Alice in Wonderland once inside the rabbit hole found all of the ways she’d
understood the world were of little use. Her experience forced her to draw a new
map of reality.
The motif of making maps, sketches, and models of reality is a common theme
in literature. The problem is our lack of humility in admitting these maps are
often inaccurate and unreliable guide to our journey through reality. We believe
these representations are certain and true rather than temporary and provincial
pools that reflect how perceptions are processed. Teachers explain scientific
and cultural concepts by drawing mental maps. We rarely question the map we
learned in school.
The result is adults retain their childhood maps of reality. In Graham
Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a local expat Englishmen named Wormold is
recruited by MI6 to become a spy in Cuba. He needs the income from this side job
in espionage to satisfy a high-maintenance daughter. The problem is he knows
nothing about intelligence gathering. His mental construct is seriously flawed
when it comes to actual espionage. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, makes up
a world of operatives and dangerous devices. MI6 accepts Wormold’s construct
including an imaginary network of local agents and sketches the mechanism of the
inside of a vacuum cleaner. He submits it to MI6 as an advance weapon system
hidden in the mountains outside Havana.
The problem is our mental modeling is no better than MI6’s acceptance of
Wormold’s vacuum cleaner sketch as evidence of Cubans building an atomic bomb.
Here’s the problem that Greene was pointing out. Our mental model of
intelligence agencies is they have the access to data and information, and as
professionals can access, assess, and act upon this trove to create a mental
model that aligns with reality. In the world of espionage all is lost if the
gathering of that information is able to substitute a plausible sketch for a
device. In the Cold War, MI6 and the Americans wanted to find such evidence, and
if you wish to find something, sooner or later, someone will provide evidence
that satisfies you. Does weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a justification
for war ring a bell?
The other great lesson from Our Man in Havana is, after Wormold
confesses his deception at MI6, his bosses decide to bring him in as a teacher
and to recommend him for an OBE. So far Americans don’t award OBEs for this kind
of thing, though, if they could, no doubt those pushing the WMD line as a
justification for going to war would have received a gong.
Turning a blind eye to information that requires you to update or jettison a
mental construct is hard. It is dangerous. It leads to shouting, fights,
vilification, hatred, invasions, and murder. The satire of Wormold’s deceptive
behavior, putting one over on the professional institution, is seriously fun to
read. As often is the case, behind the satire is some seriously important
business that is never finished.
It is a wonderful glimpse into the world of mental modeling. Do you have an
image of what the inside of a nuclear device looks like? Or a dishwasher, an
iPhone, or the names of countries on a blank map of Europe or the United States?
These are tangible things. You can search and find information that would give
you a model of the reality of these things. Most of the time we don’t look
things up. We assume our mental models are right, and they are truthful, useful
and valuable guides when it comes to forming opinions, making decisions, or
examining our beliefs.
I am uncertain why no news organization gave blank maps of the United States
and Europe to groups of Democrats and Republicans and released their findings.
Now that might have changed the election outcome.
When asked to fill in a blank map of Europe, an American with an advanced
degree handed in this paper.
It is more revealing when students are asked to draw the United States and
the individual States on a blank sheet of paper.
British students as well as American students when asked to fill in a blank
of the United States showed a similar level of error. Here’s an example.
We look at these maps and have a laugh. “How stupid,” we smugly tell
ourselves. The reality is most of our mental maps of reality aren’t much better.
We carry around a map of the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia, thinking
it describes the reality of these locations. When put to the test our mental map
and reality don’t necessarily align. The people at the top of the policy making
chain may have gaps, errors, omissions and other follies on their map of a
geographic area, the internal workings of an agency or institution, or chain of
command inside a corporation or law firm.
What is your map for how a Hollywood film is made? You’ve seen many films.
Just like you’ve eaten many sausages. Try mapping the process of financing,
casting, shooting, post-production, and distribution of a film. Go through the
same process to describe how a sausage is made. It’s hard unless you have
personal experience or have studied these enterprises. We have a vague idea and
based on that sketchy bit of information decisions are made, opinions formed,
wars fought, and honors conferred.
