The Outer Terrain

Some years ago I was heavily into flight simulation and decided to use my coding skills to develop a program that would allow fellow users of my flight sim (Flight Unlimited III) to edit a vast wasteland known as ‘The Outer Terrain’. To explain, the simulation reproduced the entire Seattle region using photo-realistic scenery and simulated the rest of the United States in low resolution using a set of generic texture tiles. Most users avoided the Outer Terrain because the default textures weren’t particularly impressive. Also because the only way to amend the scenery was based on a convoluted system of longitude, latitude and altitude rules. With plenty of time (and strong coffee) at my disposal I decided to replace the default set of 13 terrain textures with my own set of 26. I then spent a couple of weeks analysing the terrain structure before developing a program to display the terrain and elevation data graphically in a 2D ‘top-down’ view, like a map. Users of the program could then select 32x32km sections of terrain and apply altitude-based rules to amend the scenery.

I developed the program knowing it was never going to see extensive use. I did it because I could, probably acting on the same motive that gets some people hooked on games such as The Sims. In other words, I was motivated by a desire to play God in a ‘world’ of my own making. The simulation didn’t support simulated characters, but if it did then I’m sure they’d be scratching their digital heads and trying to figure out why their city turned into a lake or forest overnight or why my in-game weather setting turned a clear blue sky into a freak thunder-storm. Would they see it as the work of God or the Devil? Would they invent an entire pantheon of divine entities in an attempt to explain such mysterious goings-on? Would they offer up sacrifices to appease me? Consult oracles in an attempt to divine my will? Or develop theories to ‘prove’ that their world ‘evolved’ over time and change is a product of ‘naturally occurring’ geological processes?

Outer Terrain elevation displayd graphically, with altitude ranges displayed as colours.
Outer Terrain elevation data displayed graphically, with altitude ranges displayed as colours.
Outer Terrain scenery rendered graphically, with each texture displayed as a separate colour.
Outer Terrain scenery rendered graphically, with each texture displayed as a separate colour.

It’s an interesting question, but not quite the point of this article. I mentioned the program on Merovee a few weeks ago in the middle of the usual (and ongoing) bout of weird ‘synchronicities’ which, in my view, demonstrate that the world we perceive is not an absolute and objective ‘reality’. One of many recent topics is President Obama’s decision to rename Alaska’s Mount McKinley, officially reverting back to the original name given to it by the Koyukon people. Mount McKinley is now known as Denali meaning ‘The Great One’ – a term loaded with religious connotations. This struck a chord with me for three reasons: first because the original Flight Unlimited was shipped with photo-realistic Denali scenery, second because the outer terrain’s scenery textures are stored in a large data file named GENTILES, and third because I’d recently re-read Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a key theme of which is Borges fable about a map so vast and detailed it actually covered the terrain it represented.

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 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.

— Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”

Baudrillard’s take on the fable reverses the relationship between the terrain and the map it represents:

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.

–Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulation”

In The Matrix, Morpheus refers to Baudrillard’s ‘desert of the real’ whilst explaining the simulated nature of The Matrix to Neo. In a similar fashion, the Outer Terrain my program manipulates does not exist in any ‘real’ objective sense. It exists only as a sequence of magnetic ‘bits’ encoded on my computer’s hard drive. It exists only as an ‘imprint’ or ‘memory’ that can be recalled and processed. Yet when interpreted by my computer this simulator (like The Matrix it was released in 1999) generates a world that appears to have dimensions, depth, colour and texture. It has a sun and a moon. It generates its own ‘atmosphere’: clouds, turbulence, thermals, haze, rain, thunder and lightning. It has ‘physics’ that provides a realistic flight model, disintegrates aircraft when crashed, and collapses landing gear following an excessively hard landing. It has Air Traffic Controllers who will shout at me if I fail to respond to their instructions. It has AI aircraft that can take-off, follow flight paths, and perform approaches and landings. It models instrument failures, flameouts and even engine fires. It’s so good that ‘real world’ pilots used it as a training tool. It’s just like the ‘real thing’.

