Driving at 70 miles per hour, the landscape dissolves into colors and concepts. Impressions coalesce into ideas, particles into patterns. It may seem like a paradox, but the faster we go, the clearer we can see. At high speeds, we can tune out the noise and see the forest for the trees. Our focus is on the destination.
At 30 miles per hour, the landscape resolves into discrete objects. We can now make out individual trees, buildings, the faces of drivers and pedestrians. Below 15 miles per hour, finally, we start to perceive a sense of place. We can make out the details of the objects around us, including their textures and physical properties. Any destination seems far more distant now.
For many of us, life is undeniably getting faster. Whatever the reasons are, it appears that we have increasingly less time to do the things we do. The faster time progresses, the lower the resolution in our lives. With the increase in speed, life becomes increasingly abstract, as we advance from goal to goal without reflecting on the composition and weight of the many individual experiences we make.
At the same time, technology keeps advancing. We are in the process of creating a digital copy of the physical world. This is manifested in mapping, where mainstream software products like Google Earth and Nokia Maps are shifting the discipline from abstraction to simulation due to their increasing accuracy.
The relationship between abstraction and simulation in respect to reality is vividly expressed in Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story On Exactitude in Science (1946). In it, a map entirely covers the territory it represents, coinciding with it point for point. Yet despite having reached the pinnacle of precision, it never fulfilled any practical purpose and remains unused in a state of gradual decay.
Yet, none seem to question the utility of three-dimensional maps with their photorealistic textures, extruded buildings and photographic streetscapes, though it seems that two-dimensional maps with a higher degree of abstraction may often be more efficient in helping you get to where you need to go. The need being fulfilled here apparently goes beyond utility. Rather, it seems more about shaping and affirming a mental model of a physical reality.
The forms of representation that these and similar products incorporate have an analogy in the world of computer gaming, where realism has long been a driver, not for utility but rather for immersion. Immersion in gaming is typically thought of as the suspension of disbelief, of forgetting that one is playing a game and instead experiencing reality firsthand. In Rules of Play (2004), Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen dismantle this prevailing notion that they call the immersive fallacy. They argue that the sense of immersion we feel is due not to the accuracy of the simulation, but rather to play itself. This is especially clear in that even games with the most understated appearance can capture a gamer’s attention for hours on end. It is as if we look to technology as compensation for no longer paying attention to the details in our lives, yet could it be that we are deluding ourselves in thinking that it can replace the lack of resolution in our lives?
Realism is not the only model for resolution in the simulation of the physical world. Technology has enabled us to quantify other facets of our personal lives, many of which would have seemed unquantifiable until recently. Participants in the so-called Quantified Self movement are pioneers of personal analytics, drawing insight from personal data they create, that they claim can lead to behavioral change and self-improvement in areas such as health, fitness, mood, academic progress, and personal relationships. However, while technology has opened the door to creating and analyzing a wealth of personal data, the question also arises whether we are increasingly out of touch with our own bodies and desires so as to require these forms of analysis.
Technology is empowering. It allows us to exert control over our surroundings and amplify our own abilities. In Google Earth, the viewer is omnipotent in terms of being able to navigate and manipulate various aspects of the simulation. However, the higher the resolution, the more technology distances us from a visceral experience of the physical world.
Referencing On Exactitude in Science, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard later suggested that the simulated copy (the map) would eventually supersede the original object (the territory), and that reality was in fact eroding, rather than the map from Borges’ original text. The relationship of the map and the territory is effectively inverted to where the simulation supersedes reality. It appears that our times have caught up with his theory.
By extension, one might ask if we are choosing an accelerated pace of life in order to distance ourselves from the world and increasingly replace our own visceral experience with the simulation. To some that idea may seem seductive, as it allows absolving ourselves of a certain responsibility in terms of coping with our lives, a point often made in dramatized form in popular science fiction from The Matrix to Surrogates. As the speed of life increases, we look to technology to fill the resolution void, to affirm our existence and provide us with evidence that we ourselves are still real.