Cartographic Compression

Cartography is the practice of making maps. In the narrowest sense, a map is a symbolic depiction of geographic, spatial information, inscribed onto a two-dimensional surface. In a broader sense, a map is an abstract representation of information about any domain, spatial or otherwise – “abstract” in the sense that certain features or kinds of information are highlighted to the exclusion of others. But not every abstract representation is a map. Maps have axes, usually at least two; they elucidate relationships between features of the domain; and they are useful for orienting, navigating, or engaging in goal-directed behavior within that domain.

Maps that are inscribed on some kind of surface – paper, clay, rock, or an electronic screen – are useful for sharing, pointing at, and comparing with the domain. But the cognitive capacity for map-style thinking likely precedes cartographic inscription. Intimate familiarity with the domain, viewed through the special attention-directing lens of language, is enough to generate mental maps in different minds that are verifiably highly similar. [Read more…]


Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.

As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

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Cooperative Ignorance

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

“Ironically, once ignorance is defined, it loses its very definition.”
—Linsey McGoey, “The Logic of Strategic Ignorance

In game theory, rational parties try to maximize their expected payoff, assuming that the other parties are rational, too. Rationality can be a handicap, though: a rational party is limited in the threats it can make compared to an irrational party, because a rational party can’t credibly threaten to harm its own interests. An irrational party may be harder to cooperate with and less likely to be chosen as a cooperation partner, but in certain situations, it has more powerful strategies open to it than a party limited by rational maximization of expected value. An irrational party is not to be messed with, and can often demand concessions that would not be given to a rational party. Evolutionary psychologists, for instance, posit that altruistic punishment is an adaptation that fits in this slot – giving people sufficient irrational motivation to harm their own interests for the sake of promoting fairness norms. Rationality is good, but a little strategic irrationality is better – especially in the service of promoting cooperation. [Read more…]

Puzzle Theory

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Let me set the mood by revealing that the starting point for this investigation was the movie Room 237, a “fan theory” documentary about people contemplating Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining. A fan theory is an interpretation of an item of art, usually fiction of some kind, that is surprising, bizarre, novel, or disturbing, and puts the item of art in a new perspective. TVTropes calls the phenomenon “fridge brilliance” (that is, theories that you fumble toward after the show is over, when you’re camped in front of the fridge swigging from the milk jug). Movies, television, and books are the usual stuff discussed in the mode of fan theory; the phenomenon also manifests in discussions of the meanings of song lyrics.

In Room 237, theories about The Shining range from the plausible to the bizarre. We are presented with evidence for a subtext of the holocaust, and for a related subtext of the genocide of the American Indians. Individual frames are scrutinized for references to minotaurs and labyrinths. The case is made that Kubrick cunningly alludes to faking the documentary footage of the Apollo moon landings (while the fan theorist explicitly says his theory has no bearing on whether the famed moon landings are factual and happened, he proposes that the iconic Apollo video footage is fake).

One has the sensation of creeping into a labyrinth of enormous size and complexity. The movie is pleasantly chilling, but also profoundly satisfying, hinting at promised gifts, unexplored creation, a frontier. [Read more…]

Weaponized Sacredness

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Author’s note: The thinking that gave rise to this essay was committed in collaboration with St. Rev. Errors, suspicious implications, and dubious conclusions are my own.

On March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, just north of Los Angeles, California, failed catastrophically and sent a wave of water through the valley that caused the gruesome deaths of hundreds of people. No one had predicted the disaster, but after an investigation, it was decided that the dam was built on inadequate soil; the disaster was, in theory, predictable – after the fact. People thought they had control over a massive force (the water), but their control turned out to be illusory.

Considering political and social disasters like the famines of the Great Leap Forward in China or the French Revolution, a similar explanation for the resulting piles of bodies seems apt: social forces over which humans thought they had control (in the sense of being able to coordinate with each other for well-being and sustenance) turned out not to be under their control. No one ever sees it coming, but after the fact everyone is anxious to demonstrate how inevitable it was. If mass violence and destruction seem impossible in our time, consider that everyone who was about to experience revolution felt pretty much the same way. Even the revolutionaries themselves often think they have little chance of success until the revolution is already underway.
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The Essence of Peopling

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Nouns for human beings – “people” or “person” – conjure in the mind a snapshot of the surface appearance of humans. Using nouns like “people” subtly encourages thinking about people as frozen in time, doing nothing in particular. “People” is an anchor for thinking about human bodies separate from their environment, from the buildings and streets and farms and parks that they build and use to go about their business.

