The Map

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Fiction

It was the most sublime map ever made; superbly detailed and wonderfully dynamic. They said a trillion-parameter model drove the real-time updates. Whether you wanted a simple route to your destination or a restaurant recommendation, if you were in the territory, this was the map you wanted.

They said it was so responsive to even the subtlest of event currents, the stream had to be artificially delayed to avoid spoilers. The speculative extrapolation ran minutes to hours ahead of the evolution of the territory, and if you knew how to hack in with a properly jailbroken client, you could surf the liminal future. The map was not so much a map as a live inference frontier. It would only be a mild exaggeration to say that it tracked and anticipated the fate of every blade of grass in the territory.

It was as much an evolving spatiotemporal promise as a map. And it was right a lot.

Uncannily right. Not just about traffic or the weather, but about vibes and moods. About whether you should go to the concert or to get an ice-cream.

Not that it was never wrong — but big or small, the errors always had a strange beauty to them. They could lead you to appreciate the territory in poignant new ways. To experiences you didn’t know were exactly the ones you were searching for. To be lost on the map, or misled by it, was almost better than knowing where you were on it. It was wrong in ways that made omniscience seem uninteresting.

And for those who cared about such things, it was small, sometimes achieving compressions of over 98%. Even the smallest devices could run the map efficiently, even offline.

To look at, no through the map was to gaze into the evolving, distilled, soul of the territory. The AR display overlays generated from the map, some nostalgics argued, had some of the charm of old black and white photographs by the early masters of photography, gently tugging the eye and soul into communion with the territory they framed and presented. And even the least poetically minded had to admit there was some truth to that.

Like all good maps, it was opinionated, gently nudging various search, adaptive rendering, and navigation algorithms towards regimes of greatest serendipity. But unlike the maps made by competing vendors, which were merely good but not great, it seemed to somehow draw out the best opinionated behaviors from the algorithms it hosted. And it hosted algorithms in the best sense of the word. With a kind of attentive courtesy that seemed to bring out the best in even the humblest of client apps.

Many, made uneasy by the utter benevolence of the map, sought to do without it. There must be a dark side, they said. Yet, even the most fervent detractors, the ones who refused to use any device that made use of the map, had to admit that none of the standard criticisms of technology seemed to apply.

The map was carbon-negative by design, even without accounting for various obvious positive spillovers. Economists had shown that it had nearly tripled well-being, doubled productivity, and halved carbon intensity in the territory within the first decade.

And it did so without baking in fragility-convenience tradeoffs as so many twentieth century technologies had done. In fact, one analysis showed (with a very significant effect size) that the map appeared to do the opposite: it added a frisson of low-grade ennobling hormetic inconvenience that somehow made every user, whether algorithmic or human, more resiliently attuned to the territory, and more able to anticipate and respond to risks. During the great hurricane of ’33, for example, the territory suffered only half the damage of its less exposed neighbors. And during the great pandemic of ’82-84, it had the lowest fatality rate, and the quickest economic rebound, despite having the highest population density in the region.

And the macros did not, as some darkly suspected, obscure deep and narrow failures experienced at micro levels. It wasn’t just the big, high-volume apps that performed better with the map. Even the long tail of client algorithms converged faster — but even when they diverged, they appeared to miraculously discover rich new differential inference regimes that made the curators surprised and glad to retune them. And even the humblest human immigrants swore that merely moving to the territory had made them somehow more alive; that even being lost on the map made them feel more at home than knowing where they were ever had outside of it.

It was a chef who came up with the metaphor that best captured the general consensus about the map: it was somehow bringing out the terroir of the territory itself, so to speak, as though it was somehow gently, continuously, cooking the territory, and everything in it. With exactly the right amounts of perfectly matched subtle spices the territory needed, to fully express itself.

The economists, of course, had a drier take: the map was a sort of macro-algorithmic self-fulfilling prophecy. A famous series of papers by a group of economists at the University, which won the authors the Nobel, demonstrated that under suitable simplifying assumptions, the map was in fact functioning as a territory-wide efficient market. And crucially, the simplifying assumptions, far from sneaking in ungrounded optimistic biases, appeared to lead to an underestimate of the performance of the map. The efficient market reduction was, in most regimes, a lower bound on the performance of the map. In practice, it generally performed better than the formal models predicted. It appeared that that map actually generated an ongoing performance surplus that manifested as a kind of unreasonable luck accruing to all who operated on it. The map was turning the territory not just into an efficient market, but an unreasonably lucky one.

