July 26, 2015

The Lookout

I. The Lookout.

Visualize, if you will: an ancient sailor dangling high atop a mast, watching the spires of his port city disappearing over the horizon. Add to this scene the smell of the sea, it's salty funk,, the cries of seagulls looking for fish in the ship's wake, the scrub of the wind on sunburned skin. The lookout's eyes are the captain's eyes as the shouts transacted from above and below. Let's imagine that this ship was the first of its kind, sailors bold enough to go past the reassuring littoral into the open sea where the more cautious of the tribe still safe at port warned that monsters swarmed out there and the far sea possessed an edge condition of an immense cataract into an abyssal oblivion. For the first time in human history, the port appears to evaporate from the streets to the skyline into an emulsion of sea and sky.

The horizon, a datum once thought to be absolutely flat, universally horizontal and level to a legal standard is now betrayed by what will later be understood to exhibit the faint attributes of curvature. Horizons were then and are now understood as an abiding fact of life. But they were then as now also known to be difficult. How amazing and destabilizing this curvature in its enveloping grandness must have seemed to this lookout! Horizons exist as a seeming fact before our eyes and yet are beyond our touch. Being beyond our touch, horizons abstract from us. They are abstraction in fact, seen as plain as the day and just as impossible to verify. While drawn with mathematical certainty, abstractions, like horizons are simultaneously about distance, a remoteness from observational data. We are drawn by them and to them, peril be dammed.

Conjecture is an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of the horizon of incomplete information. There's no doubt that conjecture was a capacity exercised since the apes descended from trees, but there must have been a first moment -or a succession of faltering moments unto success- when conclusions were formed about a world whose scale extended past the immediate vicinity, towards a wider and even more absolute universe. Our five senses forms our experience. Much of the world lies beyond our immediate reach and in response, we create a model of it in our minds. With this model, we make predictions and our experience either confirms or falsifies our mental model. Our minds are architectures of conjecture, extrapolated cities and empires of inference and postulation.

A lifetime ago I was a sailor. It was the US Navy, my ship was a warship. It was first built as a destroyer leader that was renominated as a cruiser at the last minute when Washington decided to install a nuclear reactor as the power plant. In a crew of 500, my rate was an Operations Specialist in the Combat Information Center (CIC), a room behind he bridge kept dark and cold, the better to see and operate the radar screens and computer monitors. Sound powered phones connected the network of people responsible for reporting and processing this information and in the chain were the ship's lookouts: forward, port, starboard, amidships and aft. We charted our position at sea, projected our journey and looked out for ships and aircraft in our environment, we designated each of them as either friendly, unknown or hostile. A compass rose centered relative to the ship was the reference for the bearing provided to the contacts, their disposition and a range, course and speed were estimated and updated minute to minute. In the darkness of CIC was constructed an image, a model of the world. A chain of command was the conduit for the interpretation of this model and information flowed fast and free in both directions. The representation was tentative, subject to revision from moment to moment.

We drew the world, in pencil on glowing screens, on tracing paper lit above and below, as vector graphics in computer monitors. Bearing and range established points in space. Updated information revealed which points were stationary and thus features of the earth and which were features of mankind in movement. Bit by bit and byte by byte, movement revealed intention. The world forever evaded us and we employed architectonics of abstraction upon abstraction to create a facsimile of it, to draw it closer to us, even or especially as it fled our grasp.

Posted by Dennis at July 26, 2015 1:31 PM

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