Saturday, September 27, 2014

World Fog

When I was a lad, I spent many hours on the most realistic simulator I had. The year being 2002 or thereabouts, this meant Simcopter.

Check out the incredible GPS map they gave you

Our old Toshiba desktop struggled to render even these blocky graphics, so I would frequently pull up the settings menu to tweak the game until it was sufficiently simple for our old PC. It was there that I began to notice the World Fog.

The World Fog was just that, a fog that enveloped the entire world, limiting your visibility from anywhere from a few blocks on a cloudy day or miles[1] on a clear one.

While the fog made it harder to find my way through the city, it injected a certain magic into the game.  Yes, I can't see as many buildings, or the details of the mountains on the far side of the lake, but now I hold my breath as I round the corner, ready to dodge the next skyscraper, spotlight a fleeing criminal or swoop down to put out a fire.

You'd think more details, more pieces and things, would make the world seem more real, but the opposite was true in this case. The fog drastically limited my view of the world, but that very limitation endowed the world with greater suspense-- a sense of mystery and discovery.

Allure of the unknown

The most immersive and engaging fiction often reveals only a small portion of the total created world. Tolkien's Middle Earth is the perfect example. Readers barely glimpse many of the ancient conflicts and heroic epics in that world, but even without knowing the whole story they can feel the weight of world, sense their foundations rooted in the history and fabric of Middle Earth.

In Sabriel, a favorite of mine, Garth Nix paints an intriguing world in the Old Kingdom, but the unexplained corners are the most fascinating. Instead of wrapping all plot points up with a ribbon at the end, he gives enough for a satisfying conclusion and leaves a few major questions half-explained, mysteries with two or three possible solutions, each more intriguing then the last. That mystery of the unknown, the excitement of discovery, the tension of danger-- That is one of the reasons I love to read.

In Real Life

It's a foggy, foggy day

There are World Fogs in real life as well as in fiction, but one that reflects the limits of human knowledge rather than a graphics card. This can be surprisingly easy to forget in an age where what we do know is more comprehensive and better organized than ever before. Every branch of human knowledge-- history, physics, math, technology-- they all have limitations. Some are more clearly defined than others (8 * 6 = 48, vs. exercise is good for you, vs. what are the mediating factors of anxiety?, vs. why does matter exist?).

We don't really know why gravity works on every simultaneous particle in the universe while being so weak. We don't fully understand how behaviors and environments shape gene expression in successive generations. We haven't explored most of the ocean floor. The economy is way too complex for any model to accurately predict. There are billions of things we don't know about our own bodies and brains, including everything from schizophrenia to why the heck we need to spend a third of our lives sleeping.

People often assume that we do completely understand all these things. Why? Because it's more comforting to think so, or because we confuse familiarity or prediction with explanation, or because we think our current models are 100% correct, despite the track record of thousands of years of theories being proved wrong[2] [3].

So when people claim that we know everything there is to know about X, take it with a pinch of salt. Figure out how where the theories falter, or under what conditions those lab experiments where performed. We've learned a lot, true, but there's always an edge on the map. Find the edge, and you'll know better under what parameters that knowledge will remain robust and useful.

So go out and explore

Compared to what we don't know, what we know isn't much. In one way this is a humbling realization. In another it is wonderfully exciting. It is on the edges of the map that we make discoveries and connections. I implied before that books that "tie up everything in a bow" lose their sense of wonder. Don't fall into that trap in real life. The world is open-ended. Who knows what exciting changes in science or history are about to be revealed. We need not live in a sterile plot where every loose end is tidily wrapped up by narrative convention. So go out and explore. There's always something to discover.

[1] Sim-miles... similes?
[2] The vast majority of theories that were once popular are now debunked. That's not to say they haven't grown successively more and more useful, nor that they have not been useful stepping stones to something greater. Much as I hope our current theories progress.
[3] This happens a lot. For a poem on this ad hoc tendency in historical analysis, check out Luther's post here.

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