Maps and territories and knowledge

Seymour Papert, one of the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence, once wrote (1988, p. 3), “Artificial Intelligence should become the methodology for thinking about ways of knowing.”   I would add “and ways of acting”.

Some time back, I wrote about the painting of spirit-dreamtime maps by Australian aboriginal communities as proof of their relationship to specific places:  Only people with traditional rights to the specific place would have the necessary dreamtime knowledge needed to make the painting, an argument whose compelling force has been recognized by Australian courts.  These paintings are a form of map, showing (some of) the spirit relationships of the specific place.  The argument they make is a very interesting one, along the lines of:

What I am saying is true, by virtue of the mere fact that I am saying it, since only someone having the truth would be able to make such an utterance (ie, the painting).

Another example of this type of argument is given by Rory Stewart, in his account of his walk across Afghanistan.   Stewart does not carry a paper map of the country he is walking through, lest he be thought a foreign spy (p. 211).   Instead, he learns and memorizes a list of the villages and their headmen, in the order he plans to walk through them.  Like the aboriginal dreamtime paintings, mere knowledge of this list provides proof of his right to be in the area.  Like the paintings, the list is a type of map of the territory, a different way of knowing.  And also like the paintings, possession of this knowledge leads others, when they learn of the possession, to act differently towards the possessor.  Here’s Stewart on his map (p. 213):

It was less accurate the further you were from the speaker’s home . . .  But I was able to add details from villages along the way, till I could chant the stages from memory.

Day one:  Commandant Maududi in Badgah.  Day two:  Abdul Rauf Ghafuri in Daulatyar.  Day three:  Bushire Khan in Sang-izard.  Day four:  Mir Ali Hussein Beg of Katlish.  Day five: Haji Nasir-i-Yazdani Beg of Qala-eNau.  Day six:  Seyyed Kerbalahi of Siar Chisme . . .

I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map.  I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as credentials.  Almost everyone recognized the names, even from a hundred kilometres away.  Being able to chant it made me half belong:  it reassured hosts who were not sure whether to take me in and it suggested to anyone who thought of attacking me that I was linked to powerful names. (page 213)

Because AI is (or should be) about ways of knowing and doing in the world, it therefore has close links to the social sciences, particularly anthropology, and to the humanities.


Seymour Papert [1988]: One AI or Many? Daedalus, 117 (1) (Winter 1988):  1-14.

Rory Stewart [2004]: The Places in Between. London, UK:  Picador, pp. 211-214.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

0 Responses to “Maps and territories and knowledge”

Comments are currently closed.