The subject of my conceptual cartography is the contemporary “known world” - an immaterial landscape of ideas and information, shared knowledge and cultural history. The work is based on deep respect for science and the laws of nature, and for the mystery of human consciousness within nature. Recognizing the power of humanity to understand, to symbolize, and to transform our surroundings, my focus is to explore the relationship between natural history, human society, technology, and the environment.

Since studying Maya epigraphy as an undergraduate, I have been preoccupied with the role of symbolic language in visual art. Though Maya writing was not fully translated at the time, the iconography revealed a compelling and complex culture. I wanted to develop a visual language that could address my experience in contemporary society in a similar way. Adopting a cartographic paradigm has made it possible to enter this conceptual space - to visualize segments of cultural knowledge and history. I draw imagery from art and artifacts, scientific, mathematical and astronomical diagrams, architectural plans and renderings, and also create my own icons and symbolic diagrams. These are woven together in the spirit of a pictorial atlas, inspired by the intense color relationships of Mogul or Persian miniature painting and medieval manuscript illumination. The work continues in a spirit of exploration, engaging the history of a global culture formed and communicated across centuries, and reaching forward to consider new transformative ideas.

Striking features of our social, sapient species are the ability to think symbolically, create diverse languages, and to experience collective learning among individuals and across large intervals of time. In so doing we have transformed the planet and biosphere. We have also shaped our own minds through self-conscious contemplation of the process, as well as the content, of thought.

It is significant that the various forms of codified notation we may refer to as languages permit us to share extremely abstract concepts (not just simple information), and also that they can be used to discover or reveal new knowledge. The range of our languages is being increased as we extend mathematics and symbolic logic, and as we create mental heuristics based on data rather than anecdote. Using supercomputers to analyze vast quantities of data permits us to see patterns in nature for the first time. The development of programming codes that interface between biologically based thoughts and technologically based computation has facilitated a transformation in the way we share knowledge and experience. Thus we communicate not only among ourselves, but also with machines of our creation, giving rise to artificial intelligence and potentially new forms of consciousness.

The transformative power of technology, computation, and strong artificial intelligence necessarily prompts a return to questions that humanity has asked since the beginning of self-conscious thought. In 1896, the painter Paul Gauguin painted his masterpiece titled Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going (D'où Venons Nous, Que Sommes Nous, Où Allons Nous). Reportedly he considered this painting the culmination of his life’s work, and tried to kill himself after finishing it. It is easy to imagine how a life divided between bustling industrial Paris and simple pastoral Tahiti, would prompt the question.

One may yearn for a romanticized notion of the simpler, preindustrial lifeway, but with a world population of 7,276,301,700 and counting, as of September 2015, there is no going back. Population pressure presents both a challenge and an opportunity, and may present a make-or-break test for humanity. An irony of our time is that while a privileged few contemplate dazzling new horizons, more than half of the burgeoning human population lives in extreme poverty, malnutrition, and ignorance. The need to subsist precludes grander aspirations. Recent history has shown that while political democracy may remove oppressive impediments to economic and social development, it does not necessarily supply the means and resources for attaining that development. Change must evolve organically as people and communities access and create economic opportunities to improve their quality of life on earth. The economic growth needed to raise billions from poverty will increasingly strain planetary resources, necessitating new agricultural and energy technology. Achieving sustainable growth is essential, and will also require a shift in thinking from the old-world mindset of dominating and exploiting nature, to an attitude of respect for both the bounty and the limitations of our global biosphere.

For millennia, traditional religious doctrines and practices have provided social cohesiveness, moral and ethical mandates, and answers to existential questions. They have also been responsible for torture, genocide, terrorism and war, as fractious groups compete for resources and dominance. Antiquated social structures often prohibit women from education and full legal rights including choice in child bearing, and doom proliferating offspring to the cycle of poverty through deprivation and child labor.

Today the dangers posed by the bellicose and the benighted are too great to risk, and thus the need to address social, economic, emotional and psychological questions in our global community is essential to maintaining a sustainable planetary environment. It is unnecessary to abandon aspects of traditional wisdom that provide spiritual comfort and promote compassion. But it is essential to discard claims to the supremacy of scriptural dogma over the laws of nature, and to a privileged relationship with imagined supernatural powers that demand the submission of other human beings and the destruction of competing ideologies.

