The Social Cartographer's Tale
The little prince arrived at asteroid F-539, where he found a man with thick reading glasses and a long beard. He was busy examining a long folding map, sitting in an old-fashioned desk with a large yellowing map behind him and various scrolls on his side.
“Who are you?” the little prince asked.
“I am a social cartographer”, the man replied, without taking his attention from the map he was studying.
“What is a social cartographer?” the little prince inquired.
The old man briefly looked at the little prince over his glasses as he answered:
"We research a place and draw a map of it like any other mapmaker, but instead of mapping mountains, rivers and oceans, we map discursive relationships between various epistemic communities”, he replied.
“I don’t know what that means”, the little prince said.
But the old man didn’t say anything in return, absorbed as he was by his work.
“What are you working on now?”
“I am doing the social topography of a planet known as Art.”
“Tell me more about it”, begged the little prince. “If you do, I promise I will go away and leave you to your work”.
The old man removed his glasses and took a deep breath.
“Planet Art has two main territories. One is called Network 1, or N1, and the other Network 2, or N2.”
“N2 is very vast, comprising hundreds of thousands of people. N1 in contrast is much smaller, being comprised of less than 5 thousand inhabitants. N1 is the elite, with people at the top of their professions— artists, curators, collectors, funders. N2 is everyone else who is, indirectly or directly, aspiring to be in N1, or were there at some point and were returned to N2, or were in N1 and now they have been banished to N2 forever. N1 is older, conservative, and N2 skews younger, more idealistic.”
“Are they happy places?” asked the Little Prince.
“Neither of them is”, said the cartographer. “N2 believes N1 is the cause of its unhappiness, and N1 is in denial, every day circulating press releases announcing its satisfaction to the universe and within its own community, but secretly knowing that they feel hollow inside.”
“How do they relate to each other?”
“N1 avidly consumes what N2 makes, and N2 lives from N1. But beyond that, N1’s indifference toward N2 is almost absolute: N1 knows, conceptually, that N2 is there, and it depends on what N2 produces but paradoxically doesn’t find its inhabitants relevant. It only needs it when it wants its population, in the form of mass audiences, to attend and consume the large events it organizes. In contrast, N2 is intensely aware of the existence of N1 because its sustenance is directly affected with what N1 does and the resources it provides. N2 has a second-city complex: everything it thinks and does is motivated by challenging N1. So in truth they need one another, but they don’t have full awareness of that fact.”
“N2 is solidly in social media, in a strange cycle that comprises self-promotion, personal reflections and activism. This is its symbol.”
Grabbing a piece of yellowed paper, he quickly sketched a drawing of an ouroboros, a snake-like animal eating its tail, and showed it to the little prince.
“Lately, the state of N2 is defined fury and despair, seeking to build, as someone once said, networks of outrage and hope. Its relationship to social media is contradictory and at times counterproductive: it mainly lashes out at comrades in arms, while (or because) the true culprits are unreachable.”
“N1, on the other hand, is not on social media; in fact, N1 is not online at all. It doesn’t need those communication mechanisms because its community is small enough. They also deem inelegant to communicate that way. Furthermore, N1 does not see any benefit in showcasing how it lives or tell you about its professional successes; its friends and publicists already know all about them. Being on social media risks being punished in the public square by simply flaunting one’s privilege. They primarily communicate with one another in person, in private, mostly exchanging handwritten notes in elegant letterpress notecards. Some in N1 maintain social media profiles that are almost entirely private for friends and family only and would never post anything political. But mainly, N1 does not need social media, nor does using it help it in any way.”
“Because of N1’s social media invisibility and ghost-like presence, N2 grows even more angry at it. As a result, N2 becomes that tragic ouroboros, permanently swallowing its tail. In a way, both are invisible to each other. N2 speaks the truth, N1 knows it but does not dare speak about it.”
“Because of the frequent outbursts of N2, it is often derisively called by some N1 inhabitants as Outrage, whereas N1 is named Indifference by N2 inhabitants. Outrage and Indifference.”
“N1 is comfortable, quiet and used to dealing with luxury problems, which range from invitations to VIP events, finding good parking spots, scheduling lunches in their golf clubs and having efficient assistants. N1 is not fully aware of this, but it is extremely bored with life, like Madame Bovary. It permanently seeks to get a high, a thrill in its life, and thinks it finds it in an art work with a little fun story to share with friends, an exhibition, an acquisition. But soon the thrill is gone and it feels emptier than before, which makes it continue its cycle. N1 doesn’t know what it means to feel anything, in contrast to N2 which feels everything deeply but is consumed by those feelings. N1 dreams with having emotions, whereas N2 wants to stop feeling.”
“How do you know all this?” asked the Little Prince.
“I was born in N2 but got a job to be a stage manager in N1 for many years” — said the old man. “There is particular category of people like me, whose job is to be art technicians and stage managers, constructing events, conversations, galas, and social events for N1 inhabitants. We were witnesses of their interactions, their foibles, their private dramas, the way they treat their consultants and their employees, their studio assistants (in the case of N1 artists) and their secretaries. I stage-managed debates they had about current political issues. Very different from the passionate and heartfelt debates I had with my N2 friends.”
“So do the people in N1 and N2 live separate lives?” asked the Little Prince.
“They are not separate worlds; remember they all live on the same planet. They are in flux with one another”, said the cartographer. “As I said, they have a dysfunctional, but ultimately symbiotic, relationship. People from N1 visit N2 and vice versa. On the surface, they all speak the same language, they cross paths sometimes at the same events, but their relationship with one another is closer to the one of the tourist with an exotic location (in the case of the N1 visitors to N2) or the one of the unpolished and self-conscious guest at a very luxurious and aristocratic party (in the case of N2 visitors to N1).”
“And then a few of them can sometimes change status. Whenever an inhabitant of N2 is admitted into N1 as an N1 member, their personality starts to change. They are not as vociferous as before; they speak of political issues from a more moderate and above-the-fray tone, they engage in issues from a theoretical standpoint from well-lit, quiet and elegant auditoriums and at upscale dinner parties. And when an N1 member descends into the N2 territory, it is almost certain that they will never return to where they came from. Their tone also changes, mostly displaying resentment, pain, and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and depression.”
“Both territories are plagued by false prophets: in N2, there are predatory opportunists selling false promises of fame and success to those who are most struggling. In N1, there are brilliant socialites who successfully sell celebrity as content. In N1, people mostly attend events they don’t want to go to but do so because they want to be seen there. N2 creates its own small tribes and hierarchies, which are small simulations of N1 hierarchies, and in doing so they put into action the same exclusionary practices that they suffer from N1.”
“So are they proud of being who they are?”, asked the little prince.
“They never reveal their identity outright. No N2 inhabitant ever wants to admit or publicly accept that they are not part of N1. And N1 inhabitants never give thought to that question, because they seldom, if ever, see any use to introspection.”
The old man continued speaking about N1 and N2, getting more animated as he spoke, this time as if he were giving a lecture to many people. At some point the little prince stopped paying attention. The cartographer started speaking about a theory of his about distant neighbors, about people that are next to each other and yet light years apart. At some point it seemed that the cartographer, amidst his speech, had forgotten that the little prince was there.
“Grownups are decidedly strange”, said the little Prince, and he continued down his journey.
That night the little prince dreamt with an ouroboros just like the one the cartographer showed him. He in fact dreamt of two intertwined ouroboros eating one another’s tail, progressively, until reaching the point of vanishing simultaneously into the starry night.
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