A current theory in psychology is the brain stores models and our
observations are tailored to confirm existing mental models. These models bias
what we notice and pay attention to. The ordinary objects and events blend into
background model. That’s why when you walk down a street, you ‘see’ a dog, a
car, a pizza box, dozens of people, these objects and events are good enough to
satisfy the brains model. The downside is we don’t look at the precise details
of specific object. If the dog is singing “Hallelujah” that would likely
conflict with the model most people have in their head. They’d notice a
different kind of dog than the one that is a background model of a generic dog.
Most days are spent processing the equivalence of a “generic dog.” If we run
across a singing dog our memory modifies the dog model so after a couple of
times, we don’t notice a singing dog as an object worth further inspection.
It’s as if we wore a built-in biological VR set of goggles programmed with a
generic dog mental model for government, Russia, Trump, Syria, the British
Empire, World War II, our galaxy, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, black people,
queer people, farmers, the elites, to name a few examples. As Wormold
demonstrated, our mental model of the mechanism of a vacuum cleaner is generic,
inaccurate, flawed, with details filled in not with engineer information. Our
perception of the world is often a poor translation of reality.
We are prone to cognitive biases, lack of attention, fitful concentration,
lack of training, knowledge and expertise, as well as stress, emotions and sleep
deficit. All of these factors act as filters to our perception of reality.
These filtering mental states influence the cognitive tools used to
measure objects and events in their spatial relationship with us, each other.
Also, we automatically apply our sense of timelines, which we use to create our
sense of causation: What happened first, what happened next, and how the two
points in time are connected.
We have a personal sensitivity to defend. We have, in other words, a horse in
the race when it comes to intelligence, perception, judgment, and
responsibility. There is a debate about the role of humans in the new generation
of self-driving cars. At issue is whether safety of the car requires the option
of support of a human driver. The so-called Level 3 development would leave a
space for human beings in the self-driving car. The developers and engineers
want to leave the human driver out of the driving picture. Forget about Level 3
and go straight to Level 4 and 5, fully automated self-driving vehicles. And
what is the main argument driving this development? If one looks at the data
rationally human beings aren’t reliable or dependable behind the wheel of a car.
Agreeing to forgo the status, reputation, and sense of agency that is embedded
in car ownership is going to be a tough sell. It doesn’t matter that logically,
rationally a fully automated car is more efficient, safer, and faster than one
with a human involved wouldn’t get anyone elected to public office.
In fact, given the cognitive issues discussed earlier, humans are flawed,
dangerous, error prone, and emotional. Not to mention the co-ordination problem
of switching between an automated but intelligent, narrow-AI system to a human
being, which would be measured in seconds. We are too cognitively slow,
biased and inattentive to be brought into a life-and-death road situation as sit
back in the car, and are pulled out of our Kindle, podcast, Netflix drama or
Facebook page, and are asked to make a split second call. Logically this should
be a natural progression of our technology. But as David Hume wrote we are
emotional creatures driven by our passions, and there are no automated,
self-driving emotional packages on the market. Yet.
The experts are signaling it is time human beings stepped aside from the
fantasy they add value as human emergency system. We must adapt to a new mental
model of the relationship between a car and a human being. That will take some
time and may take a generation before it is firmly acknowledged that the mental
model of a car is quite different from our accepted consensus as of 2017. We
have a history of our mental models being demolished. As much of the political,
social, and economic institutions we have modeled become unstable as the new way
of seeing the world changes.
Copernicus and Galileo with mathematics and observation were able to
overthrow the thousands of year old model of the earth as the centre of the
universe. Darwin came along and overthrew the model of mankind as some divinely
created being with a soul. The theory of evolution demonstrated that our
species, like every other animal on the planet, had through sheer blind chance
arose to occupy an ecological niche. Copernicus and Darwin are often cited as
the great wreckers of existing mental models of reality and our place in it.
Those models are the bedrock of religion, politics, and culture. In each case,
it was scientific inquiry, observation, experiments, and new measuring tools
like the telescope and microscope that destroyed the old beliefs organized into
a mental model of reality.