In today’s ‘open’ world we have access to GPS, SatNav, Google Maps, Google Earth, Bing Maps, OpenStreetMap, et al. Yet as Marshall McLuhan reminds us, in the early days of cartography maps were regarded as official state secrets. Access to them was as closely guarded and compartmentalised as a list of CIA operatives might be today. Terrain maps were as ‘sovereign’ as the conquered territories they represented. Even so, it seems that ‘secret’ and ‘underground’ maps still exist today.

Revealed: Transport bosses’ secret geographically accurate Tube map showing the REAL distances between stations. The iconic tube map has been heralded with revolutionising design and has inspired Metro maps around the world. But the map is not accurate, with the poker-straight tube lines actually being as curved and tangled as spaghetti. A map created by TfL for engineering works planning has now surfaced showing real distances between stations. Original map, designed in 1931, features lines running either vertically, horizontally or at 45 degree diagonals.

— Source: Daily Mail Online

The 'secret' and newly revealed London Underground map
The ‘secret’ and newly revealed London Underground map

Yet even before this map was ‘revealed’, it seems that some canny London commuters had recognised that the map is not the terrain and learned to ‘hack’ it…

Tired of life on the Tube? Hardened commuters share the secret Underground shortcuts that only Londoners know. London Underground can seem like a maze to those who aren’t used to it, but regular commuters know the hacks to shave time off their journeys.

— Source: Daily Mail Online

There are even some who believe their ‘secret map’ holds the key to fame and fortune…

Revealed: Radar image ‘proof’ of Nazi gold train that led Polish minister to declare he was ’99 per cent sure’ it is there. Radar image leaked to Polish newspaper allegedly shows armoured carriages and a German tank in a tunnel with a platform. Paper claimed that it was this image which prompted minister to declare his faith in the hotly disputed find
But expert said he doubted image’s authenticity and feared it was a ‘scam’.

— Source: Daily Mail Online

The Nazi gold train radar map
The Nazi gold train radar map

All of which begs the question: what is this ‘outer terrain’ we see when we open our eyes? In a world in which ‘reality’ seems to require the presence of an observer, does the territory precede the map or vice versa? Or is there only the map, the imprint, the memory – which we process and reconstitute to produce an illusion of ‘terrain’, just as the hologram recomposes stored light patterns into 3D? In a world that has been thoroughly charted, mapped, digitized and presented to us an accurate representation of ‘reality’ – how can we tell? How many of us go anywhere without first consulting a map, the internet, or a guide-book in order to ‘see’ the location, to pick out places of interest? How many of us boldly go where we have gone before, to a ready-made pre-mapped ‘territory’, seeing what we expect to see, seeing what we are told to see?

The interesting thing about simulation is that it presupposes the existence of a non-simulated ‘reality’. But how do we test the authenticity of the ‘real’? Typically, we distinguish between the ‘authentic’ and the ‘fake’ by comparing one with the other, yet such a comparison is fundamentally flawed. Can we really say our ‘reality’ is ‘real’ simply because we produce simulations that are known to be simulations? As Baudrillard observes, the challenge of simulation is that it presents itself to us as ‘real’. The doctor cannot distinguish between a ‘simulated’ and a ‘real’ illness if the symptoms and pathology of both are exactly alike. Simulate a bank robbery and the police will respond as if it were ‘real’. This challenge to the ‘real’ is explored in the film The Thirteenth Floor, which was also released in 1999. Here, a professor responsible for creating a simulated ‘reality’ discovers that his own ‘reality’ is also a simulation. The film’s main protagonist takes a drive to the End of the World and discovers that his photo-realistic world eventually gives way to a primitive wireframe model. The twist in the tale comes when he succeeds in breaking through to the ‘real’ world. The film ends by suggesting that ‘the real’ is just another simulation, one Chinese Box inside another.

The question: what is ‘real’ and how can ‘the real’ – the territory, the terrain – exist?

In a 2011 paper entitled “Mind the Map”, Professor Zhan Guo analysed the traditional London Underground map and concluded: “It has a tremendous impact on a passenger’s perceptions and his or her usage of the transit system. Passengers often trust the Tube map more than their own travel experience on deciding the “best” travel path.”

The mind is the map.
Who is the cartographer?
What is the Outer Terrain?