Scale

Look up, Bloggers…wayyyyy up

The problem, I submit, is one of scale; scale being a thing that adults understand and children do not. You could even say, if you wanted to, that a child’s education is generally well-described as a process of learning about scale, and how to grapple with its realities.

But we are all children in some way or other.

And a complete understanding of scale is something that will probably be forever beyond us.

I’ve heard it called “epistemic scope”; you may be familiar with it from looking at sunsets, or at the night sky’s awe-inspiring cascade of stars. At a certain extremity, our ability to conceive of scale abandons us. That’s where the awe comes from: we look up — wayyyyy up! — and suddenly realize we have no idea how high that is. It’s just too much bigger than us.  The mind blanks out;  the almighty ego-shield drops, and the sublime enters in.

Awe.

Of course, it is very easy to forget about that particular awe, if you are not seeing it every night…easy to pretend that it isn’t “really” there at all. The experience of the sublime is not easily recalled to us, after the moment in which it occurs. We have to use tricks, to pitch ourselves back into it.

Some of the tricks are rather astonishing: and you could argue that even striving to grasp them, the tricks themselves and how they work, adds up to an encounter with the sublime.

Or, one look at Jupiter through a telescope will often do it, too.

So look up!

Because the scale of our world is changing.

But before we know it, we don’t know it, if you see what I mean. Some of these sorts of realizations of “true” scale, that get incrementally more capacious as time goes on and knowledge increases, have a very long incubation period indeed. A child wants to know what his parent does when they go to “work” — but being told, it takes a while to develop an understanding of it. It starts with “going into that building”, moves up to “sitting at desk” and “talking on phone in ways that don’t make any sense”…one day the child gets a job of his own, and knowledge appears, but first there are many adjustments that need making, before knowledge can really be known.

In a similar way, people used to think Heaven was “the sky” — going up into the sky, going down under the earth, passing into the rocks and the trees, being carried away by the wind across the horizon…that’s what the world after life was, and that’s how big it was: as big as the biggest thing you can’t understand. Admittedly these were all adaptive strategies that were created prior to any understanding of the realities of scale familiar to us now, but they were not prior to the awareness that there were unguessed-at mysteries of scale out there in the first place.

So in a way, it’s the same thing.

And thus, we also practise such adaptive pre-understanding strategies today…because we still need to. Science fiction writing and reading counts for one of these adaptations: I’ve gone on about it in tedious detail, I know, that none of it is real…but, you know, it really isn’t. It’s just an attempt to approximate. To find the range. “Terraforming” came up in this connection before, I believe — a thing that we can’t do (at least not in a designed and purposeful way!), because our understanding of what a planet is — how it works — how big it is! — is insufficient. But we can imagine knowing such things one day, as the child imagines one day sitting at a desk in an office and blithering incomprehensible nonsense into a phone, and then somehow that makes electricity, or something. Whatever that is. Anyway later on you go home and have spaghetti, which is delicious.

Science fiction’s not much different. At least, in its future-imagining it isn’t much different. It’s pretty much ignorant as hell (“talking on the phone makes electricity!”), but it is capable of acknowledging that such a thing as the scaling problem exists, and tries manfully to grab hold of it in at least an intuitive way. Only thing is, though…that scaling problem’s itself being re-scaled, and that’s making the job of intuiting or approximating its relationships a bit tougher. The things we’ve discovered (“we” meaning humanity) this year alone, make us look like fools for believing much of what we did last year. And the circle keeps widening faster and faster, and at some point a certain understanding of scale that we have not possessed before is going to dawn on us. Although it takes a lot of imagining to anticipate that kind of brush with the sublime, and most people can’t do it.

And I’m not talking about the Timewave, the Singularity, or Moore’s Law, or even plain old future shock. The fact is, those things aren’t real either, just more approximations: we don’t just one day make the jump to hyperspace, as the ripple of change overruns itself and the Cerenkov radiation starts to sing throughout the pool. These things actually take time. Sometimes a lot of time: anyway the piles of strange garbage build up a lot faster than the anomie, even in the short run. And we will not simply all become as angels one day, escaping all temporality and limitation…that’s just a metaphor.

What will happen, though, is that our approximations, our adaptive strategies, will start experiencing some significant slippage, as our ability to form for-the-sake-of-argument premises starts to be undercut by new scalar discoveries. We’re used to getting a theory, wearing it hard, patching it a few times as it eventually starts to fray, and then fray some more, and then only after it’s just a bunch of rags do we go out and get ourselves a brand-new replacement theory, just as we have saved up enough money to do so. However, what happens if the garment of theory can suddenly go from fray to puff of smoke inside a day? Scale means context; extent of interconnections; limits. So start fooling around with that slider, and future-imagining itself is going to have to make a very big, very serious change. As in: it’s going to have to change all its bases. If we don’t want to start writing science fiction about science fiction, it’s going to have to change all its bases.

Another way of saying: it’s going to have to start giving them up, as poor approximations that no longer fit reality well enough to be of use. And, it won’t want to! But eventually there will be no other choice. The whole process of arguing about stuff is going to have to change: for example it is now still possible to argue about…oh, I don’t know, let’s say global warming…in a way where you can be right or wrong, but not substantially out of whack with what the people on the other side of the argument believe about what the world is, and how it works. The factors in the argument are many, but they are not of many different kinds: you don’t have people on this side saying “no, no, it’s the Higgs boson!” while the people opposing their view bellow out “you’re all idiots, it’s the morphogenetic field…!”

Just doesn’t happen.

Yet.

But something like it will happen eventually. It’ll just sneak up on us one day. Scale. It’ll intrude. And then if we don’t look sharp about it, we’ll find we’re not all on the same page anymore at all. What we’re learning now about the way the world works is BIG, and it’s tossing so many preconceived notions into cocked hats that we’re running out of cocked hats. From oceanography to microbiology to astronomy to archaeology…to economics! To history! To freakin’ agriculture! What I’m saying is, like it or not, the big picture is about to be all up for grabs. And the time for imagining that is over: it’s here.

Look up at the sky, at the stars. They used to be gods and goddesses. Then they were holes in the wall around the world. Then they were a glorious country club of possibility, that we looked forward to being admitted to one day. And then at last they were a limitless host of sterile suns.

But now “limitless” has gotten a whole lot bigger than it used to be — even “finite” is bigger than we thought it was — and as it turns out those stars may not be so sterile after all.

“Do you think, somewhere up there, someone might be looking down at us, wondering if we’re here?”

The correct answer to that question used to be “maybe…who knows?”

But it’s not that anymore.

It’s something else, instead. What, I don’t know. But it’s something.

The slider is moving, down at the bottom of the pile of other sliders that rest atop it.  By necessity, our species has always much heavier on theory than on observation, but that seems to be changing, these days.

The trick is to see it.

As the piles of strange garbage mount higher and higher, and more mysteriously, all around us.

Hmm, can’t remember why I started writing this, now…

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One response to “Scale

  1. Pingback: Universe Part Seven: Curse Of The Ruby Slippers « A Trout In The Milk·

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