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Maps: Sailors lost on a digital sea of noise

A few weeks ago, I found myself crossing the Bismarck Sea in a small boat.

The water was choppy, and we bounced over each swell spraying saltwater in our wake. The equatorial sun above scorched my skin, but I didn’t mind, the day was beautiful, and I took in everything around me cherishing the moment.

We arrived at our island destination and spent the day snorkeling through coral reefs and lazily floating in a crystal-clear lagoon ringed by volcanic rocks and lush mangroves. Around midday, I made my way through the jungle to the local village where we shared a meal and played a few rounds of volleyball on the beach. One of the locals took me to a cave, more of a gash in the volcanic island, filled with dark, cold, freshwater. I climbed down the slippery moss-covered sides and dived into the black pool for a quick swim.

During the boat ride back, I reflected on the unexpected beauty of the island I just visited and the great experience I was fortunate to have. I say unexpected because I knew almost nothing about this island and had no expectations. The previous night I went online and tried to find a guide or something to read about it but found nothing. Even google maps gave me nothing more than a brown speck without any defining information. The most I came across was a nautical navigation website that listed the island’s coordinates and some soundings.

The island had no maps. I had no expectations.

I’ve traveled to a lot of places this last decade and every time I plan a trip, I spend a fair bit of time reading about my destination. When my wife and I visited Hong Kong, we mapped out all the places we wanted to see and all of the restaurants we wanted to try. I finished the last few chapters of A Modern History of Hong Kong on the flight. We did the same thing during our trip to Taiwan. I even read a few books on James Brooks, the White Rajah of Sarawak, when I spent some time in the jungles of Borneo, not to mention the numerous books and videos I watched on the history and culture of Japan during my time living there.

I always had a map. An outline of where to go.

But there was something liberating about going to a place without information. No expectation, no planning, nothing but surprise. Not to mention that the country I’m in has had very few Western visitors and even fewer Americans visit, let alone manage to get out to uncharted islands out in the middle of nowhere. I think it would be a safe bet to say that I might have been one of the first, if not the first, Romanian-born Westerner to set foot on this island.

A territory without a map.

So much of our life is mapped and planned. Above everything, we do there is a technological digital cultural map that affects the way we approach all our actions. Before we watch a movie we hop on the internet and read reviews and inadvertently catch online discussion that sets our expectations before the first second of the movie starts. We do the same for food by reading restaurant reviews and books through countless book blogs and online marketing. Our behavior is mapped by the online overlay that has become our new spiritual realm.1

All past cultures used maps, and here I’m using the term in a metaphysical sense. Where we should go, what we should do, should we take a right or a left at this fork. The entirety of a civilization’s cultural output, art, music, literature, philosophy, history, and religion is a spiritual map that we use to find ourselves and plot our way into the future.

But in the current year, a lot of our old trusty maps have become obsolete. The well-worn navigation charts built over years and years of experience are being abandoned, replaced by schizophrenic, ever-changing, and chaotic digital simulacra. Our old cultural charts have been replaced by ridiculous and dangerous ideological maps filled with contradictions and incomprehensible symbols.

Two decades ago, everyone knew how to find their way around their city. Find the restaurant they wanted to eat at or the address where the party was. Today, most people need to use digital directions to get somewhere they have been before and only a few blocks away. The constant digital noise has made us ignorant of the real. Worse, the average Bugman can no longer trek through the wilderness of moral and political opinion without constantly referring to the digital world, its opinions change based on the chaotic whims of the techno-digital overlay constantly feeding new flags to fly and ever-changing definitions to enforce.

The map is in flux.

We are sailors lost on a digital sea of noise and from all sides, sirens sing luring us towards doom.

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