At the same time, we can confirm that a substantial part of the human
population will stick with mental models of reality that are pre-Copernicus and
pre-Darwin. Religion is often where they take refuge. As science shows every
indication of a trend to remove human beings from command and control of cars,
trucks, trains, factories, drones, weapon systems, health and education, the
more stress will build as we seek to retain our mental models of our place in
the universe, in our country, workplace, family, and society.
If you are educated, intelligent, well read, you might be tempted to think
you rise above a superstitious factory worker. We’ve seen the difficulty people
have in filling blank maps of America and Europe. When it comes to specific
questions about their country they demonstrate a similar disconnect with
The Financial Times 1st January 2017 edition ran an article titled: “How well
do you know your country?” They compared actual value, what a FT reader thought,
and what general public thought about certain issues. What, for example, is the
mental model of the Muslim population level in your country? In the United
States, the actual number of Muslims is about 2%. The general public thought
Muslims were 17% of the population, and FT readers thought it was about 5%.
When asked what percent of total household wealth do you think the least 70%
wealthy own in the United States, the FT reader thought 15% and the general
public thought 27%, when the actual answer was 7%. We are making all kinds of
decisions every day as workers, officials, policy-makers, and teachers that are
based on mental models disconnected with reality.
In 2017 we are beginning to understand how the brain models reality and the
limitations that come from these imperfect mental maps. The basic idea is that
our sensory perception evolved in a quite different ecology and demanded a
certain range of accuracy in forming mental models of reality. It didn’t much
matter if it was objectively wrong so long as it was useful in staying alive
long enough to reproduce. That’s all evolution requires. If non-aligning with
reality kills you before you reproduce, your gene pool ends. From the history of
mankind there is evidence that alignment with reality is a by-product of
science. That is a recent development, one that hasn’t been fully assimilated.
There hasn’t been enough time. Like star formation, mental model formation takes
place over large expanses of time. Meanwhile, we believe that our personal model
of reality is aligned accurately with the much larger reality outside our
sensory system. But it seems that is not the case.
There are many
examples of illusions that demonstrate the fallibility of our
perception and reason. But don’t go down that rabbit hole just now. Stay with
me. Once you accept that we have cognitive and perceptional limitations, you can
start to focus on understanding where those boundaries meet and how they can and
have been exploited, and by whom.
The squares “A” and “B” share the identical background color. If you import
the image into photoshop and compare the squares, you discover each has the same
hex color value #787878. What you see is not necessarily a reflection of the
Given this history, shouldn’t we be searching to understand the mental models
of those standing for election to public office? There is no penalty paid for
appealing to the flawed models of the electorate, who have sketchy maps of
reality dotted with highways constructed from gossips, propaganda,
misinformation, half-truths, and prejudices. What we aren’t taught and are left
to find on our own that this infrastructure of inputs is what feeds
beliefs—religious and ideological. The same polluted waters are what we draw on
to form our sense of identity and self. It is rabbit hole debris pulled to the
surface and projected as reality.
It is rare for someone running for public office to ask the voters to
readjust their mental map and point out the flaws in the current cartoon like
models on policing, guns, healthcare, trade, and automation. If you want to get
elected, it is safer to pitch your program as if it were the generic dog with
high emotional appeal. How does your brain come up its maps? The graphic below
shows the input pipes that fill our heads. One can ague whether journalism is
all that stands between us and being drown in a surge of illusions washing over
None of these ideas have likely gone unnoticed by the vast intelligence and
surveillance communities. Their job is to model reality, and to alter existing
models to sustain their power, resources, and network of interest. I have a
mental model of a war room with banks of computer connected to millions of other
computers, and data mining programs trying to find patterns in big data.
Inside the Russian conference room deep in the Kremlin, the best
neuroscientists, psychologists, historians, sociologists, game theorists
gathered to discuss Donald Trump’s mental modeling of reality. Once you
understand another person’s map, you can judge how reliable it is in reality,
and how some of those trails may lead in directions that are in your national
Let’s consider the political implications of all these badly made maps. When
electing a president shouldn’t we be curious as to how he or she maps reality?
