How well does a map represent reality?
Now that we all live in the age of very smart smart phones, we have maps available at any time. In fact, Sharon asked me just recently if we need to update our dedicated car GPS unit. At the time she gave it to me, (circa 2007) it was by far the best way to navigate the highways of America. The trick is that it was not entirely accurate even then (I tested it on a meandering road trip to Tennessee), and it needs an annual infusion of cash to keep it up to date. It’s still a nice piece of equipment, but it can’t keep up with the always updated savvy of a modern smartphone. But no matter how you use technology to navigate the world, I’d be willing to bet the you are frequently surprised by what you find along the way. Smartphones still make occasional mistakes, but even in those situations in which they are perfectly accurate, it can be an awkward surprise to show up at a location and find that what you expected is completely different from what you found.
Now imagine that instead of navigating a well documented map of today’s world, you are trying to navigate a map of people in history, your own descendants, or a group of people who represented a dominant historical trend. It gets tricky. Imagine that you are trying to navigate the solar system, in which a great deal of the characteristics are still subject to vigorous scientific debate. Is Pluto a planet? Imagine that you are trying to navigate the real galaxy in which our entire existence, everything we can realistically reach, resides. How far can you go before the whole thing devolves into pure speculation?
As it turns out, not very far. Of course, “not very far” is the nature of our current understanding of physics. We could effectively ignore everything outside our own solar system, and feel quite confident that nothing else will ever matter. If you took Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora as the template, then the rest of existence is purely hostile to us, and we should forget about it. Hey, that could be true, but it’s just as possible that our current understanding is as limited as our ability understand partisan politics, or the tax code. We could just assume that sooner or later, we will discover a gateway to a broader understanding that makes Einstein as passe’ as the idea that a mile a minute of velocity would kill us.
In which case, imagine trying to map a significant portion of the galaxy, much less being able to hold any portion of a random-ish three dimensional structure in our heads. That would give smartphones a run for their money.