-driving Google car – a real “AUTO” mobile in that it was truly auto mobile –autonomously driven. It was a normal Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid with a laptop computer in the back connected to a box that controlled the electronics of the car driving the steering, acceleration and braking.

On top of the car a LIDAR unit was mounted, continuously making 360 degree sweeps and scans of the environment. The programmers told us that they must drive the car through the neighborhood once to create the cognitive map for the steering computer. Once in the computer's memory the car uses the map to navigate and drive itself by comparing what the LIDAR sees in the present to what it saw in the past. Naturally this map is updated each time it drives to include new objects.

This is called an “eidetic memory” . Many organisms have it and some, like our cousins the great apes, can use it more effectively than we – taking mental snapshots that they can maintain with fidelity.
You may have seen the famous case of the chimpanzee that can reproduce entire sequences of numbers on a computer screen, playing a kind of flash card memory game, faster and more accurately than any human.

There are some human beings who posess extraordinary photographic memories too, like tk who draws vast landscapes reproducing every detail after flying over them only once in a helicopter.

But for most humans memory is somewhat more plastic if more imperfect and so we tend to insert our own imagery into the map.

While this can cause problems it also unleashed the powers of our imagination for we found that we could give the maps we created of our world features of our own creation. We could give the visions from our dreams their own coordinates in our representations of the real world and for the first time we could plan. Psychology Today in an article called 'The Truth About Photographic Memory” stresses that

“While people can improve their recall through tricks and practice, eidetikers are born, not made... The ability isn't linked to other traits, such as high intelligence. Children are more likely to possess eidetic memory than adults, though they begin losing the ability after age six as they learn to process information more abstractly.
Although psychologists don't know why children lose the ability, the loss of this skill may be functional: Were humans to remember every single image, it would be difficult to make it through the day.”

In other words, we need to simplify our own memories and internal maps if we are going to plan, and if we are going to be creative in how we plan, it can even help to have an imperfect memory, making us less rigid. And there-in lies the paradox, a contradiction that shows just how broken our natural reality is – on the one hand simplification and errors make us less rigid thinkers, on the other hand, we use simplification and the legibility these “errors” help us create to IMPOSE on others even more rigidly, as if our imperfect maps somehow provide perfect solutions to reach our perfect world or utopia. Perhaps this is why F.A. Hyek blamed planners as being among the worst dangers to society in his seminal Holocaust era book “the Road to Serfdom”.
My good friend Paul Sagawa a wall street analyst and Harvard Business school graduate, pointed out recently the dangers he sees in economists acting as though mathematical models, which are simplified maps of complex realities, when the start trying to plan the economy on the basis of those simplifications. He wrote:
|”Economists are wanna-be physicists, chasing a chimera of a deterministic mathematical model that can adequately describe the workings of aggregated human behavior. Whether Keynesian, Monetarist or Supply-sider, the empirical evidence is inadequate to test any of the major schools of macro-economic thought with enough scientific rigor to support the confidence with which the proponents of these sc
hools are willing to state their projections and policy recommendations. Thus Keynesians are SURE that a reduction in government spending combined with a tax cut will cause a massive contraction in demand that would plunge us into a negative spiral, Monetarists are SURE that Fed interest policy has us on track to Wiemar Republic style hyperinflation, and Supply-siders are SURE that raising tax rates will result in tax avoidance behavior that would actually reduce government revenues while creating disincentives to investment that would increase unemployment. Since there is no real proof that any of these warring schools is actually correct, adherence is more a matter of philosophy, faith and self-interest, than logic.
The dirty secret underlying the elaborate mathematical models underlying the various economic conceits is that they assume that there are underlying constants in the behavior of human beings. To pick on Keynesians for a moment, the idea that there is a fixed "multiplier" - constant like Avogodro's number or the speed of light - that determines the effect of government stimulus spending on the overall economy is silly. Human reaction to economic conditions is complicated, greatly effected by emotion, and changes over time with learning. To assume that the economy's response to policy today would be the same as it was in the '30's, the 70's, or even the '90's, seems naive, when the national mood has turned so unusually pessimistic, when our relationship to the rest of the world economy is in such flux, and when the debate over economic policy is so open and antagonistic.
Personally, I think national psychology is the MOST important factor in economic recovery. We need a nation that really BELIEVES that it is on the road to prosperity before we can actually make progress toward that end.”

