Stitch in Time
Travel chronicles are invariably exercises in nostalgia. The docked boat, the trees swaying in the wind, the remains of picnic sandwiches; I was there, it says, and it was summertime. Even visits to imagined cities have that melancholy feel, the trace of the Khan’s grief at being trapped inside his palace.
The sovereign is hungry for information for he can’t travel as he pleases and yet needs reports from his dominions. How does he know if he’s being lied to? Seeing is believing or so they say. If so, the fewer things we see the more robust our beliefs. Living in a world flooded with images, we are willing to believe almost anything. Portraits used to be rare; only the rich and the powerful had the wherewithal to hire a painter who captured their aura on canvas.
With ubiquitous photography, that aura may no longer be so special, but portraits still retain a trace of their power. As much by their quantity as their quality. My phone is full of pictures of my daughter and my dog. The value of quantity isn’t obvious when you scroll through hundreds and thousands of baby pictures, but of late, I am enjoying how Google and Apple are using machine learning to surface showreels of past experiences. It’s definitely not the experience of the sacred or that of the sublime, but it’s not unrelated to those two.
From Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:”
Back when images were scarce, images of power had enormous value. Not seeing was not believing. One morning in September 1657 - exactly a hundred years before the British announced their arrival in India with the Battle of Plassey - the Mughal emperor Shahjahan didn’t come to the balcony of his palace for his morning appearance.
Shahjahan recovered from his illness but it was too late. His son Aurangzeb deposed him after getting rid of his brothers and locked his father up in the palace.
Cute, but what does any of this have to do with the planet?
Quick answer: we are in the Shahjahan phase of the planet with a somewhat irrational faith that iconic images will transform our consciousness and make us responsible for the Earth.
That’s the wrong idea with a long lineage of treating the planet as aristocracy or divinity. It doesn’t have to be so. Today, we have machines that constantly challenge our desire to swerve upwards towards the whole earth and downward towards individual cells and organisms.
I am talking about computers of course.
The planet will entrench itself in our thoughts only when it’s curated algorithmically, stiching together fleeting wholes that rise and vanish according to the mood and demands of the viewer. It needs to evoke nostalgia when that’s the mood, calm when that’s demanded and anger when that’s called for.
Computing has always played an important role in understanding the Earth System, but we should now go beyond computers for modeling and expand into computers for speculating and imagining our planetary future. The computer is a mental telescope through which we can view worlds, the personal and collective realities experienced by humans and other creatures.
If the book of the universe is written in mathematics, the book of the world is written in code. Code isn't a 'model' of the world. Nor is it the world itself. Code is somewhere between map and territory. But what is the spectrum between the thing and its image? There's a concept or two waiting to be discovered on the middle path between reality and its representation.
‘Code’ for me is a codeword; I don’t want to conflate it with the two existing sciences of code: biology and computer science, even as we borrow from both. In some ways, economics and physics are better inspiration since they are the quintessential modeling sciences, one modeling the natural and the other modeling the social. We have to think beyond the model, but it’s good to understand how modeling works in physics and economics, not least because the planet is the object of both disciplines.
I don’t know how much I can cover these intrinsically technical topics in a newsletter addressed to a nontechnical audience, but I will try.
PS: I have explored these ideas on past occasions such as: