by Phil Glofcheskie

Through Flatland to Thoughtland

In 1884 a bookish, eccentric scholar named Dr. Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote a scholarly, eccentric book titled Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Considered by many literati to be the first ‘mathematical science fiction’, it is a fascinating, humorous read that is jam-packed with clever satire and sophisticated subtext. However, if you are like me and not a ‘math head’, the geometric pedantry can get a bit fatiguing.

The first half of the book gives a vivid and thorough description of a realm called Flatland, a surreal two-dimensional universe populated by sentient shapes like lines, triangles, squares, etc. These polygon-people are very much like you and I in that they think, feel, have day-jobs, live in houses and so forth. However, as one would expect, they also perceive their world very differently from us; living in a flat plane, the Flatlander sees everything as horizontal lines. Trippy.

Now Flatland, as it turns out, is a rather oppressive place to live. A rigid social class exists, and one’s station in life is dictated by the number of sides of one’s body. Ideological orthodoxy is also strictly enforced by the ruling classes: for example, to propose the possibility of an ‘up’ or ‘down’ is heresy, punishable by life imprisonment. Stifling.

The story is told from the point of view of a square – and I mean ‘square’ in both the quadrilateral sense and in the pejorative slang sense. Though the book predates the age of beatniks and hippies by a century, the author decided to make squares members of the dull, professional middle class.

After describing his world, our four-sided friend proceeds to give an account of his very remarkable paranormal encounter with a multidimensional alien being. He meets a sphere. Surreal.

The sphere explains that he comes from a place called Spaceland, where there are such things as ‘up’ ,‘down’ and ‘depth’. Understandably, the square has difficulty grasping these concepts, so the frustrated Sphere whisks him away into Spaceland.

Since Flatland is merely one plane in an infinitely multi-layered Spacelandish universe, the square has the ability to observe his entire world from a bird’s eye view. “We mounted higher, and lo, the secrets of the earth, the depths of mines and intermost caverns of the hills, were bared before me.” He is even introduced to a cube, which he recognizes as a kind of evolutionary development of his own species. Intriguing.

As would be expected, this whole experience is profoundly mind-opening and paradigm-shifting for the protagonist. Enlightened with this empirical evidence, the square reasons that if there can exist a third dimension, then surely there might be a fourth or a fifth out there somewhere. He proposes the hypothesis to his guide who, quite surprisingly, violently denies any possibility. He even threatens the square to shut up about it, or else. Ironic.

Upon returning to Flatland, the square decides to try to explain his experience to his grandson, who just laughs him off. As the case with many who claim alien abduction or near-death experience, he becomes obsessed. He even writes a treatise on the subject: “Through Flatland to Thoughtland’. And finally, he just can’t keep his mouth shut and confesses everything publicly. Tragic.

The square is then arrested, charged and sentenced to life imprisonment. Fini.

Great novel, lots of fun, and I highly recommend it. So where the am I going with all this?

Well, I re-read Flatland recently and had something of a multidimensional epiphany myself. No, I wasn’t visited by a hypercube (exactly), but it did dawn on me that while reading a novel on a flat tablet with a flat screen about flat people in a flat world, I too was immersed in a kind of Flatland. I found the analogy amusing at first and it made me laugh-out-loud (lol), but upon further consideration my amusement shifted into a disposition of very sombre gravity.

I started ruminating about those other flat screens that I engage with on a daily basis: smartphones, computers, thermostats, TVs, remotes, bank ATMs, store kiosks, advertising billboards, fast food menus, vehicle dashboards, drive through menus, microwaves, elevators, portable gaming consoles, security panels, vending machines… my recently purchased smartwatch.

Flatland1-web“Gadzooks!” I exclaimed, “I do spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at a myriad of flat screens. This is madness! Am I some kind of screen junky? Have I been digitally Flatlandized?”After a quick internet search, I did find some small consolation, as I am far from being the only one affected. According to a 2014 report published by Quartz, the average American spends 7.5 hours of their day looking at screens: smartphones, televisions, computers, etc. This statistic is pretty depressing when you think about it, especially when one considers the effects of digital Flatlandization on our most valuable resource: youth.

When I hear of kids who would rather stay indoors and play football on their gaming console than go outdoors and play football with an actual, physical ball, or when I see a group of teenagers sitting with heads down, ignoring each other and texting with physically absent friends, I can’t help but conclude that the crushing Juggernaut of Flatlandization has already mowed its way through contemporary society… not to be a doom-monger or anything.

Listen, call me naïve, but rather than compress our reality into a two-dimensional delusion, shouldn’t technology… hmmm… I’m looking for a word here… ’expand’?… ‘enrich’?... I dunno … ‘augment’ our reality? Through a kind of ‘Reality Augmentation’ technology, if you will?

Sounds promising! How could it work?” you no doubt ask.

Well, I’m still wrapping my mind around the concept, but for starters I can see this “Reality Augmentation” (let’s call it R.A. for short) as a kind of happy reconciliation between our Flatlandish digital lives and our Spacelandish real lives. It would give users the ability to simultaneously participate in both realms without compromising either. It would beget a new paradigm in how we engage with interactive media, providing a user experience that would ubiquitously integrate these worlds by spatially extruding the interface via visual, auditory and kinetic means. Or something like that. It’s hard to explain.

Miraculous! What could it do?” you ask again.

Good question! Take that sluggardly football kid I mentioned earlier: imagine he is fitted with some kind of transparent visor that, through the Power of R.A., has the ability to blend realistic, animated visuals into his normal view. With such a device the young chap could play a form of augmented sport, and engage in both healthy outdoor physical activity and all of the delightful digital features experienced through his gaming console like computer controlled players, referees and roaring fans, not to mention score and performance data. All of this would be composited into what he sees and hears, in real-time. It sounds outlandish this “having your cake and eating it too” promise of R.A., but it is at least possible in theory. And tell me dear Reader, what kid wouldn’t want to get off their lazy butt and try out such a device? I know I would!

And what about those good-for-nothing anti-social teenagers?” you inquire.

I can see these R.A. visors being equally purposeful to them as well. If all of those teens were wearing them, including the absent friends, then the latter could have a real-time virtual audiovisual representation in the group. And lo!, through the Power of R.A. they could all be liberated from their screen-induced phlegmatism and giggle and chatter away, as normal, psychologically healthy teenagers are wont to do.

“Impossible. That sounds too good to be true”, you lament.

Indeed, perhaps it is. But for the sake of the children we have to acknowledge that the current trajectory of technological development is simply not psychosocially sustainable; we MUST find a viable alternative before it is too late. As participants in this industry, it is up to you and I, my dear Reader, to forge a better future for our young people by embracing the Potential of Reality Augmentation and wielding it as a weapon against the forces of Flatlandization which, if not abated, will surely crush us all! Don’t be a square and extrude! To Spaceland and Beyond! Tally ho!

Update: The editor would like to add that the ‘Reality Augmentation’ technology as described in the article does exist and is currently under development by Magic Leap inc., in partnership with Google, Qulacomm and Legendary Entertainment.