A half-century after the first version of the map was released, the population of the territory had doubled, and the economy had tripled in size, even though the territory itself had only grown by a modest 14% in area. The compute load of the map though, across both the model in the cloud all client devices, had only grown by 4%. Each update had delivered major efficiency gains. By the thirtieth year, the map was effectively a local monopoly. A full 99.4% of all devices in the territory ran inference engines that relied on the map, and 94% had opted-in to providing telemetry and accepting default continuous over-the-air updates.

In the fortieth year, shortly after version 17.31 went out over the air, the corporation voted to dissolve itself, release the code open-source, and make the aggregated data streams public and auditable. The map, it turned out, had become economically self-sustaining, with apparently no need for active management. A half-hearted antitrust lawsuit that had been taking shape dissolved overnight.

Not that there was much open-source maintenance to do by that point. That code was mature and robustly self-healing. Hardware upgrades and configuration evolutions seemed to require no special handling. After a brief frenzy of audit activity, the data flows ended up being mostly of interest to the small cottage industry of artists that sprouted up to pipe it into various installations around the territory, and eventually around the world.

A small band of volunteers emerged to do whatever stewardship might prove to be necessary, but as it turned out, there was very little for them to do besides indulge a nerdy fascination with the transparent but illegible evolution of the map. More loyal fandom than intercessionary priesthood.

Perhaps the only people unhappy with the map were the ones unable to join the territory within which it was usable. For whatever reason, the training code that generated the models that created the maps did not converge when seeded in most other territories. Where it did converge, it mostly produce fragile, unreliable, unexceptional maps with strictly middling levels of performance. It led the market in no other territory — those who chose to use it anyway appeared to be driven by a kind of prayerful wishful thinking, a suspicion strengthened by their tendency to acquire small data-flow art installations.

The only way for a new territory to join the map was to actually attach itself to what came to be known as the mother territory; the holy land. And the only way to do that was to share a land border or oceanic rim with it, and wait to be absorbed by a map update.

A few small-scale limited wars initiated by neighbors in the early years had demonstrated that aggression didn’t help — the territory would simply win and the hoped-for expansion would stall for a while. The map itself appeared to be a factor in the territory’s decisive military superiority over its neighbors.

More to the point, it was not clear that invading the territory would somehow magically reveal or extend the secret hidden in the trillion parameters.

The only thing to do was wait at the doorstep, in the hope of being absorbed, keeping up the strongest possible diplomatic and trade relationships with the territory.

Every few years, a map update would include a chunk of neighboring territory, which would then be offered to the neighboring territory in question as a free subscription. When an update completely covered a neighbor, it would be offered the option of being absorbed into the mother territory, or remaining a subscriber state. Invariably, the neighbor would eagerly and immediately surrender itself for full absorption. So strong was the demand for absorption that the subscription zone fragmented into the smallest possible administrative units. As the territory grew, the newly eligible territories just past the subscription zone eagerly carved themselves up into bite-sized chunks for easier assimilation.

By the 70th year, it was clear that the expansion process was slowing steadily. Expansionary map updates became both less frequent, and absorbed less new territory each time. Some argued that the fragmentation process was to blame, and urged a re-consolidation. Some argued that a global annular state, with the territory at the center, would lead to the fastest absorption of the whole planet; perhaps even fast enough to outrun the terminal climate collapse that was rapidly gaining on the whole planet — but slowest in the territory of course. In that, as in everything else, luck seemed to favor the map.

But the annularists as they were called, wielded little influence.

Others, armed with numerological evidence, analysis of map updates, and complex arguments about expansion cycles, argued that the growth process of the territory was clearly headed for a stall point at about a third of the earth’s land surface. They were met with a shrug. It was not a useful thought. Whether the limit was a third, or half, or two thirds, the point was to be as close to the front of the absorption queue as possible.

So the territory grew slowly, pushing a wave of territorial rubble around the subscription zone. A little self-aware heaven growing with a modest humility. A house of peace expanding, via a house of subscription, into a grimdark realm of endemic war.

A religion emerged in the most distant regions, with the least hope of ever being absorbed. It was called Antipodalism, and it was rooted in the belief that there could be no free lunch. There could be no unbalanced force for good in the world. The Map was no exception.

That the only way to fully draw out the light of the Map was to present it with a dark twin; an ideal metaphysical adversary: an Antimap.

If only, the argument went, you could discover the exact opposite territory — not literally; that was in the middle of the ocean, but some sort of training-data antonym in latent space — and the exact set of tweaks to make to the training code, the Antimap would emerge at the Antipode, and begin its own inexorable creep towards the Map. And through the ensuing battle of Map and Antimap, the final training epoch would be triggered, leading to the Final Convergence, and heaven on Earth.

