The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia
4 December 2003
It comes as no surprise that reconstructing a civilisation with an ascent contemporary with the unification of Egypt's Upper and Lower Kingdoms is the job of a lifetime, especially one which left behind no written record. What is more of a surprise is that such a resolutely non-literate culture should have left so much to discover.
For the ancient Patagonians were at least as complex, at least as long-lived, at least as rich in myth as the Egyptians (both appear to have roots in the global comet catastrophes of BC 3100), and far surpassed the Greeks in science -- or they simply applied their discoveries, rather than leaving them as toys.
So much we know from a single source: the journals discovered a generation ago of an unnamed Spanish explorer in Central America. His epic journey across the South American continent at a time when others had only travelled as far as Rio de Janeiro and Lima; his detailed and fantastic descriptions of the vast mirrored spheres of Patagonia, a civilisation still at its height less than a thousand years ago; his eventual death from measles - a disease his fellow Europeans had brought to the New World which would kill nearly 90% of the natives of the Americas - and his papers hidden, along with other Mayan treasures, for centuries... all this has been the subject of many Sunday magazines.
After spending my life in this study, I would contend that his descriptions are if anything less fantastic than they ought to be, and it was our explorer's very journey that caused the Patagonian Fall.
The basis for Patagonian civilisation, the discovery that turned a relatively simple agricultural community towards greater and greater complexity, was the perfection of their science of optics. Every citizen carried a telescope, and at intervals in their cities vast mirrored spheres were winched into the air. Smaller spheres were placed outside windows, and similar ones inside all rooms and scattered in all public places. Strung between cities and villages were magnifying lenses, repeaters, also winched up.
From what we're told it seems that this infrastructure allowed any citizen - from anywhere - to view any other point in the empire.
Imagine we had a similar set-up in London. Then if you wanted to see anything that was happening anywhere in the city, you'd point your handy telescope at a nearby mirror in the sky, and look for the reflection of the one hanging over Bethnal Green (say) and then look at the reflection in the reflection and find another sphere over the road and zoom in on that... and then look in that reflection of the street-mirror which is imaged in the reflection of the Bethnal Green-mirror which itself is held in the reflection on the surface of the nearby-mirror (the one at which you're looking), and hunt for the image of a shop, and its door, and zoom in on the sign over the door: and check the opening times.
You'd be able to see anything, from anywhere: you could zig-zag reflections to bounce up to Edinburgh, or catch the giant Crystal Palace mirror and find an image from over the Atlantic. In every sphere would be reflected every single other sphere, somewhere, an Indra's Net of visibility.
Firstly, this isn't possible due to the diffraction limit.
Secondly, we can use sociology to analyse the texts -- the descriptions are so accurate that they simply can't be fiction. Symbolic representation of civil tensions, calcified structures, time-binding and so on wasn't possibly until relatively recently. If we assume the Patagonians had the same constants in the four virtuedynamic equations as ourselves (that is, that they were human), the descriptions of the culture are entirely self-consistent. Although we're used to such fictional accuracy in modern times, due in part to desktop social simulators and narratology engines, it's only been possible in the last sixty years.
That is to say: either our explorer discovered the whole of formalised social science and didn't record it, or he was telling the truth and there wasn't a diffraction limit.
The consequences of this mirrored world were vast. We're used to a culture where all information comes from the mouths of humans with a built-in incentive to deceive and memories that are often lacking. For us, money gets around this problem: transfers are made immediately (in the jargon, transactions are atomic) so a purchase becomes a process of two stages. Selling to get money, and swapping the money for another object. This allows us to visit the physical location of the object to be swapped for money, and money - of course - can be transported. From there we created money-markets, banks and all the rest.
For the Patagonians this wasn't necessary. Barter persisted throughout the civilisation. Descriptions of objects and locations could be checked immediately and transactions performed by mirror. Without the need for everyone to be at the same market, living was less dense. Their cities were more Los Angeles than Boston, their sparsity contributing to the light touch the civilisation left on the land. Over time, trusted third parties became involved. In each village a "banker" would retain a horde of livestock, food, manufactured goods. For fungible goods transactions could be performed completely remotely: you could give a local banker a single llama and have him swap and exchange with other remote bankers and eventually purchase a new telescope from hundreds of miles away. The remote banker would take the remote telescope into trust, and your local banker would give you a similar one. So long as the barter exchanges remained consistent (like a giant, distributed game of Gin Rummy) the system worked. And who knows: in time would futures markets and the sale of abstract goods - like risk - have come about?
