Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Mapparium

Any control room worth its salt has global data displays in the round, simulations of the planet. A flat map of the world then derives from this globe via some projection algorithm, of which we have several.

One of the more interesting control rooms I've visited is the Mapparium in Boston. All these years later I still treasure my Korea-made vinyl Mapparium tote bag, my one souvenir from that nuclear disarmament conference I attended on behalf of the AFSC.

The Mapparium is this walk-through globe, 30 feet in diameter, with backlit glass panels providing a view of the oceans and continents, plus an overlay of political data. Off to the side, there's a situation room with a desk and additional monitoring equipment (I'm hazy on the details). Christian Scientists want overview and spent big money to get it ($8,900 in 1935). And why not? More power to 'em.

In science fiction movies, such control rooms may belong to some nefarious master mind, some Dr. Evil with a plan for world domination. We want the good guys (our team) to have a slick control room, but maybe not the competition. Overview is a strategic asset. If Dr. Evil has better overview than you do, well better call batman or 007 or someone who will put those bad guys out of business -- and that usually means a thrilling climax with lots of explosions, or at least some hand-to-hand combat. The situation may look rather dim for our hero at times, which adds to the suspense. We all know the formula. Hollywood has it down pat.

In Critical Path, Fuller sketched an outdoor geoscope, 200 feet in diameter, that'd be "highly visible to occupants of the UN building as well as to all those in New York City in the vicinity of Fiftieth Street." (pg. 175) His original idea for the Montreal '67 Expo Pavilion was likewise geoscopic -- a flat map transforming into a globe every so often. World Game computers would illuminate its many bulbs with various overlays, billboard style.

Both projects had a psychological dimension, which was precessionally important even though neither was actually implemented: instead of locking his global data displays in some spooky, secret cave, accessible only to those with high level clearances, he was projecting onto very public surfaces. Every UN diplomat would know that every other UN diplomat was seeing. That in itself was a revolutionary aspect of his design.

Today we'd call it "free and open source global data."