Digital globe: building the world map of the future

In our private universe

On the last major release of iOS, Apple made a small change to its built-in Maps app, one that meant the whole world. Literally. Where previously you could pinch-out on a map repeatedly, to eventually halt at a Mercator-like representation of the entire surface of the planet, now you pop out to that map stretched across a three-dimensional sphere – a globe. Poking that globe, spinning the planet around, it quickly becomes clear that Apple locked our planet to its axis: there no way to look at it from far above either pole. Some points of view are permitted, others verboten.

Apple is not the first to put the whole world in our hands. The earliest globes date back to the Classical Era – yes, the ancients knew they lived on the surface of a sphere, even if they had only vague ideas about the shapes of the continents and oceans. Our globes have never changed their shape, but they have continuously grown more detailed. Globes from the late 1400s don’t include the then-unknown (to Europeans) Americas, and it wasn’t until 30 years after Captain Cook first bumped into Terra Australis  – the Southern Land – that Australia was finally circumnavigated by Matthew Flinders.

The centuries since then have seen us measure the Earth’s surface with increasing precision, from the surveyors who mapped out the contours of the ever-expanding British empire, to spy planes, and, finally, the military and weather satellites that today continuously gaze upon the planet. We use LiDAR (radar with laser beams) to achieve ridiculous levels of accuracy, resizing mountains, repositioning coastlines, and measuring the millimetre-by-millimetre rise of our warming oceans.

The centuries since then have seen us measure the Earth’s surface with increasing precision.

It’s all utterly amazing – and all skin-deep. I admit that I’m still entranced every time I visit Google Earth inside a browser window, mesmerised as I stare down upon the our corner of the Earth as it is, right now, clouds and all. It’s beautiful. And empty.

To understand why – and what these ‘virtual globes’ could evolve into – we need to look back almost sixty years to 1962, when computers filled entire rooms, consumed a whole neighbourhood’s worth of electricity, and numbered not in the tens of billions, but tens of thousands. In that year, R. Buckminster Fuller, best known as the inventor of the geodesic sphere – and dubbed “the planet’s friendly genius” – articulated a radical, almost science-fiction vision for a tricked-out version of his famous invention, which he called the Geoscope:

“The most usefully informative model of the Geoscope now under consideration is a 200-foot-diameter, structurally gossamer, look-into-able and look-out-able, geodesic sphere to be suspended with its bottom 100 feet above ground by approximately invisible cables strung tautly from the tops of three remotely erected 200-foot-high masts.”

“The vast number of computer-selected, colored, miniature electric light bulbs displayed on the spherical frame’s surface of the 200-foot-diameter Geoscope, with their intensity and diminutive size as well as their minimum distance of 100 feet from viewing eyes (as seen from either the center of the sphere or the ground outside and 100 feet below), will altogether produce a visually continuous surface-picture equal in detailed resolution to that of a fine-screen halftone print or that of an excellent, omnidirectionally-viewable, spherical television tube’s picturing. It well may be that by the time the first 200-foot Geoscope is undertaken, we may be able to develop a spherical TV of that size or a complex of spherically coordinated TV tubes. This giant, 200-foot diameter sphere will be a miniature earth – the most accurate global representation of our planet ever to be realized.”1

Although working with the stone-knives-equivalent computing technology of his day, when laid next to Google Earth or Apple’s iOS Maps, we can see that Fuller actually got almost all of the design correct. A miniature Earth: tick; and a “most accurate global representation”: tick again.

He imagined a model so large that you could see individual dwellings.

From this point, though, Fuller’s vision diverges from what we’ve got today. Although seeing the planet onscreen is great, he imagined a model so large (around sixty metres in diameter) that you could see individual dwellings, with Geoscope visitors invited to walk inside (or outside) the sphere, situating themselves within the greater whole – a clever bit of early ecological thinking that could help us all today, as we contemplate our shared fate in the Anthropocene.

It dovetailed nicely with another idea Fuller had begun to champion – his World Game, which you can imagine as a sort of giant spreadsheet, every cell filled in with every bit of data we could gather about the planet, its peoples, its economies, its resources and its technologies:                  

“The World Game is a precisely defined design science process for arriving at economic, technological and social insights pertinent to humanity’s future envolvement aboard our planet Earth…It is an organization of computer capability to deal prognosticatingly with world problems…

“Our world game will be played electronically by remote controls on a giant model of our earth globe opened out into its flat projection which will be the size of a football field. World leaders will be invited to play the game and to introduce any new data they deem to be missing and the computer’s memory banks will retain all the data ever fed into it as well as remembering all the plays that have been previously made and their respective outcomes.”2

What Fuller proposed looks a great deal like what has since been identified as a “serious game” – a simulation employing real-world data to allow players to understand the consequences of their activities, experiment with potential strategies, and safely make mistakes within the game’s ‘sandbox’. Geoscope and World Game came together for Fuller as two sides of the same tool, one that would allow anyone to run an experiment by twisting the dials on the world, then be able to see the results. Fuller believed humanity had all the tools and resources needed for “universal success” – if only we could close the gaps in our understanding between our activities today and our plans for the future.

These digital twins can be used to reveal the world we could have, if we twist the dials in just the right way.

If we want that (and who wouldn’t?), we’re going to need a model of everything – something not yet on offer in any web browser. Fortunately, earlier this year Swiss researchers at ETH Zurich announced their own effort to build a highly accurate ‘digital twin’ of the planet. That’s a phrase we’ll be hearing more of over the coming years, as we measure the real world, then add it into models that grow in scale until they start to approach the ambition of the Geoscope and World Game.

Yet this isn’t the exclusive domain of scientists. Another group of amateurs have been hard at work on ‘Minecraft Earth’, using Mojang’s beloved build-your-own-world game to create their own (blocky) digital twin. The scientists may have better data, but millions of Minecraft enthusiasts will be nipping at their heels, as each team works toward the vision of a deep, rich virtual globe proffered 60 years ago by Buckminster Fuller.

These digital twins can be used to reveal the world we could have, if we twist the dials in just the right way. That makes them more like the globes of the distant past, where the voids had been filled in with images of fantastical creatures. Built to measure, backed by data, we can use our new virtual globes as levers big enough to move the world.

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