Paul's Wall Street perspective targets something that simple models or maps don't have room to accommodate – feeling. Mood. Psychology.
How do you make a cognitive map of those 'intangible' and 'messy' parts of reality?

We humans do make maps out of emotions – call them emotional maps if you like, and we often take our sense of direction from these rather than logical maps. From this we get the saying “People will almost never remember what you said, will rarely remember what you did, but will almost always remember how you made them feel”. We often say we are “following our instincts” – which are feelings, rather than reason, or any logical map. We say 'I am going with my gut'. But what is the gut feeling? Is it some combination of the visual map and Lynch's five elements, with another sixth element overlaid on it – a kind of emotional landmark, a feeling node, an edgy edge? Is the problem that we've oversimplified reality to make it legible and then forgotten what we threw out? Does our planning get messed up because we left out of our cognitive maps the very things that we actually were planning for – safety, security, dignity, happiness?

When I was studying Orangutans in the primary rainforests and jungles of Borneo we found that they could plan too. They would anticipate when certain trees in their vast territory would come into fruit and journey there at the precise time to beat all the other less intelligent animals. But while they could plan a trip based on future expectations they couldn't plant a new fruit tree closer to home so their planning was restricted to following the admittedly dynamic map in their minds. They could plan for greater happiness. Certainly not for a better life, for liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

To a certain extent they and almost all animals that build nests can also plan to change their cognitive maps and change their environments. They must visualize the place where they want to build their nest, then go and gather the materials they need and update the map with every alteration they make. But once an organism has the ability to fix a map by drawing lines in the sand, in mud or clay or on paper, more impactful changes can be made. The question is, by fixing a map into a form outside the mind, do we lose sight of the reasons we wanted to map in the first place? By removing the map from the brain-body complex with its filters and emotions and memories, do we abstract it into a dangerous form that actually makes us lose our way?

One of the paradoxes of mapping, as I've mentioned , is that it can also make people blind to change. The necessary act of simplification to accommodate the limited dimensions and skills available is often a blessing – neuroscientists like David McLean, author of the Triune Brain theory – have long suggested that the brain itself acts as a filter, radically simplifying the bewildering mass of data that our world affords us so that we can make sense of things, only letting us perceive information that we can successfully use and make sense of. We don't even have the sensors we would need, which bees have, to perceive ultraviolet light, or which mosquitoes and leeches and snakes, robots and even automatic doors and lavatory faucets and TV remote controls have to see Infra Red light. We don't have the ultrasonic sensors that bats and dolphins to navigate with sonar or which many cars now have to keep from colliding into something when backing up. The frequency response of our ears is limited to a range of 20 to 20,000 Hz - whales go much lower and dogs go much higher. But sometimes less information can be useful – for example color blind people are often asked by the army to look at photographs of potentially camouflaged enemy weapons because they aren't easily fooled by similar colors.

Too many features can make a cognitive map impossible to understand so even when organisms have all the sensors they may need to pick up details of the world around them the brain, particularly a part of the brain called 'the reticular formation', 'la rete mirable' or the 'marvelous network' learns to pick out the salient features and ignore the rest. Over time we become habituated to features in our environment that are unchanging or seem to pose no threat or have no survival advantage and so we often simply don't notice them. But for that exact reason we can become too complacent trusting simplified maps, and when we commit the incomplete information to paper and then use an oversimplification to make decisions we can make mistakes.

Once again I repeat that it is for this reason, Yale Professor James Scott, in his classic “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition”, cautions us that “The map is not the territory”. I want to drum that into your heads!

Increasingly, however, because of our ability to map and model in 3D and create virtual reality representations of our environments, the map and the territory actually can converge and almost be the same thing, at least as far as our limited senses are concerned. With multimedia we can add layers of nuance and emotion, using music and soundeffects and the tools of the artist to capture a more faithful representation of the reality we are trying to describe with out maps.

Because too much information can be confusing 3D map makers also work to simplify things, but they try to do so in meaningful ways. It isn't just because of computer speed and bandwidth constraints that video game developers use a lot of tricks to simplify the objects in a scene. Too much realism can not only burden the CPU and crash the computer or make the processor run agonizingly slowly, it can also make a game aesthetically unplayable as a player struggles to figure out what she sees or hears from the screen is important to achieving the game's goal objective. There are many games that have open ended environments, like World of Warcraft and Second Life, but they too limit the amount of landscape you and your computer must process at any given time, and they tend to use low 2D texture images for backgrounds and distant objects instead of three dimensional objects.

