Do We See the World or Our Maps of It? Research Time, 31/10/2017

I’ve had a pretty tough day this week, and as I’m writing this post, it’s only Monday. Monday night while I compose a quick Tuesday morning post.

But while I have a lot of work to do for tomorrow for different projects, I need to get some thoughts down here today. If only to collect my thoughts at the end of that long day.

Spoiler for the Edgar Wright film The World’s End – when the body-snatching aliens leave Earth at the end of the movie, they send a planet-wide EM pulse that fries every piece of electronics in the world.

Every hard drive, phone, appliance, and presumably also all the machines keeping people alive in hospitals. Millions die, and the world collapses into a dystopian nightmare. Nick Frost’s ending narration describes his little farming community in England, where they know nothing about the rest of the world.

Nowhere in the world knows anything about anywhere else. How could they? They couldn’t communicate with anyone. In my business communications classes, I talk about the different norms and possibility spaces for web conference conversations, global phone calls, and emails that can cross the Pacific in minutes.

At the end of the movie, that world is all over. The whole world is a mystery again.

A map of the Earth drawn in 1570. We've come a long way since then.
In one of the later chapters of The Human Condition – chapter 35, if you want me to be exact – Hannah Arendt talks about how the world has been made less mysterious. Exploration, settlement, globalization, the simple act of mapping – global cartography with more and more detailed measurement.

Yet those maps are still maps. They’re representations, abstractions. They cut away so many details of living experience to achieve that crystal clarity of the map. Anyone who’s lived anywhere can point you to the clear difference between the experience of wandering around somewhere and studying it by a map.

No matter how detailed that map is – doesn’t matter if the Google Street View car is leading the way and feeding all its new data to your phone in real time – it’s never as detailed as real experience.

Yet the map has incredible power. All our scientific representations have remarkable power to change our world – any reckoning with modernity, the all-too-brief Holocene Era, the Holocene extinction, has to develop an adequate concept of that power.

It’s a paradoxical power – incomplete, inadequate to the complexity and visceral nature of real experience, yet able to encompass such a more comprehensive grasp of the world’s real complexity. Consider for a moment how difficult it is for a single human to wrap their head around all the content – let alone the implications and broader meanings – of our data sets about the world.

We need our computers to interpret these massive amounts of data, to sort them and organize them so we can create our graphs and illustrations. The raw statistical data of our measurements of the world are, on their own, too much for a human consciousness to process. We need our tools.

Those tools – maps, data sets, interpretive algorithms – are how we squeeze meaning from all the information that’s beyond the powers of human consciousness to experience.

Arendt calls it the view from nowhere. Thomas Nagel did too, and wrote a book about it. But what it really is, is the view from the machine – a computer and its software programs is obviously a machine, but even a simple map is a machine. It returns to a fundamental tension in human existence.

Our experience is the most intense way we have of engaging with the world – plunging forward, arms out, grappling with the complex mess of this web of events. But our power in the world only comes from stepping back from that complexity, letting our machines wrestle with reality and shape it into a form that our consciousness can wrap itself around.

Our most powerful actions are a result of delegating our own powers to machines.

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