I prefer to think about “peopling” – the process of human beings going about their business, whatever that is. I take this usage from the 1971 movie Bedknobs & Broomsticks, in which the main characters visit a magical animal kingdom, where a sign warns them away:


Much of the modern built environment seems to bear this message as well, presenting a hostile face to ordinary human activity, and preventing all but an impoverished subset of peopling from occurring at all.
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Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

This essay attempts to place ritual in the context of evolving complex systems, and to offer an explanation for why everything is so ugly and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.

On Boundaries and Their Permeability

Boundaries are an inherent, universal feature of complex systems. Boundaries arise at all scales, defining the entities that they surround and protecting them from some kinds of outside intrusion. To be functional, boundaries must be permeable, allowing the entities to take energy and information from outside themselves. If we are looking at complex systems, we will find boundaries everywhere.

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What Is Ritual?

Sarah Perry  is a resident blogger visiting us from her home turf at The View from Hell.

If we should inquire for the essence of “government,” for example, one man might tell us it was authority, another submission, another police, another an army, another an assembly, another a system of laws; yet all the while it would be true that no concrete government can exist without all these things, one of which is more important at one moment and others at another. The man who knows governments most completely is he who troubles himself least about a definition which shall give their essence. Enjoying an intimate acquaintance with all their particularities in turn, he would naturally regard an abstract conception in which these were unified as a thing more misleading than enlightening. And why may not religion be a conception equally complex?

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture II

Khlyist ecstatic ritual

What is ritual? The religious studies scholar Ronald R. Grimes presents six pages of short definitions of ritual as an appendix to his The Craft of Ritual Studies; they make for fun reading, but also suggest a hopeless confusion surrounding a tempting and fascinating topic. William James, in his 500-page Varieties of Religious Experience, provides for us, instead of a single essence of religion, what he calls an “apperceiving mass” – plentiful examples through which the nuances of the matter will gradually reveal themselves. Since a blog post is hardly the place for such an “apperceiving mass,” I will attempt instead to define ritual within a tidy framework, keeping in mind that any such reduction will necessarily miss some of the important aspects of a major human domain. Nonetheless, I do think my simple model provides insight into the nature of ritual, and helps us to make sense of the seemingly irrational behaviors of other cultures, as well as the ways in which modern Western culture is itself a strange, ritual order.

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Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture

Sarah Perry is a resident blogger visiting us from her home turf at The View from Hell.

A selective sweep occurs when a new, beneficial gene mutation appears and quickly sweeps across a population, erasing the genetic diversity that existed prior to the sweep. Similarly, languages have “swept” across continents as the cultures they belonged to gained unbeatable advantages (often agricultural or military), resulting in losses of language diversity from earliest human history to the present day. Today, half the population of the world speaks one of only thirteen languages.

These are not controversial claims. More controversial is the idea that human prehistory (and even history) hosted a wide variety of human consciousness, not just language, and that these disparate kinds of subjective consciousness were destroyed upon contact with new forms of consciousness. Most dramatically, Julian Jaynes famously argued (in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) that human consciousness changed drastically in the past few thousand years, from an archaic bicameral form in which one side of the brain shouted orders and the other obeyed, to a modern, introspective form. My claim is not so extreme: I simply argue that there are and have been many forms of human consciousness, varying in particular ways, that we retain the “hardware” capability for many forms of consciousness, and that humans are constrained into particular mental states by their cultures, especially through group ritual (or lack thereof). In order to explore this claim, it is helpful to think about our own form of consciousness in detail – a form of consciousness that is novel, contagious, and perhaps detrimental to human flourishing compared with more evolutionarily tested forms of consciousness running on the same hardware.

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