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?


9 thoughts on “The Outer Terrain

  1. Hugo, eggcellent 🙂
    I love maps. I think they are fascinating. Even if I’ve looked at one before, still fascinating. Sometimes when I go out of town, especially to a big city and I’m looking at a map meant for walking, and I’m figuring out how far it is, or how close it is, sometimes I’m surprised at how inaccurate I am as I’m walking there. But every time you do something the first time, it seems like it takes longer!
    I like to find a secret door (doesn’t everybody?) in the back of a cafe or retail shop that connects to a hallway that goes to a back door of another shop, and then, you’re on the next block over when you walk out the front door!
    Are we creating maps in the mind? I want to travel everywhere.
    On the subject of planes, trains, latitude and longitude, a train derailed today

    Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin blamed a “freak of nature,” saying a rock ledge above the train’s path broke off and tumbled onto the tracks, which are also used by freight lines.

    a freak of nature.
    It happened in Northfield, Vermont. And what parallel is Northfield, Vermont on?

    Where the good life begins!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. GOI, check this out from my Daily eMail. In the bottom left is your story about a ‘freak of nature’. How many people saw this without seeing it?

      I read Philip K Dick’s “The Eye of the Sibyl” last night. Set in ancient Rome, it describes the people of our time as ‘blind’.

      ““We shall work entirely through ordinary mortals,” J’Annis said. He was the wiser of the two Immortals. “There is no Sibyl now to help, to give advice to the Republic. In dreams we are inspiring people here and there to wake up; they are beginning to understand that the Price of Release is being paid by us to free them from the Liar, who rules them. Immortals are waking them up—will wake them up, I should say, in time to save them. And then the two thousand years of winter will end; they will open their eyes, because of dreams and secret inspirations; they will know…”


  2. On Friday when I was at work, one of my close friends who is a graphic designer, emailed me and the subject line said TOP SECRET. She does design work for a high end magazine and no one can see anything until it is published, (unless you want your friends to look at something you’ve designed 😉
    Anyway, it was a map that she designed. Usually, I never have any suggestions because she is incredibly talented and I’m usually gushing over her work. But this time, I actually had a few suggestions! I told her certain parts of the map needed contrast so that you could see the detail a little more. I wonder what that really means…..


  3. Great article, Hugo. You’re a good writer and you manage to make the subject matter seem entirely rational and sane. Maybe you should go pro, see if you can get the mainstream media to start reporting that nothing is real. (You could start by publishing an article in the Daily E-Mail with a headline that turns out to be a coded message about you).

    Hilarious that you once created a simulated reality (I presume it was before you realized that you lived in one). Also funny that you mention the idea of a simulated bank robbery because only a few hours before I read your article I was seriously thinking that I might perpetrate a simulated crime just to see if the media would report on my simulation the same way they report on all the other simulated crimes and events. I suspect that my simulated crime would get similar coverage, demonstrating to the conspiracy theorists that the media is not controlled by the Illuminati and undercover government operatives–that there are no crisis actors and conspiracies to perpetrate elaborate hoaxes as pretexts to take away our guns and drop more bombs on Muslim people. Instead, as I would prove once and for all with reference to the blanket media coverage of my simulated crime, all of the supposed hoaxes are illusions, complete with avatar victims who seems so much like real fake victims and absurd story lines that seem so much like real nonsense that it is almost possible to believe that they are real simulations, while the media covers whatever simulation happens to appear, illusion or otherwise.

    Do you think you could use your coding skills to help me and the others on The Mountain create a simulated conspiracy to perpetrate a hoax? In any event, you are right that there is no criteria by which to determine what is real. That is because nothing is real. There is no such thing as real. It’s simulated turtles all the way down. And, yes, The Program’s simulation is eminently deserving of worship. If you were to make one anywhere near so weird, I would worship you as well. Meantime, thanks for the good read and Welcome to The Program.


    1. Vik, I didn’t create the sim itself, just a program to manipulate it. I’m not that good a coder! Then again, everything is code so perhaps I’m better than I think I am? It’s interesting though. I wrote my program in a language similar to Visual Basic, but the sim itself included a scripting language for creating in-game missions. As I recall, it shipped with a number of built-in missions. One involved a hunt for the Yeti and another staged a dramatic incident involving the Space Needle – something about a man dangling from a rope. As bizarre and unreal as the ‘B-Thing’ incident in the ‘real’ world.

      A simulated hoax within a ‘real’ simulation? You could go mad just thinking about it. It’d need to be a big one, and it’d have to be approached as art – a Banksie-style ‘art installation’ paying homage to the unreality of it all. All things are possible. A string of mysterious coded messages. A little photoshopping and video editing here and there. It’s amazing what can be done with a dab of code and a witch editor (i.e. hex editor). Hiding images in images to whet the appetites of conspiracy theorists. Given the way The Program responds I’m sure the mindlines would soon be full of cryptic references to it.

      Invite me up to The Mountain for a beer and we’ll chat.


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