Discover more from The Messenger
The Ways of Worldmaking VI
Sensoming the world
Grasping the World with Worlds
The term "grasp" has two dominant meanings in English:
To understand, as in: do you grasp the concepts of AI?
To manipulate, as in: the robot grasped the man by his neck.
The two are related. When I grasp the concepts of artificial intelligence, I know how to manipulate those concepts, solve new problems on my own and more importantly, build systems that help me test the truth of those concepts. Even when it’s theoretical, the grasping of concepts has a tool-like quality to it, where abstractions help us manipulate the world.
Similarly, grasping as manipulating has a knowledge-tone; it's not blind movement but movement directed to a purpose. Knowledge of possibilities is central to achieving that purpose. I grasp the rock in front of me to climb the mountain.
About that rock: we are simultaneously holding the part (latching on to the rock) and grasping the whole (climbing the mountain).
Until recently, that’s all we could do. We could only manipulate bits and pieces of the world while hoping the outcome meets our needs. As it turns out, the bits and pieces added up to a whole that was worse than the sum of its parts. A couple driving their car down the highway is a closing scene of a romantic comedy, but ten billion people doing it is planetary tragedy. At Socratus, we believe in new tools that help us grasp the world without tearing it to pieces. These tools should capture the complexities of many interacting parts and their unexpected consequences. They should be spacious enough to incorporate the views of many agents. They should welcome surprise and discovery. We have a word for that tool: sensome. Every sensome is a world in miniature, for:
Only worlds will help us grasp the world
Thanks for reading The Messenger! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.
Let’s repeat that claim: only worlds will help us grasp the world. Too short a mission statement? Here’s the expanded version from when we introduced worldmaking a few weeks ago:
Humans have been making models for centuries: maps, blueprints, prototypes, and other representations of reality. Worldmaking is the next (evolutionary? or revolutionary?) step in this ladder of simulation. The pioneers in this turn towards worldmaking are storytellers. Starting in the nineteenth century, speculative fiction brought the arts of worldmaking to the reading public, populating our minds with worlds no one had gone before.
We love fictional worlds, for the gloom of Mordor is as compelling as the evil of Sauron, but stories are not the only reason for worldmaking. We also want to use it for social purposes. We want to be able to tell whether a carbon tax will help transition towards a cleaner, greener economy. We can model those tax scenarios with equations that make predictions, but worldmaking has a visceral effect that can't be reduced to prediction and explanation. By placing ourselves in a future world, or an alternative world, we learn how our current world is just one among many. It becomes easier to plot the way from where we are today to the better world we want to create tomorrow.
Until recently, it's been impossible to simulate an entire world. It's not just a matter of computational power, of creating digital twins of the 'real,' though twins are becoming widely available. It's a matter of mindset, of thinking about the elephant and not just its parts, and that too an elephant meandering in a dense forest. The time for worldmaking has come, and we are committed to grasping the world before bettering it.
The elements that go into worldmaking, from technological tools and storytelling techniques to prototyping methods and the organizational mindset are falling into place. Over the coming weeks, we will slowly unveil a world we have been incubating for the last few months and show how that world can help us think and feel and act 'wickedly.'
Consider a rainforest. You might read a book about it. Chances are, the only thing you have ever done is read papers and books about the Amazon rainforest since you have never visited it. In contrast, a Yanomami tribesman lives in the Amazon rainforest but doesn't read any books about it (or didn't until recently - they might be literate now). There's a clear difference in how we "know" the rainforest and how the tribesman knows the rainforest. Not knowing how to hunt or collect fruits or watch out for snakes, we wouldn't be able to survive for a month on our own. However, we might have also read about the genetic makeup of the capybara which the tribesman doesn't.
In the dominant idea of knowledge, the scientist’s grasp of DNA is superior to the tribesman's grasp of the forest. We could reverse that logic and argue that the tribesman knows more with the caveat that they don’t have access to the tree cell's perspective of the world. Both extremes are less than ideal situations: either we have the eagle's view of the world but it's distant and abstract or we have the worm's view of the world but it's limited and not generalizable. Worldmaking needs both forms of knowing. Perhaps technology can help us connect these two poles: what would happen if we used VR to get the city-dweller and the tribesman to exchange environments?
We are betting on turning these thought experiments into real demonstrations using the sensome. The sensome is our take on worldmaking.
What is and What if
A+ for intention, but why should you care about the sensome? Let’s say you’re deeply embedded in a community, you know its members inside out - what can worldmaking do for you? Tough question, but here are three answers:
What is: the world is fractal. Even a ‘small’ community of three hundred people has multiple views and hidden agendas. There are perspectives kept secret from trusted interlocutors. Forget a few hundred people - even a family of four has hidden dimensions. It’s elephants all the way down.
What is and what if: the world is open. That small community is constantly changing because of forces outside your control. New technologies. New ideologies. What if there were a tool that helped you keep track of these emerging forces? Hint: sensome.
What if: alternate realities. Sometimes a visceral experience of a different world can help us move out of habitual patterns in this one. It could be the way adults interact with children. Or how we cut trees to make way for wider roads. Experiencing alternate worlds (hint: sensome) might help us behave differently.
The sensome, as we imagine it, is a set of tools that help us zoom in and out of a situation and imagine alternate realities that inhabit the same space. Sensomes aren’t the ultimate solution to all wicked problems, but we believe they can be designed to complement the weaknesses of existing tools and methods.
Next week we will unveil our first ‘under-construction’ sensome