Mapping of Space Odyssey
Space isn’t a thing; it’s a dimension where a system of objects, motion, behavior arise and fall, in a fragile balance between creation and destruction. We live in space and space moves through us. It is the place where we tell stories. We narrate our passage and read, hear or view the narration of others. We are all cartographers mapping a territory, exchanging maps with other travelers on the road. Next time you are entertained by a story, ask yourself: where in this vast thing we call space is it located? Are the locations and descriptions sketchy or detailed; a Close-up or panorama view? What collisions, conflicts and surprises emerged from this space?
I’ve been a storyteller for many years. But, then, so have you. I’d like to share my own journey with mining space and spacetime to the rich ore of personal experience. Like any miner will confirm, when you are crawling through a tunnel, you concentrate on the close quarters surrounding you. You feel the experience in your elevated heartbeat as you push forward.
The idea of “space” with scare quotes raises a number of questions: What is it exactly we are mapping? What is the role of our personal agency in this shared space? How do we coordinate and cooperate in space and can we scale both? How do we make sense of the space we occupy in the world? How legible is the space we are surveying? How do we know how much information is sufficient and necessary about the overall system to prevent a solution in one place causing disruption elsewhere in the system? How dynamic is the turbulence moving the elements inside the space? We know from Kurt Gödel that our knowledge about the complexity of system will be incomplete as no system can prove its own consistency.
Traditionally we’ve divided geographical space by category: the world, nation states, provinces, districts, cities, villages. We also define space in terms of our house, apartment, office, or public area. Some of this space we share others; some of the space is private and belongs exclusively to an owner. As we navigate the typical day, we move between one location and another creating the illusion that our space is distinct, divided up, and walled off. We have physical experience of space each time we move. We inhabit the realm of abstract space and mental ideas about space. The physical and mental overlap but aren’t same. In the physical world, all space we experience is confined to three dimensions: height, width, and depth. We have theories in physics and mathematics about the existence of other spatial dimensions which we lack access to. Other species, dogs, octopus, dolphins, rats and pigeons, move through their spatial environment in ways we believe that we understand.
How does defining the space all species occupy determine their behavior and decision-making? We can’t ask this question of other species we share the planet with and who cohabit the same space as us. For our species, not only our movement, but our identity, sense of well-being, danger, or opportunity arise from what we encounter inside our space. Is it an obstacle, a threat, a need, a status or reputational goal? We have all sorts of myths, fables, norms, values and ethics that we use as a compass in space use, allocation, and restriction.
Space requires some refinement to make it more precise. The first order of business inside a finite space is to define the boundaries. When we reach a known boundary, we have a precedent from our early map makers who drew dragons beyond the known boundary line. In our spatial world we have two bookends of space: the quantum (Planck length) and the cosmic (light cone). These are the extreme ends of our perceived spatial dimensions. Beyond the Planck Length and the cosmic light cone is the unknowable — the place of mythical creatures. Between these two boundaries, we simultaneous exist inside this expanded space. It is huge spatial potential but has a finite range. Our personal experience restricts us to is a small slice of it.
What are we looking at? And from where are we making the observation? There are two questions that emerge as we move through space. Many disagreements arise because people may be looking at the same object but from a different position or location in space. None of this is particularly new. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing has influenced artists for fifty years. Jorge Luis Borges with his compass, map, and labyrinth also has been a guide for generations seeking to understand perceptional puzzles. M.C. Escher is an artist whose work drove a stake through the eye of a one-world absolute spatial reality.
Imagine a vertical/horizontal axis: On the vertical is the observational position: eye level, third story building, a drone, a satellite: Each one is directly above an object or event. Each one conveys a different level of detail and perspective. On the horizontal axis is the position and movement of a specific objects or event. The role of artistic expression is the alignment of the vertical observation of in space of an object’s position in relationship with other objects and events in order to make sense of how it is connected in a larger network of objects. Objects in isolation are cut off from their meaning in the absence of information about the perspective of the observer.
A sub-set of people know more by innovating sophisticated measuring instruments and advanced technology to take us to realms beyond our experience. For example, the science of climate change is largely based on models constructed from big data. It is the collection, analysis and interpretation of the data along with the computational and mathematical skills has sent alarming signals from the scientific to the lay community. Scientists, in an overwhelming numbers, have pushed the alarm button. Why isn’t I heard by the non-scientific community? One theory is the alarm is outside the frequency range of normal experience. We evolved to ignore such alarms as they weren’t essential for our survival.
