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What higher spatial dimensions mean for imagination, design, and singularity

The enormous, limiting machine in our society

Fundamentally, what we imagine, as designers and as people in our society, is limited by money. Money fuels the massive, intimidating systems that continue to perpetuate the status quo. Money constrains businesses to act on behalf of shareholders. Money incentivizes us to act within the scope of our role for our employer. Money influences whose words get published and publicized, shaping our shared vision of the world. Money also gives people the luxury of making decisions without always fully evaluating what the outcome of those decisions may be.

This post is not going to be about money (or overthrowing capitalism) or anything like that, however. Drawing out all the connections to money made me feel frustrated and stuck in this enormous machine. I think we’re all stuck. So, let’s abstract a bit.

Stepping back from the massive machine running our existence

Designers are praised for immersing themselves in the worlds of the people for whom they are designing. At the same time, taking a step back from those worlds can be essential for finding clarity. Care to take one – maybe a few – steps back with me?

When was the last time you questioned what you see as your complete reality?

Today, we are stepping back from our 3-dimensional world, evaluating it as one piece of a larger whole. In doing so, I hope to inspire new paths to pursue in addressing our state of being.

Our reality as a slice of a greater existence

Let’s visit the 1884 classic Flatland, a cautionary tale of sorts. The story is told from the point of view of a square, named A Square, whose 2-dimensional world receives a visit from A Sphere. A Sphere arrives to introduce A Square to the 3-dimensional world of Spaceland, but he is not able to communicate this message in Flatland. Here, A Sphere’s 3-dimensional shape registers as a 2-dimensional circle. By moving up and down his third axis, A Sphere demonstrates his changing size as an indicator of a different spatial existence. He is, in fact, an infinite amount of circles.

Abbot, Edwin. Flatland (Illustrated). Corundum Classics.

It’s not until A Square is pulled into the 3rd dimension, however, that he believes this larger reality A Sphere describes to him.

Similarly, there could be a whole other existence in a higher spatial dimension, which we are not able (or perhaps willing) to recognize as such; of which our world could be but a section or a shadow. We could be living in a singular cross-section of a body of infinite worlds, all bound a 4th dimension.

But humans want to “see it to believe it,” just like A Square.

I believe what is truly limiting what we can imagine is our society’s collective conception of reality as this world we perceive around us.

Liberation in rejecting our perceptions

When the X-ray was first invented around 1875, it created a revolution for artists and mathematicians alike. The X-ray was proof that there are parts to our world that our eyes cannot register on their own. Following the X-ray were the discoveries of radioactivity and electromagnetic waves: more invisible reality. Given these discoveries, what else are we possibly not seeing? These were catalysts for the movement of the spatial 4th dimension.

Up until this point, artwork was very traditional and was expected to adhere to perspective. Now that our eye’s interpretation of the world was considered incomplete, artists were free to explore what our complete world may truly be. Art became more theoretical, notably with cubism, a movement led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

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Picasso and Braque called themselves Orville and Wilbur, because, like the Wright Brothers, they were inventing something new. To them, cubism was the new realism.

“It is to the fourth dimension alone that we owe a new norm of the perfect.”- Guillaume Apollinaire, poet and writer, 1912

Picasso famously described his goal in cubism as “paint[ing] objects as I think them, not as I see them.” His 1910 portrait of Kahnweiler, a German art dealer and writer, explores ideas of transparency and a more fluid interpretation of space. It starts to evoke a 4th dimension, because it’s so determinately not the 3rd dimension.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Kahnweiler
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Kahnweiler

A tool to transcend our perceptions

Charles Howard Hinton, a mathematician and science fiction writer, explored how we might achieve a cognitive understanding of a spatial 4th dimension in his 1912 publication The Fourth Dimension. Linda Dalrymple Henderson, PhD, explains his theory that, “by memorizing the relative positions and color gradations of cubes within large blocks, Hinton’s readers were to develop their mental powers and transcend self-oriented perception (eg. the senses of left/right and up/down or gravity).”

Frontispiece from Charles Howard Hinton, The Fourth Dimension (London, 1904)
Frontispiece from Charles Howard Hinton, The Fourth Dimension (London, 1904)

Charles’ pieces start to get us thinking about how the objects in our world might amount to something larger; a tessaract of infinite cubes. They challenge our brains to record new sets of information with seemingly familiar objects.

In The Fourth Dimension, Hinton wrote, “The merit of speculations on the fourth dimension… is chiefly that they stimulate the imagination, and free the intellect from the shackles of the actual. A complete intellectual liberty would only be attained by a mind which could think as easily of the non-existent as of the existent” (pages 573-574).

Imagining the non-existent just as easily as the existent is no easy feat. Hinton offered one tool for us more than a century ago… it’s our turn to design some more.

Technology and the fourth spatial dimension

Author and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil writes about the exponential rate of growth of technology in his article The Law of Accelerating Returns. He predicts that singularity is near; in calculating the amount of neurons and neuron connections in a brain, he estimates that in just 5 years (2023), we’ll be able to achieve the human brain capability with technology for just $1,000. Even more wild is his long-term estimation that, by 2059, we will be able to achieve human race capability for just one cent.

What might happen when we combine this computational power with our robust formulas and calculations of greater spatial dimensions? Might our technology be able to reveal to us an entirely new world?

Will our technology adopt even more elements of divinity as it becomes the keeper to a higher awareness? Transcending to higher dimensions is also related to transcending to a higher consciousness in some Eastern religions. This makes me wonder…could our technology itself achieve enlightenment?

If our technology does reach enlightenment, then will it leave us behind, or will it take us along?

Given this power, could our technology ultimately rule humanity?

How might we, as designers, create technology so that humanity is incorporated into technology’s trajectory? I do not have the answer, but the first step to arriving at that answer is to imagine this greater world. So, let’s train ourselves to move beyond three dimensions and conceive the future.


Note: a lot of this material is drawn from a course I took at The University of Texas with Linda Dalrymple Henderson, PhD. I dusted off my old notes and used her work The Image and Imagination of the Fourth Dimension in Twentieth-Century Art and Culture as guides for the “liberation” section of this post.

Henderson, L. D. “The Image and Imagination of the Fourth Dimension in Twentieth-Century Art and Culture.” Configurations, vol. 17 no. 1, 2009, pp. 131-160. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/con.0.0070