In this one-paragraph short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Exactitude of Science” (1946), the fictional Suárez Miranda recounts the rise and fall of an imperial project to make a map the same size as the territory it describes. As soon as the awkwardly scaled artifact is complete, however, its prospective users recognize its absurd inadequacy and abandon it to be absorbed back into the ground it was intended to figure.
Borges’s image of these threadbare vestiges—the reference to which became something of a postmodern proverb in the second half of the twentieth century—stands as a warning against confusing a thing with its representation. The results are more than impractical; they are dangerously fantastical. It is a fantasy to think we can stand apart from reality and grasp it with the proper, total prosthetic. There is no ontological outside from which our vantage is secure and sacrosanct. Nevertheless, there is today a renewed attempt to conflate the map and the territory. From the NSA’s deliberate stockpiling of data and Google’s relentless collection of incidental personal archives like old emails, Facebook posts, and website cookies, “Big Data” is information amassed to the point of incalculability. Not quite map and not quite territory, these archives are as vast and unwieldy as the phenomena they seek to chart and define.