Still, computer games today, particularly those that run on high-end computer systems and consoles like Xbox 360 and the PS3 and Wii, can so faithfully represent real environments that it can almost feel like you are there. My wife's young cousin plays Assasin's Creed when he gets home from his history class because he feels he can explore Renassaince Italy better by wandering through the canals of a virtual Venice. Many years ago I used to teach in South Los Angeles and once visited the famous Watt's Towers artistic landmark that commemorates the first L.A. Uprising. Since I now live in Germany I couldn't easily take my friends there, but I was able to take a virtual trip there to show them what it is like by getting on a bicycle and riding there in the game Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (one can also carjack some serious wheels to get there, but as a bike rider that isn't my style!).

Several years ago, while living in the slums of Old Islamic Cairo and working with the architects there I was able to use their 3D models of our neighborhood to put it into the Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion game engine. I georeferenced the models with Google Earth and brought that into the game too, and oriented everything with the location of north in the game so that when the sun rose and set in-game it corresponded to the real location of the sun in Cairo. In this way I was able to put virtual solar panels on a 3D model of my actual roof and look at shading and shadows at various times of the day without having to go on the real roof. It occurred to me that this could be a very valuable tool for planning, and I am now working on creating a “sustainable development simulator”.

There are, of course, games that let you simulate a city, like Sim City and Sim City Societies and equip your town with windmills and solar energy stations , and now in the Sims 3 you can actually build your own house and put solar panels on it and you can have your characters drive around in a hybrid or electric car. But of course the houses and buildings you build in these simulation engines are based on fantasy maps with no correspondence to the real world.

Nonetheless, real world 3D mapping is getting more and more common place. Google Earth has several modules which can help you get a virtual look at reality on your computer. You are probably familiar with Google Earth Street Map View.

But there is also a unique new tool called Building Maker that lets you be part of a collective architecture project turning Google Earth into a 3D replica of the real earth.
The way it works is that you download the Google Earth Plug in for your browser, then you select a city, create a virtual building with simple tools using photographs of the real building that they provide, upload your model for review and if they approve it (which is most likely if you follow the simple instructions) everyone in the world can see it and fly through it on Google Earth or on Google Maps in your browser.

The point is that for the first time in human history we have the ability to make maps that complexify information rather than simplify it. Yet these are maps which, because they involve all 3 of the dimensions we are used to living in (as well as other dimensions of sound and time-lapse and socio-political feeling – creating the so-called 5D landscape) are actually more legible than the 2D maps we've relied on for so many millenia. And they are legible in customizable ways – they can be rendered in any textual or visual language, incorporating all of the differing cultural elements that were left out by simplifying maps.

Using technology to embrace the complexity of the world and understand it not through reduction, but through holistic comprehension, may be what saves us after all. To use yet another quote from our readings, let me turn to Jane McGonigal's quote from Kathi Vian in her introductio to the Superstruct Ten-Year Forecast on page 343 of Reality is Broken:

“Zoom out” she says, “Look at the coming decade from the perspective of millenia of change. Focus on the progress of the universe from the breakthrough structures of the atom to the living cell, the biota, the community of nations, the global economy. This is how the future will be new, by continuing the incredible experiment of reorganization for greater complexity, by creating the next astonishing structural forms in this long evolutionary path.”

Jane concludes, “It seems clear to me that games are the most likely candidate to serve as the next great breakthrough structure for life on earth. There's no guarantee, of course, that evolution will continue along any given path, other than the path of improved survivability in a given environment. But all of the historic evidence seems to suggest that collaboration improves human survivability and will continue to do so, as long as we can innovate new ways of working together. First humans invented language. Then farming, and cities; trade and democratic forms of government and the Internet – all ways of supporting human life and collaboration at bigger and more complex scales. We have been playing good games for nearly as long as we have been human. It is now time to play them on extreme scales. Together, we can tackle what may be the most worthwhile, most epic obstacle of all: a whole-planetary mission, to use games to raise global quality of life, to prepare ourselves for the future, and to sustain our earth for the next millenium and beyond.”

To do this, I believe what we need is to create new kinds of ever more complex and at the same time universally AND idiosyncratically legible cognitive maps of this brave new world we want to create.

And it starts with you, playing the game, engaging in the dialectic, sharing your view of the world so we can fit your unique landmarks, nodes, paths, edges and districts onto the same map, trusting that in a 5D world, all maps, no matter how distinct they appear, can overlap and help us to safely reach the same desirable destination.

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