A movement exists, known as urban exploration, that seeks to recapture a sense of freedom by exploring abandoned buildings, and out of use parts of the city that are closed to the public. I see this as a very specific subset of a larger idea, which is the notion of exploration itself.
The four corners of the earth were long ago explored, discovered documented and mapped by various cultures throughout different periods in history. Written language allowed such complex information to be reliably passed on from person to person, generation to generation, without the limitations that might affect an entirely oral society. The existence of maps, from that of our galaxy, to that of our immediate surroundings subtly suggest that not only did we discover the world a long time ago, but also that there is nothing out there for you to find.
I have chosen the example of a map, as a physical object that metaphorically relates images and symbols to subjects in the real world, however, there are non-physical metaphorical maps that also serve a similar purpose. One such metaphorical map is language (this sentence in itself is a metaphorical map). Scientific knowledge is therefore a metaphorical map, consisting of words which relate to the real world and the rules that it obeys.
If we look at language as creating accounts of the world, both accurate and less-accurate, deliberately and accidentally so, then we can view facts as simply accounts of the world, and as we already know, an account of the world is often quite different from the world it intends to describe.
In the same way that we cannot stand upon a map of Egypt and be transported to Egypt, we cannot eat the word ‘banana’ when we are hungry. So in order to experience bananas or foreign countries we cannot accept the map as a replacement for the real thing. What seems to be the case is that we are more familiar with maps than we are with the actual things those maps relate to.
Other common ‘maps’ include; photographs, videos and books, as well as oral accounts of the world, such as the idea that you will become crazy if you remain in Acapulco for an extended period of time.
Map-reading is a skill that is similar to, but different from the skills needed to navigate the environment in the absence of a map. I would describe the former as being an introverted task, while the latter an extroverted one. Understanding the game of basketball through a written description is very different from understanding it by watching people play, which in turn is different from playing it yourself. Maps are always abstractions, and an experience of the map is always an abstraction of an abstraction at best. Which is to say that first-hand experience brings us closer to reality, and affects us in ways that experience of the map do not.
Quite often though, we learn about the world entirely through the use of maps, and it is the maps that we are presented with over the course of our lifetimes that come to shape how we think of the territory. If we take a second to look at this idea in more detail, what I am suggesting is that a strange loop exists between the map/territory relation. In most normal circumstances the map is simply a representation of the world: mountains exist on the map, because they are present in the landscape, and zebras exist in photographs because zebras exist out there in the real world. But in this special case, the way certain characteristics of the map are drawn, come to affect our experience of the physical world and not vice versa.
This often appears to be the case when we use maps that have been created by other people, instead of drawing our own. When your best friend tells you that he saw the latest Michael Bay film, and that you’d absolutely love it, using his map of you as a guide, he has provided you with another map, one which relates to a certain cinematic territory. Not having ever drafted a Michael Bay map, you take out and have a look at your Marcus map, which tells you that your friend is a reliable source of information, and that therefore this Transformers 2 map can be relied on as being accurate. The next evening, you find your way to the cinema using Google maps, and purchase a large box of sugar-coated popcorn, almost forgetting to purchase a ticket because you came to see an ‘awesome film’. Shortly after you reach the bottom of the popcorn tub and the film begins, you feel a strange sensation. It is the realisation that you have not one, but two inaccurate maps on your hands. The film is trash and your friend isn’t such a trustworthy cinema guide after all, and as it turns out his map of you is also inaccurate.
Another set of maps, not discussed above but also significant are the memory, shortcuts and biases. These maps are known to contain inaccuracies, however, we use them often because they function well enough to produce acceptable results most of the time, and above all they require less effort and consideration, therefore they are much quicker than referring to reality or to another map. But the danger, as with all maps, is that through sheer familiarity and (over)use we come to confuse this large stockpile of signs and symbols for the reality they are meant to refer to.
What is needed as an antidote to these biases is a good ol’ dose of reality.
Specific people or groups may have collectively discovered the Americas, invented photography and learned to juggle, but what you absolutely must remind yourself is that you haven’t. You haven’t even walked along half of the roads in your local area, and yet, dear intrepid, would-be explorer, you feel as if you have done it all. This is the result of too much map-gazing, or armchair exploration. But the scientific solution is a simple one: take your hypothesis and test it, not by running a simulation but by getting your hands dirty and collecting the data yourself.
This is why urban exploration is off the mark; it targets glamorous locations while ignoring the seemingly banal, when our perception of banality itself should be the focus.