What is alignment?

The usefulness of a social object lies in its ability to maintain alignment with reality enough to be functional.

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

Alfred Korzybski, ‘Science and Sanity’ (1933)

Consider a GPS navigation program. The physical road you are on and the digital program guiding you are separate. When the accuracy is aligned for a sustained period of time, the real and the representation appear synched—the GPS program is the road and vice versa; or more accurately, the difference between them doesn’t matter. The representation guides you through reality, and that is all we need. Maintaining this alignment requires constant labor, updates, and coordination in order to keep the representation aligned enough to accomplish this. 

No representation is fully aligned with reality, just aligned enough to be useful. Within the tolerance of “enough,” inaccuracies and insufficiencies abound. But if we still make our way it is accurate enough to function. If the program leaves you lost with little or no guidance, the representation is now misaligned with reality (enough) that it is beyond function and no longer useful. 

Now substitute GPS with “the Internet”—a referent that signifies both something very real (cables, code, equipment, laws, labor, coordination, etc.) and a representation of something very real (the idea of ‘the Internet’ or what we believe it to be). How much of “the real” needs to be included in the representation to collectively guide us through reality with enough accuracy to be useful? What is the correct alignment between reality and belief of reality? How much misalignment can we tolerate and still function?

In the construction, maintenance and circulation of social objects, multiple tensions are required to maintain an alignment with reality that is useful enough without becoming useless. While these categories are not always independent of one another, we propose the following spectrums:

How much reality to keep in a representation?

Which parts of reality?

  • Complexity (too complex to be understood vs. too simple to be accurate);
  • Compression (too much information to navigate vs. too little to be effective);
  • Cognition (distinct enough for recognition vs. too disconnected to be representative).

Consider an icon on a desktop computer. If what you saw was not a distinct graphic but the entanglement of hundreds of lines of code behind it and the compiler process to interpret and access that code, it would be useless (to almost all of us). Your screen of data would be too complex to be understood, contain too much information for you to communicate with your machine or others and would offer no boundary to discern where one set of data ‘ends’ and another begins. The icon offers an abstraction to simplify the process while still accurately connecting you to the information, compressing it so you can navigate and providing a method to recognize it as sets distinct from others.

The icon is useful insofar as the simplified representation aligns with what it claims to be.