There has been a lot of discussion of Trump’s mental maps, and many of those
discussions suggests his map-making draws from the pipelines in the graphic of
the dam above. To be fair, all of us have faulty maps but cling to them as if
they were precise, certain and doubt free. Our adversaries and enemies seek to
discover those flaws in mental models and take advantage of them. Much of what
passes for intelligence work is of this nature.
Remember the film Being John Malkovich (1999) when Craig played by
John Cusack enters a small door behind a filing cabinet and discovers he’s
inside Malkovich’s head and can control his action. By playing with the internal
maps used by Malkovich he can make him paranoid. Let’s substitute Trump for
Malkovich and Putin for Trump. We go inside Trump’s head. Let’s call this movie:
Being Donald Trump (2017), in pre-production.
Putin is inside Trump’s skull, looking around, opening doors, flipping memory
switches, turning lights off and on, checking out the casting couch room. He
could get distracted. If he doesn’t, his next step is to update Trump’s mental
models in ways that don’t seem disruptive. Computers will run complex mental
models examining the probability of outcomes, and the likelihood those outcomes
will produce certain results. Like self-driving cars, we are inside a
programmer’s world. She writes an algorithm to mimic the reactions to various
scenarios such as assistance to allies, trade and finance priorities, and
calculate the outcomes predicted by the model. Tweak the scenarios and update.
Make updates ones that appeal to Trump’s vanity and need for approval. Also
inside Trump’s head, one can better understand why the Donald is so easily
distracted. That’s a big advantage to wish for in an enemy. He can’t stay on
point. One minute he’s playing golf, the next tweeting about a piece of
anti-Trump gossip, cutting deals, figuring out the size of bets to make. Like
the self-driving car, Trump may be an experiment that proves the dangers of
human being behind the wheel of complex decision-making.
Trump is another capitalist product. He’s only incidentally a person. He’s a
packaged commodity that enough consumers bought because like a shopping bag of
Twinkie’s, and you shove down the whole bag. Billions are spent on marketing
every year. This isn’t brain science; people make a large amount of money to
spin others in buying their stuff. All you need is a rather simple modeling of a
mind possessed by Trump. That is one of things AI will do well: mind-model of
primates (will be a subject in less than 200 years). Once you can predict how
that program of modeling works, you can figure probability of outcomes, coupling
them with various enticements, messages, insults, adorations, etc. and see how
that improves or lessens the probability of a particular outcome. We already
have enough expertise to evolve this technology. For a relatively simple mind
like Trump, the first country that de-codes him has won a valuable key to open
the resources of the USA for their own benefit. Whether Being Donald
Trump is a comedy or tragedy is a closely guarded secret. One thing for
sure, it is a movie that will have a worldwide audience.
I think we are at the point of computer hardware/software with skill equal to
aligning the tiles on a Rubric Cube. Once the pros are able to run this modeling
with a large database set for continuous updates, you start to see what is
likely, what is possible, and what won’t work. Figuring that out, gives you a
huge edge. I’d bet the Chinese, Russians, Germans, and others are assembling IT
and medical science personnel to create better predictive programs.
The message of the Enlightenment is: Human beings are equipped with the
generic dog level of perception. The networked complexity of all systems from
hydro, to driving, policing, judging, maintenance, and resource allocation, will
be in the not too distant future in intelligence entities that human being will
be incapable of comprehending. It will be like magic tricks for children. We may
want to know how it was done. Or more likely, we will be in a virtual reality
chasing after a generic dog while watching our own ideologically tailored
version of Being Donald Trump. Remember we are walking around on a
planet where many people have a map without any nation states but a generalized
impression as their mental model inside their head.
This weekend printout the map of Asia below and ask a friend, colleague or
loved one to fill in the names of the countries. Of course, you will know all
the right answers in advance. That will give you a huge, beautiful advantage and
make you appear very smart. But we know that map making is an illusion, a trap
we can never escape. Being Donald Trump or Being John Malkovich
is a variation on our own internal movie of Being Me.