At this stage of human development, the power to destroy all intelligent life on the planet is accessible, either by commission, or omission. We are changing the planet’s atmosphere and climate, with unknown consequences for the biosphere and food supply. Nuclear weapons proliferate, with the power to extinguish our entire species either by intentional or accidental use. The rise of strong artificial intelligence may also pose an existential challenge, depending on how it develops and who, if anyone, controls it. Research makes us aware of many natural threats, including epidemic disease, asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions and solar coronal mass ejections, though only a tiny percentage of our scientific or political resources is devoted to remedial planning. Realizing the importance of the ozone layer as a shield from cosmic rays, and taking collective international action to curb its destruction, is a rare but salient example of knowledge and cooperation averting planetary disaster. The evolution of intelligent life is precious and, as far as we know, unique. It would be a tragedy beyond comprehension to extinguish it.

Questions are often raised about the morality of science, and I feel it is important to state that science is ultimately moral because its goal is to find the truth – to acquire knowledge that can be understood, shared and verified by others on an egalitarian, nonpartisan basis. What human beings choose to do with that knowledge is another matter, and a grave responsibility.

My personal mission is to try to see the big picture, and, as a syncretist, to explore a worldview that encompasses knowledge drawn from many different fields. This entails incorporating scientific knowledge - not as dry material determinism, but as means to glimpse and ponder the mysteries and marvels of nature, and to create better lives for human beings. The decisions humanity makes in the next hundred years may make the difference between the extinction of our species and its ability to thrive long into the future. Our challenge is to see the way forward.

Alison Berry
New York, September 2016


Conceptual geographies of our changing cultural landscape in the age of information.

In ancient times, mapmakers charted a ‘known world’ of measured lands and places, bounded by unexplored realms of imaginary wonder. Today we regard these maps with a mixture of amusement and respect, charmed by the antiquated worldview they depict, and awed by the intellectual distance we have traveled to formulate our own. Surely future generations will look back on us in the same way.

What is our ‘known world’, our Knowtopia? The features of its abstract geography aren’t roads, rivers and towns, but rather an intangible network of knowledge, beliefs, and values. Its architecture is a structure of collective understanding, its foundation a cultural archive - the trove of signs and symbols that has allowed us to record, store, and share ephemeral thoughts through space and time, building and reframing human consciousness. Like our physical bodies, the culture we inhabit is one we both inherit and modify, through feedback loops of conscious intent and genetic proclivity, desire and dread, altruism and aggression, all wiring and firing for survival or extinction.

A few generations ago, many Americans attended one-room schoolhouses and wrote on stone slates. Today much has changed regarding what we know of the world and what students must learn in order to thrive and participate in society. For members of our sapient, social species, what we know has become a major part of who we are. The enigma of individual biological consciousness persists, but technology has been assimilated on personal as well as cultural scales. It has transformed the way we live, learn, communicate, socialize, trade, care for the sick, fight wars, enforce laws, compete, cooperate, and procreate. Gene sequencing and FMRI enable us to trace our ancestry and see our brains light up with thought. New scientific instruments, including telescopes, space probes, particle colliders and medical imaging devices, extend the capacity of our sense organs, along with prosthetics, implants and hand held devices. The ability to gather, analyze, and share data is increasing at an exponential rate. Through this analysis, we begin to transcend anecdotal experience, to “zoom out” and see the stochastic world for the first time. As technology and the power of computation grow, we are experiencing a profound change in the character of human culture on this planet.

While modern society has embraced the fruits of the scientific revolution, consuming ever-greater quantities of health care, forensic evidence, electronic devices, computers, games, entertainment and Internet airtime, the philosophic shift from a metaphysical to a scientific worldview has been slower to digest. Ironically, biologists note that many Americans will accept DNA evidence as valid juridical proof, while denying the theory of evolution. There is surely great wisdom to carry forward from ancient traditions, but we are also challenged to integrate our heritage with our new scientific insight and form a fresh vision appropriate to our time, taking responsibility for the the power of modern technology and the affects of human activity on our environment. Indeed, “where there is no vision, the people perish”.

From a contemporary perspective, we remain explorers, and the boundary of the world within our minds has gotten a lot bigger. We are awash in a flood of data and imagery, so the challenge is one of interpretation – to seek structure and pattern, to find meaning and direction. For me, maps are ideally suited to charting such a conceptual space. As part of my studio practice, I collect images as cultural artifacts, festooning my studio walls and fueling my process with ideas that arise from their juxtaposition. With a quick Google search, one can now see the chemical process of life in a microorganism, or view earth-like exoplanets, found by the Kepler probe. The unimaginable diversity of nature - terrestrial and cosmological - enriches and expands its witness. It is a fascinating journey. Who knows where it will lead.

Alison Berry

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