Story-telling and oral culture persisted for us until, in historical terms, relatively recently, until the invention of cheap and widely available paper printing certainly, and it could be argued until the ubiquity of electronic networks. To spread information orally, the story must be easily remembered by each person it passes otherwise they'll not be able to transfer it.
Or rather, it's more complicated than that, as the continual discovery of new n-brane structures in social network theory illustrated. A story (or idea, like the concept of money) needn't just be remembered by a single person, but can be reinforced by a group of (say) three people who are able to triangulate new people and explain the idea to them in a way simple person-to-person transfer couldn't. Four people means four possible triangles (think of the faces of a triangular based pyramid), and when a fifth is "infected", ten possible triangles (that fifth can bind onto any pair in the four, any edge of the pyramid). The medium of transfer is then not the person, but the triangle itself, the membrane that exists in the tight social interactions between three people. This membrane is one of the simplest structures; there are more complicated n-branes that exist in higher dimensions. The highest natural one is on the order of 150 dimensions (this is the greatest the human neocortex can support -- although larger artificial structures have been created), and as the number of people involved grows, the structures have more and more isotopes with varying qualities. There are millions, and we're still examining the myriad properties of individual isotopes of 4-branes. Early days.
But structures that weren't nearly so important to the Patagonians. Unlimited remote communication afforded utterly disintermediated reading. After all, why bother creating multiple copies of a written work if one will do?
The descriptions of the Library of Patagonia are what make most readers doubt the authenticity of the papers, but they must certainly be true. All discovered fact, conjecture and scientific knowledge was written on the walls of a giant edifice, fractal shaped like a coral to have as much surface area as possible. It covered acres. Winched spheres held over the fragile stonework mirrored every piece of text, every diagram, and made the entire library visible from any point in the empire.
This remarkably efficient and lossless method of communication could explain the scientific and political complexity of the Patagonians. A book may explain ideas orders of magnitude more complicated than those passed mouth to ear, and the inability to exercise control over the mirror network rendered such knowledge democratically available.
For this is the key consequence of the mirror network: Unlike our world with electronically mediated communication, performing an action was the same as publishing it. If you waved, that information would be instantly available to anyone looking into your direction. Placing an object face upwards so as to be visible to a friend a hundred miles away would be to put it in the public sphere. Likewise, there's no possibility of blocking communication centrally. No dictatorial interception and "loss" of messages.
In a very real sense, the world of the Patagonians had collapsed to a single point. And unlike ourselves, where this one-dimensional dot sits behind the impenetrable glass of a screen, their real world and their virtual world were isomorphic, one and the same.
The diffraction limit comes from optical physics and has to do with the wave properties of light. Simply stated it means that for a given size of lens, there's a limit to the amount of detail resolvable at a certain distance. For example, the human eye should be able to tell apart two points of light an inch apart at a distance of about a 100 metres. A telescope, with a bigger lens, will do much better -- the points could be closer together, or further in the distance.
But given the extent of Patagonian civilisation and the reasonable limits on the size of handheld telescopes, it seems the diffraction limit didn't apply.
It's here that most accounts have come to an impasse: are we to believe the detailed accounts of an unknown explorer, the only reports of this ancient world, or the laws of physics? The question becomes more difficult with the self-consistency analysis of the papers, showing that such a forgery would have been impossible in those times.
In recent decades the archaeological discovery of a unusual and localised soil strata in an area covering several acres in central Patagonia -- a concentration of glass and rock dust. Is this the location of the library?
I've talked about the science of social network theory, and the pan-human structures that move through them. These replicators used to be called memes, when they were thought to be simple objects that hopped from person to person.
