I was illustrating abstraction to students recently. It’s a fundamental concept in computer science (in addition to other disciplines), whereby unnecessary details are filtered out to focus on the fundamental properties that characterise, for example, a problem. A good example of this are maps which vary from Ordnance Survey to show hiking trails through to road maps and then further abstracted forms to show public transport links e.g. bus maps.
When I turned off the roads on a satellite image of the UK, I noticed how diseased our UK land looks:
The spread of conurbation seems somewhat organic in nature – perhaps it follows natural topography or water features. I suppose this pattern may be somewhat unique to countries where industrialisation spread quicker than town-planners could cater for. I imagine a similar image of cities in the US would appear less organic. If an AI algorithm were too study the image (or an alien species), without prior knowledge, by looking at these organic patterns, it may just identify the urban areas as disease.
Far fetched? I changed the hue of the image in Photoshop to make it look more like a histology image and, well, there we have it:
I wonder what this image says about humanity’s relationship with the planet. Are we a healthy part of a larger ecosystem? If an intelligent lifeform came travelling though our Galaxy and stumbled across our little Blue Planet, would they simply see the sprawling grey of concrete as a disease?
Since Robert Cooke’s initial discovery of cells in the 17th Century, Biology has evolved to think of a human as a community of organisms, rather than one single organism. We cannot survive without distinct species, for example, bacteria inhabiting our gut. You are not ‘you’. There is no ‘you’. There is only a collective of organisms operating in unison to which we perceive a ‘you’. Well, if we think of the human being as a community of organisms, surely it is not far-fetched to think of our planet in a similar manner. Under the lens: A community of organisms but, from a distance, a single organism.
Okay, so there are spiritual dimensions to this as well. I mean, I do subscribe to a view of ‘Oneness’ in that all things are inter-connected. That’s not revolutionary thought, I know, but my belief is that interconnectedness is because the physical reality we perceive is just a projection, a manifestation, of consciousness. Anyway, that’s another post. Suffice it to say, if humans are merely a component of a larger organism, and that organism becomes unwell, surely we are at risk of being removed as readily as the body’s immune system will fight a disease.
Of course, there are some diseases that are so malignant and proliferate so aggressively that the body cannot fight them; and eventually the organism dies. Well, I admit it’s a morbid thought to liken humanity’s collective activity to cancer but then I can’t help but look at pictures of our Scarred Earth, ‘eyes wide open’.
The photo below is one of several I’d taken of logging and bauxite mining from a flight we’d chartered over the Amazon rainforest in 2010.
The rainforest is incredible and its richness of life is quite striking but my memories of it are as scarred by these sites as the rainforest is itself. With the recent (UK) election, I was explaining to a colleague about how modern politics is little more than an ‘illusion of choice’ and how often the decisions we make in the West are often to choose the lesser of two evils (another post). I feel that politicians have lost the nobility they once held in office and was recalling how proud I was to have met Tony Benn (fortunately because he lived close by). The letter below is from Tony Benn:
1993! I had written to Tony Benn about my concerns regarding deforestation, particularly in the Amazon. I was 12 years old. Now, over two decades later and deforestation has worsened to the point of global crisis. I could cope the damage we have done to our planet but I cannot cope with the idea that we are continuing to do such harm, knowingly, with no signs of cessation. What will it take for humanity to change its ways? Does the pain of our current activities have to dramatically outweigh the pain of change for the inconvenience of glutenous consumption to be stopped and our planet rescued? I fear the fate of our planet was abandoned by my generation and those before. Abandoned by the selfish ideology that typifies the consumer-captitalist culture of Western ideology.
And now, that fate gifted to future generations. Future generations whose obsessions barely extend beyond the bubbles of Instagram, tokenistic charity marathons, cheap throw-away fashion, games consoles and smartphones. My plea to the youth of today, the future leaders of tomorrow. Prove me wrong. Show me that you care, where your parents did not. Show me that you can act with morality where your parents were trapped by the conditioning of capitalism. Please, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.