Belmont Club

A World Without Dragons

Sharon Waxman of the Wrap leads her story about the dire events in the American media with the heading: “David Carr, Jon Stewart, Brian Williams and Journalism’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week”.  The question is why what happens to journalists should be important to us is interesting to consider. The death of Carr, the retirement of Stewart and the disgrace of Brian Williams no doubt had a profound effect on persons close to them.  But why should they affect us?

Perhaps the ancient Babylonians had the answer. They had a clay map called the “image of the world” or the imago mundi. “The map as reconstructed by Eckhard Unger shows Babylon on the Euphrates, surrounded by a circular landmass showing Assyria, Urartu and several cities, in turn surrounded by a ‘bitter river’ (Oceanus), with seven islands arranged around it so as to form a seven-pointed star. The accompanying text mentions seven outer regions beyond the encircling ocean.”

The people who lived on the banks of the Euphrates were farmers and most probably never traveled more than a few miles from home.  Few could hope to get as far as the First Island.  The best they could do is consult their Image of the World and travel in their mind.

Like the ancient Babylonians, we don’t know our world.  It’s too big.  We have in its place an imago mundi of our own, the media,  to represent it.  Though no longer made of clay it serves the same purpose. Through it we see into distant lands, peer into the decision making processes of politicans and peep into the private lives of celebrities.  We go where we could otherwise never go. That is how we get to our seventh island. We see the imago and believe we see the mundi.

But for any image to be useful it must incorporate an element of simplification or reduction.  Maps, for example, are rarely faithful to scale, since a map as big as the world would be too unwieldy to use. Jose Luis Borges wrote a story titled On Exactitude in Science about a fictional empire making this very point .

in that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Any image in one to one correspondence with the world would be superfluous because we may as well consult the original rather than the copy. Only an unfaithful representation is of any use. The same must be true of the media.  In order to fulfill their function they have to simplify — though we hope not to distort.  Their viewers rely on those simplifications.

The “bad week” is thus readily understood. The loss of Carr, Stewart and Williams is not only a loss to the image, it is a loss to the mundi.  To many in their audiences the anchorman, the comic and the critic told them what to believe, and they credited it, since they did not have the time to form a judgment for themselves.  The power of the media is the power of the map; and that is powerful.  Most of us will never go to Timbuktu, but we believe it exists; we believe because Timbuktu is on the map.

Our modern cartographers however, are poised to equal Borges’ fictional creations, for they are poised to create a map almost literally as big as the world.  The name for this map is the Internet of Things (IOT).  We are by now accustomed to thinking of computer networks.  But before long things we formerly considered to be inanimate will be given electronic life of their own and able to talk to other objects through machine-to-machine communications.   Your lightbulb, watch, pacemaker, car, shoes, clothes, appliances, etc will all be watching everything, all the time.

The IOT will in principle know almost everything.  It will allow a person with suitably exalted privileges to literally query the world itself.  That map will be a near real-time, queryable image of the actual world.  You can ask it where a man was on such and such a date, hour and second.  You can inquire into his heartbeat, determine what he ate.  The man may forget what he did himself in that instant, but the map will not.

Then we won’t have to worry about the loss of a Carr, Stewart or Williams any more.  But that will be the least of our worries.  For this new image will be more than a passive mirror.  It will be a mirror that talks back to reality.

The first step in creating this new imago mundi is bringing the data together in one central structure. Billions of dollars are being set aside for this very purpose. Today Apple CEO Tim Cook was the first major tech industry figure to challenge the White House’s new call to “share data” with the government.

Apple CEO Tim Cook made a bold pitch for his company’s commitment to user privacy at a White House summit on Friday, taking implicit shots at Apple’s Silicon Valley rivals as well as the federal government.

In driving remarks directly preceding President Obama’s, Cook described privacy online as a human right and linked it to the struggle for freedom for LGBT people.

“Too many people do not feel free to practice their religion or practice their opinion or love who they choose,” said Cook, who is gay.
“In a world where that information can make the difference between life and death,” he continued, “if those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money. We risk our way of life.”

Cook might be right. For all the mischief and fantasies that human personalities have caused, the world represented by Brian Williams’ with its dragons, trolls and orcs may be preferable to the inhumanly exact mirror which the modern state is constructing. The imperfections of human institutions and the fables of media personalities are our bane, but they are also our protection, for we can hide in the cracks. Human beings cannot live with lies. But neither can they live in the glare of absolute knowledge, especially when that omniscience is wielded by some department of total security.

Omniscience is too dangerous to be entrusted to men, because in due time it will aspire to omnipotence and then we’re for it.

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