It was widely derided as a profoundly stupid religion.

And yet, as the growth of heaven slowed to a crawl, the surreptitious search for hell began.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. First. Long time reader, first time commenter :P

    I loved the ideas packed into this piece and the conflict it sets up at the end. I’d like to offer an unsolicited note, which is simply the one I think my novelist-mother would give if she were here in this comment section. This is what she has done for/to me whenever I’ve written anything, so now I feel compelled to nit you in turn.

    If you’re going to spend as much time as you do in what appears to be a conflict-free territory and then end on this conflict you’re brewing up with the Antimap, then the first line of the story should probably allude to this trouble in paradise in some way (especially if you want those of us who prefer conflict to technical description in our stories to stay onboard, which may or may not be a goal with this one).

    Example opener:
    “Any map becomes known and useful because of a cherished and child-like perspective, its narrow glimpse into a hidden purpose by way of a broad, irreconcilable prejudice. This map was unusual in its excesses: it was more useful, better known, and more discreet with regards to its purpose than any prior representation of the territory. If it was also more narrow, no one could say how. If it had broken the mold of cartography, as everyone seemed to agree it had, one had to wonder why.”

    FWIW I’m a software engineer, not a writer, so this is really more an example of motherly love/abuse taking on a life of its own than it is an experienced perspective. By that same token, I really think you should stick with this one if you’re enjoying it. I would love to experience the details of what specific characters do and think and feel in this world. The map itself seems sophisticated enough to take on character-istics, but I’m also curious about the individuals hiding behind the more sweeping characterizations of types of people.

  2. marvelous.

  3. The territory became the map then is what you’re saying.

  4. Jack Darrow says

    geographical Tlönism.

  5. Excellent. Packs so much in a short. Loved the economic references. I was thinking novel -please write it. This text at least 5 chapters. Screenplay easy really. Tons of tropes to lure movie goers – ooh, ahh, all those vignettes showing “appreciate the territory in poignant new ways. To experiences you didn’t know were exactly the ones you were searching for. To be lost on the map, or misled by it, was almost better than knowing where you were on it. It was wrong in ways that made omniscience seem uninteresting.”

    Almost psychedelic. Certain serendipity.

    As to J. I didn’t need the foreboding hint, I was primed by by my culture, literature, brain to be having amygdalic tinklings.

    And Jack D! Tlönism. Scary dark.

    Venkatesh, I urge you to search in Google Tlönism as I did. The search result;
    Top of page : “Ads·Shop Tlönism”. Now that result is scary and shows population amnesia and manipulation by “our map – googl”!
    Googl has taken the search term, stripped it of history and meaning and usurped it for petty shopping by avoiding our cortex and going straight for our amygdala for profit. The map maker will lead us to “The Map” if we are not careful.

    After seducing us, engendering amnesia and usurping genocide for profit, googl results put you Venkatash at #2!, due I am sad to say, John Darrow’s mention of Tlönism. And a Scary Algorithm.

    1. › mami
    Mamigonian: Tlön, Turkey, and the Armenian Genocide
    by A War — In many references, Azerbaijanis are designated as a Turkic people, due to their Turkic language. However, modern-day Azerbaijanis are believed …

    2. › the-
    The Map – Ribbonfarm
    2 days ago — It was the most sublime map ever made; superbly detailed and wonderfully dynamic. They said a trillion-parameter model drove the real-time …
    3. › Literature
    Literature / Conciencia y Voluntad – TV Tropes
    Mind Screw: Tlönism, the main ideological justification for La Plata policies. Franco Rocafirme also is an embodiment of this. › books
    Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art
    Gene H. Bell-Villada — 2000 · Literary Criticism
    … Western culture under siege by barbarians, by raiders of libraries, by vandals under the spell of Nazism, Marxism, Freudism, Peronism, or Tlönism.

    So to continue into darkness Venkatash, all you havento di is search keywords of topic / plot, and googl will provide all the dark you need to wtite.

    The economic refs were a great if a little rare for most, and free lunch! A classic. As expounded and challenged by John Quiggin in his book: Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well, and Why They Can Fail So Badly, perhaps suggesting a subtitle for “The Map”


    JULY 11, 2015

    “Another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. To recap, the Two Lessons are

    “The acronymic adage TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). The saying was popularized, particularly in libertarian circles, by Milton Friedman’s book of that name and, a little earlier by by Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic, The Moon is A Harsh Mistress. The acronym is derived from a marketing ploy used in 19th century saloons, whereby a ‘free’ lunch was offered to customers, on the assumption that they would wash it down with beer or other drinks. Naturally, the cost of the lunch was incorporated in the price of the drinks.

    “A free lunch is ‘something for nothing’, that is a benefit obtained with no opportunity cost. The TANSTAAFL adage embodies an important truth applicable to many apparent ‘free lunches’, in which the true opportunity cost is carefully hidden.

    “If TANSTAAFL were literally true, however, humanity could never have risen above a subsistence level of existence. Every technological advance since people first learned how to make flint tools and control fire has provided a potential free lunch, literally and metaphorically, for humanity as a whole. The same is true of improvements in social and economic organization that have allowed larger and larger groups to co-operate in mutually beneficial ways”

    Can’t wait to see where The Map takes us. Thanks.

    • Jason K. says

      “If TANSTAAFL were literally true, however, humanity could never have risen above a subsistence level of existence. Every technological advance since people first learned how to make flint tools and control fire has provided a potential free lunch, literally and metaphorically, for humanity as a whole. The same is true of improvements in social and economic organization that have allowed larger and larger groups to co-operate in mutually beneficial ways”

      This is a massively incorrect interpretation. “Free” does not mean perceived gains greater than perceived losses. “Free” means “without cost”. None of those things were “free”. There was a cost, whether or not that cost was time, energy, or material is not relevant. The closest that can be gotten to saying otherwise is to claim unprocessed resources are “free” as you personally did not expend effort for the resources to exist. However, these still have a processing cost, a locating cost, and an opportunity cost as any resource has a finite level of utilization. TANSTAAFL, to the best of our current understanding is literally true. I mean “literally” as in physical law, i.e. the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics (or why you can’t have a perpetual motion machine).

      Anyone proffering otherwise better be ready to prove modern physics incorrect, lest they be thought as either a fool or a charlatan.

    • Technological advances DO not always benefit all of humanity, perhaps the truth is most have benefitted NONE of humanity but we are too blind and absorbed in short timeframes to realize this.

      How did the Industrial Revolution go for the indigenous peoples of the world? For the environment? For all of humanity in the next century!?

      You see, we still have not begun to experience the COST of a technological breakthrough that occurred 300 years ago, but we are starting to see the beginnings of the costs with climate and ecological collapse becoming an urgent threat.

      It is the actual meaning of Orwell’s “doublethink” to be both a technology futurist and deeply concerned about the environment for one must constantly put out of mind the singularly consistent effect that each new technological accomplishment has upon increasing the destruction of our planet.

  6. Brian McClendon says

    Loved this, hit close to home based on my mapping history. I just finished latest ACM magazine and “The Last Byte” would be a perfect location to publish this piece in print. IMHO.

    • Reminds me strongly of “Those who walk away from Omelas” only with a slightly different insinuation towards those who walk away.

  7. Venkat,

    A fitting choice to conclude this series as it is the strongest work of them.

    This one was through provoking enough that it took me some time and a couple reads to fully formulate what I wanted to say here. I enjoy there are many levels to this work, each one a bit more subtle, the last one so much so that I am not quite sure it was intentional as much as it is a truth about the author’s “blind spot” revealed in the very ideological space of the work itself; quite interesting and apropos!

    On the most superficial level, there is obviously the attempt to describe a ‘perfected’ technology – most of the body is spent describing its benefits and assuaging any worries of possible downsides – and the very real harm that even a ‘perfected’ and peacefully intended technology causes to those who are not reaping the benefits of it. As those neighboring territories sub-divide to speed assimilation, how much injustice is committed in the socio-political aspect of just how they divide their territory?

    While on the superficial, let me give a critique: the conflict you introduce at the end, “anti-mappers” and their efforts, is utterly cartoonish and pointless to the narrative. It seems like little else than a rudimentary “fiction writing guide” axiom that there must be an antagonist made worse by the implied ideological criticism by the author of those who oppose techno-futurism. They are also clearly a future version of a coastal tech industry trope of “Trump people” opposing progress with religious zeal.

    The reason I say this is entirely pointless is that the rest of the work itself has already set up a much better, more subtle and insidious and more relevant conflict with an abstract and implied antagonist. The fact that you also added the “anti-map” conflict at the end is what makes me question whether, as the writer, you realized the deeper conflict and problem you identify or if it was done by accident which makes it all the more interesting.

