Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Lamenting the demise of mental maps

Published on 11 October 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

George Orwell, [1]

A friend of mine and an artist just created a multi-page insert for publication in a review. Their concept envisioned text and drawings facing each other on opposite pages. Therefore, the text was to appear on even (left-hand) pages and illustrations on uneven (right-hand) pages. They delivered the whole work. PDF format: the copier only had to insert it in the printing file. Murphy’s Law is blind and pitiless: the review carried the insert – beginning with an uneven page. The mirror effect was lost.

What had happened? While the specifics may be complicated, the core issue is evident to me. The copier was following task-related instructions. The proper sequencing of the piece within the issue was ‘someone else’s job’. Putting it another way, he was following nudges (cut–paste). He had never developed the mental map of the finished product, nor had anyone encouraged him to do so. He was bereft of a sense of context and unable to use ‘common sense.’ The result was a crying shame.

Popular lore defines ‘common sense’ as ‘prejudices one has acquired before coming of age.’ The quip tickles the funny bone, but it is wrong. ‘Common sense’ is the satisfying outcome of solving a specific kind of problem: matching a heuristic (or a known rule) to a new context. It is a (lesser) form of creativity – not spectacular as in the case of an invention. The seed is there, however: is a ‘joining of what had never been joined before.’[2]

Increasingly, I notice this disconnect between proposed or applied solutions and context. There is nothing just with the proposal: it is simply inappropriate to the context. The disconnect is often glaring, yet it is not perceived. It is as if the context did not exist, instead of being in front of one’s nose. Why this?

As a group, hunter-gatherers confronted an immensely complicated context with exceedingly few tools. They needed to understand the context fully in order to have a chance of catching their prey or surviving a famine. They carefully observed the least details of the context and constructed complex choice architectures – mental maps of what to do under what circumstances. So did agriculturalists and nomads. They were all consummate ‘problem solvers’ – their life depended on it. That is how hunter-gatherers out of Africa became Inuit. Problem-solving is ‘niche construction’ (see my 258) and is a creative act. Problem-solving should not be confused with solving puzzles. In puzzles, the creator absconds the solution awaiting discovery. After all, there is only one solution to the fiendish Sudoku, and tomorrow’s paper will carry it.

Let’s go back to human history. Division of labour shattered the workers’ ability to construct personal mental maps of their workspace. The map-constructing function has been externalized – ‘the boss knows best.’ Workers toil as before, but in their work, they no longer ‘solve problems.’[3]

We also build mental maps of personal preferences when we go shopping. However, as consumers, we are no longer in charge. Advertising frames the search. In their stores, retailers build suggestive choice architectures – they guide us subliminally to specific products. Here, as well, personal mental maps have been externalized. We let ourselves be nudged rather than using discernment in our purchases.

The state, as well as a large provider of services, is entering the game. Prof. SUNSTEIN[4] proposes benevolent paternalism in the form of ‘nudges’ to facilitate access to state services. Once more, external choice architectures are replacing individual mental map construction and problem-solving.

After production and consumption, social intercourse and recreation are increasingly based on external rather than autonomous choice architectures. Facebook criteria for ‘friendship’ replace personal exploration and validation of the personal encounter. As children swap video games for living things, manual dexterity replaces the ludic development of goal-setting and problem-solving. Androids are the rage: their behaviour may be puzzling at first, but it never requires problem-solving.

The cumulative effect of imposing/offering external choice architectures and down-grading problem-solving to solving puzzles is two-fold. First and most immediately, there is the fading of the personal ability to construct mental maps, goal-setting, and solve unexpected problems. Dexterity replaces inventiveness. Looking for pre-programmed cues (solving puzzles) replaces reading, understanding, and manipulating reality. The ‘efficiency’ heuristic replaces personal goal setting. As ‘problem-solving’ ability fades, so does cultural diversity, curiosity, and creativity.

We bemoan the loss of biodiversity but seem to take the loss of cultural micro-diversity in stride. When expert ‘best practice’ replaces personal experience, mental map building and problem-solving become elitist, as we downgrade the ‘wisdom of crowds.’ In evolutionary terms, we are narrowing mankind’s overall ability for ‘niche construction’, which is one of the many foundations of evolutionary change (or survival).

I see the loss of ‘political sense’ or ‘sense for the social whole’ as a second (and, in my opinion, even more immediate and ominous) issue. Philip KITCHER speaks of humanity’s need for a common ‘ethical project’; anthropologists speak of ‘self-domestication of the human species.’ This goal cannot be achieved simply by triangulation of opposing self-interests – if nothing else because of the constant coalition building, which interferes with individual self-affirmation. In biological and cultural systems, triangulation need not yield social stability. It is a zero-sum game leading to stasis. Alternatively, it easily leads to discontinuities as circumstances change. More deeply, triangulation is static, while ‘problem-solving’ is an emergent feature. Emergent features arise from cooperation, not conflict. They are based on discernment.

Discernment is understanding the other’s needs, mutuality and respect. Discernment builds mental maps of the social space. Discernment is the ground on which social stability and resilience rest.

For all the laudable suggestions Prof. SUNSTEIN presents, one remains uneasy about their collateral effects. Nudging fosters reflexive rather than reflective behaviour. At the same time as the government nudges us, we may need to consider proactive ways of fostering the survival (i.e. social) skills of mental map construction, goal setting, and discernment. I may put it another way: downgrading personal ability to solve problems to that of solving puzzles is hardly wise. Sudoku may be entertaining, but it does not help us come to grips with life’s unexpected changes.

Link to the original post

[1] The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950, Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Editors / Paperback / Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, p. 125.

[2] See Arthur KOESTLER (1966): The act of creation.

[3] This is not always the case. At Toyota, ‘organizational problem solving’ is the cusp of the Toyota 4P system. See Jeffrey K. LIKER (2004): The Toyota way. Fourteen management principles from the world’s greatest manufacturer. McGraw Hill, New York.

[4] Cass R. SUNSTEIN (2013): Simpler. The future of government. Simon & Schuster, New York.

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