There are more commonly known replicators: humans. The most successful of us (the fittest, in evolutionary terms) will breed. In a way it's not accurate to say a human is a replicator because we rely so much on the world around us: the body has to take for granted the existence of schooling, food sources and so on, also gravity, mathematics and more metaphysical concepts.
A bacterium is also a replicator, a fairly self-contained self-duplicating machine. A virus is much smaller, but more human in a sense -- it's raw DNA so it expects to find DNA-copying machines it can hijack and use to copy itself. Like us, it has built-it expectations of a certain kind of environment. The Europeans took a number of these bacteria and viruses to the New World, as I mentioned before. They had a vast impact.
But in the last few years we've found a yet smaller replicator, yet more embedded. In the same way there are structures that are arrangements of relationships in social networks, and there are stable, moving structures that are patterns in the flow of car traffic, string theory gives us another network in which structures may embed.
String theory talks about the universe as comprising countless tiny loops of string. The strings don't sit in space, their looped networks are space itself: space is a network of joined strings. Vibrations of the strings are visible to us as particles. More complex vibrations of not strings but the membranes that make up the network are visible as more complex particles, fields and forces. This is where string theory manifests as traditional physics.
But what if we applied to this the ideas of social network theory -- where, after-all, we've identified complex n-brane structure that can independently exist and replicate? Why should these n-branes have to exist on a network of human relationships, why not any network at all?
And in fact, in recent months the first of these replicators has been discovered: it's vastly complex, trillions of strings, but it's thoroughly embedded in space-time and obeys - just like all other replicators do - the evolutionary field equations, and each acts as an independent agent, like a bacterium, or a human.
And whereas simpler n-branes in the 11-dimensional string view of the universe are represented in everyday life as particles and forces, the string replicators - these independent n-gents - appear to encode the interactions of those particles and forces.
That is, they encode the laws of physics themselves.
As well as measles, smallpox, guns, germs and steel, the European explorers of the 1500s took to the New World infectious string replicators, alternative laws of nature.
These string viruses replicate by being used: that is, to spread they require the use of the physical laws they encode. We know from quantum mechanics that until an observer sees a system, all possible systems exists simultaneously. This is relative, of course, so from the perspective of Schrodinger's cat itself it is of course alive or dead, one of the two. But from outside the box it's impossible to tell so it is - in a very real sense - both alive and dead at the same time.
With no mutual observers between the invading European culture and the Patagonian culture, our version of the diffraction limit and whatever the Patagonians had would not come into conflict.
But when our explorer visited their, frankly, glorious civilisation, he carried with him the European replicators. His observations made use of the diffraction limit he'd brought with him, and the wavefunction had to collapse one way or the other: would the Patagonians be infected with a limit that would prevent them seeing more than a single mirrored sphere away, or would they infect the explorer who would take this new law of nature back across the Atlantic with him? (Or not, as it turned out.)
We know the outcome, but who knows how it actually happened. Maybe the Spaniard was himself infected for some time with the Patagonian worldview. Maybe suddenly everything became crystal clear for him, distance mountains sharp, the edges of leaves like razors against the blue sky, every detail of faces, a clarity unknown (and for us unknowable) when reading his own writing. Then maybe he fought it off, the European strain proved more virulent. The Patagonians would lower the mirrored spheres on the winches attempting to get a closer look at the library, until eventually they would crash to the ground bringing the fractal building down with them. A people suddenly short-sighted and blind, their economy would collapse, their knowledge would disappear, communication would falter: all of these things rested upon nature itself, and who is to know that nature can't be trusted?
And so while our explorer travelled north with his memories of a dreamlike world, Patagonia fell.
What we do with this knowledge I don't know. Could we reconstruct the string n-gent that the Patagonians had and somehow breed a more robust species, infecting ourselves with it image the world as they did, to see as they saw? Or would this be too risky, taking the chance of introducing a new physics incompatible with not just a civilisation but human life itself?
But more importantly, can we ever learn to see as others do, and how many alternative ways have we destroyed in our reckless expansion and desire to observe? For this, surely, is the death of the myth of objectivity, and even just looking corrupts.
We have much to understand. We have much to contemplate.
18 December 2003. George writes: This List
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4 December 2003. Matt writes: The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia
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