    The next level of the narrative, as I find it, one may ponder more deeply about the societies at the edge of the Territory (which I think would be the most interesting place to examine were this fictional world to be developed into a longer narrative) and what the experience of social upheaval must be for those within them as they seek to be assimilated. Further, the very concept of what drives that choice to be assimilated at the cost of destroying their established social networks and human economies to do so. You did not explore the sacrifices made and the value judgement to do so that is implicit to their efforts to join the Territory – this is where the narrative is, not in the greatness of the Map – the Map is just a ‘maguffin’ to the narrative. Just as you began to develops this concept with a few sentences, you seemingly abandoned it in favor of the cartoon villain and cliched duality play of “anti-map” groups. Perhaps due to wanting to wrap up, but in a way it seems disrespectful of the audience as the sublime is abandoned to give them a low-brow and simplistic conflict.

    The final level to it, which I think is not fully intentional, there is the conflict in the question of technological progress itself and the antagonist here is a theoretically benign and perfected technology itself and how such a system, were it to exist, is inexorably bound to destroy what we consider ‘human-ness’…

    Here, we must visit another conflict mentioned in passing, the climate catastrophe, clearly the possibility exists in this narrative space that the Map may one day stop functioning, and that implicitly leads to the question of whether the Territory can survive without the Map – is the society overly dependent on their technology? – but that is still a simple question.

    The larger question is that in creating and using this perfect technology, what sacrifices are made? Can there be such a technology with ‘downside’? I appreciate your referencing your old work about ‘legibility’ and addressing that potential fault with the passage that the Map adds just the right amount of inconvenience (I am a loooong time reader of yours). But the issue is greater than that, if a technology HAS no downside, is never so inconvenient that one decides not to use it all the time, whatever it does replaces whatever people are able to do instead, and it destroys the ability to progress in other directions than those within the paradigm of that technological solution. A simplistic example would be car GPS – part of the time that we drive, we may decide that the effort required to pull up GPS and enter destinations for a day of errands is more inconvenient than simply driving to several places we know how to get to, even if GPS might optimize the route. We might decide to take a different road to avoid a traffic jam that we suspect may go the way we want to but have never taken and are not certain if it will… we innovate. If a technology were entirely perfect, and optimized for all uses without downside or limitations, that even provides an artificial experience of ‘randomness’ to satisfy our desire for exploration – taking that unknown road, who knows what you might find? – then people will never choose not to use it.

    If such a technology is all-encompassing on a society wide level… you describe the absolute eradication of that society’s ability to innovate! This is the effective death of that society utterly, and what continues is little more than a hermetically sealed and preserved corpse of that entire society, a billion fleas on Lenin’s body until entropy prevails.

    So, the deepest level I see to the story is that of Icarus, of hubris and envy, that of all the other, diverse nations outside the territory foolishly willing to rip their own civilizations into shreds, to sever the arteries of their social and cultural systems, and abdicate any unique innovations that may have been but required their particular cultural perspective to create in order to join the embalmed yet somniferous stasis of those within the Territory in waiting for the eventual entropic death of everything.

    For the Territory is the USA but also Western society and pop-culture but also the Soviet Union but also Singapore and Hong Kong and the utopian dreams of Silicon Valley.

    But ultimately the Territory is the Island of the Lotus Eaters.

    I wonder if you saw this part of it.

    • A note: “maguffin” is a term for a device that is integral to the plot of a narrative but is in itself entirely pointless.

      In this narrative, despite the words spent describing its perfection, the Map is a maguffin, most of the body of the work could be simplified to: “The Map exists as a system, it is perfect in every way that a system could be perfected to benefit and please the people of this Territory.”

      Further, by embracing this maguffin and turning all aspects of their agency over to it, keeping only hedonism for themselves, the people of the Territory themselves become “maguffins” themselves. Their existence is simply: “The people of the territory are happy and have all their needs met.”

      We are left only with two characters (beyond the narratives we imagine) those who want to join the “maguffin” and those who want to destroy it.

      The map is the antagonist and the anti-map is the foil, and this story is about the bad guy winning.

      An irony of dystopian science fiction is that seemingly all writers fall into the same trap: imagining that they need some foil or flaw for their techno-utopian societies in order to create drama and darkness; to make it dystopian. This is untrue, which is what I like about this work (despite the addition of a foil).

      The most utterly horrifying vision of a techno-utopian future one could possibly describe is one where everything works exactly as the utopians wish it to work – no flaws or downsides. Imagine the same world described here, but where the Map is able to integrate the entire world into the territory and its algorithms completely solve all climate and ecological issues and creates surplus and abundance for everyone…

      Horrifying on a psychological level when one contemplates life in that world exactly because many will not understand that horror in the abstract without experiencing it, and still wish for such a world.