We need to address the psychology we have rather than the one we wish we had. If we want to engage emotions the most direct route is through dramatic visualization of how ordinary people react to actual, immediate unexpected events, surprises, and ambushes. Most of our innate automatic reactions are from our long period of living as part of nature. We attuned our lives to live in synchrony with the rhythms and cycles of nature. We’ve lost the need to bend to the will of nature and have come to expect that space now belongs to us to control.
Like any other animal, we move through space using our sensory inputs to scan and assess our immediate environment. Opening doors, walking along hallways, going downstairs, getting in our of car or subway, crossing a street, finding an address for an appointment, or simply moving across a room to retrieve. Evolution has provided a narrow band of data inputs that is sufficient to survive and reproduce in our ecology. We largely live in the borders of this narrow frame of space. What we map isn’t all there is. As the map is not the territory.
In Rooms: On Domestication and Submission (2019) I explored the process leaving nature to occupy confined space. This migration to rooms has reshaped our relationship to and framing of Nature. Our environment contains the quantum and the cosmic but our outreach in space is ecologically determined.
By building rooms we’ve constructed a version of the Faraday Cage. In this version, the cage blocks the AI from communication networks outside the cage. Like all cages, a Faraday cage is designed to restrict and strictly control channels of input and output. It is a metaphor to describe what nature has done to our species when it comes to space (and time). Evolution has restricted our access to channels outside of our experience. While an AI would likely discover it is locked inside a Faraday Cage and seek to breakout. Like the blind mole, we only know the contours of our Faraday Cage as being the natural condition of life. Breaking out is for romantics, idealists, poets, novelists, and physicist but has little broad interest for most people.
Let’s say you wake up, look the walls, ceiling and floor and it sinks in this is a kind of cage.
We make sense of the world inside a cage. We have no choice because we lack the tools to pick the lock on the cage door. We may never discover them. Meanwhile, we must accept that we have restricted access to even the limited three-dimensional space along with the objects, events and actions occurring in ways that aren’t obvious. While we have powerful imaginations, our initial settings inevitably restrict our Ways of Seeing. But some cages are more richly textured with information and data than others. There is an asymmetry of information. That matters as those with the best information can take advantage of their space and control your space. For example, Giant high-tech companies and government agencies with substantial resources acquire and use information for their interest, they have financial and power position incentives to retain control of the space where they harvest vast amounts of information.
We are subject to highly addictive forms of propaganda on social media to identify with and buy a product or an ideology. Rather than being alarmed about this disparity of informational power over behavior in space, we embrace it like the Soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Most people have no desire to break out of their Faraday cage. The oil and gas industry, transportation, cement and agriculture industries know our weakness, how to deflect attention, and the best methods to cast uncertainty and doubt on the scientific data. They have a huge financial incentive to maintain the space in our cage as narrowed their mapping. This partly why we feel overwhelmed sparse, disconnected and simple. And they have extraordinary framing power driven by large data sets. Complexity of space is their friend because they know that it is also precisely targets our basic computational and processing vulnerabilities. The drivers of climate change seek to minimize the risk that we may pick the lock on our Faraday Cage. If that happened, their long term fate on what might be an abrupt decline could well accelerate before the problem industries could adapt.
We can only process so much information. We lack the, resources to upgrade our deficiency through processing more and better data. We fall behind each year as more tech empowers those whose interests and incentives dismiss the urgency of action. Each year our mapping of space becomes closer to the blind mole and farther away from the 15th and 16th century great explorers. Our thinking ability is compromised by nature. We’ve mapped what we have measured and observed knowing that we have only touched a fraction of the possible spaces and relationships and networks existing in space. While we live in a finite space and most sense making for our species doesn’t require full data about every connection in the networks weaved throughout space. We were able to survive and prosper on narrow, limited information about the space where we lived. We are experiencing hyper-information reality where mapping the flows through space can only be done with advanced computers. Enough data from a richly detailed local space has leaked into the public domain to give us a hint of what lies ahead in space mapping. It will likely come to a head as global warming continues.
Our old way of mapping has become inadequate. Our making sense of space has breakdown under the weight of complexity in the patterns. We gradually are becoming closer to the blind mole lost in a labyrinth. Our error-coding mechanism is no longer reliable to mark the outer boundary. Our concepts of space and spacetime has been removed from explorers of earlier ages and transferred to scientific labs where mathematicians and physicists examine entangled patters of spacetime that compose the fabric of our universe.