Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 came out last week, the latest release in a video game series that dates back to 1982. Notably, this version simulates the entire world in high definition, drawing on 2+ petabytes of textures, topographical data, and satellite imagery from Bing Maps. Procedural generation AI reads the Bing data to populate the world with cars, grass, trees, etc. that correspond to real life traffic and weather patterns. So not only are there two trillion trees in the game, but each tree has leaves, and the wind that rustles these leaves creates corresponding headwind and tailwind for the pilots.
In a game of such scope, there are bound to be some bugs and glitches. The game seems to have trouble rendering tunnels that go beneath cities, so sometimes cars appear to drive up and over buildings à la Minority Report. The photogrammetry (process of adding height to aerial photographs) struggles to reproduce palm trees. And since Bing Maps itself is populated with data from OpenStreetMap, the game is also vulnerable to the errors of crowdsourced data. Most egregious is an impossibly narrow 212 story building in Melbourne, Australia. It turns out that last year an OpenStreetMaps user added an errant tag to a two story building in Melbourne, and game developers happened to export data for Australia during the brief window of time before the tag was corrected.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 features an errant 212-story tower in Melbourne. Many users are flying to see it before it gets fixed in a bug patch. (Source: @alexandermuscat via Twitter)
The game is a technical achievement, but it’s also landed at just the right time culturally: it’s very compelling to be able to freely fly around a realistic simulation of our planet right now. Lots of people are visiting (or sometimes flying into) their childhood homes, and Jeffrey Epstein’s island has also become a popular destination for pilots to visit. Apparently Rio de Janeiro is particularly incredible to flyover. As expected, many users are streaming their flights on Twitch and Youtube, offering virtual flyovers viewers around the world. One video that caught my eye was a flight to North Sentinel Island, which is home to one of the last communities on Earth that is uncontacted by the modern world.
Screenshot of a flight to North Sentinel Island on Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (Source: @calloftreyarch via YouTube).
North Sentinel Island is located in the Bay of Bengal, nominally a territory of India but much closer to Myanmar. The little that is known about the Sentinelese people has been gleaned from the handful of documented interactions that they’ve had with the outside world over the past 250 years. A survey vessel for the East India Company noted lights ashore in 1771 but did not investigate further. The British kidnapped six people from the island in 1880, each of whom sickened rapidly: the two adults died and the four children were quickly dropped back off on their island with a variety of gifts. India established limited contact in the 1970s, led by anthropologist T.N. Pandit: among other things, these visits revealed that the Sentinelese language is mutually unintelligible to that of neighboring islands, suggesting that the tribe has been completely isolated for a significant period of time. The visits stopped in 1997, but the Indian government continues to circumnavigate the island when conducting censuses, leading to current estimations that there are between 15 and 500 Sentinelese people. It has been observed that they salvage nearby shipwrecks for metal and that they probably eat shellfish.
North Sentinel’s status as an uncontacted island has been legally enforced by India since the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act was passed in 1956. This Act not only established a perimeter around North Sentinel Island to be enforced by the Indian Navy, it also exempts the Sentinelese from prosecution should they kill anybody who comes ashore. It’s important to underscore that this wasn’t some sort of agreement reached between the Sentinelese and the Indian government: the people of North Sentinel Island do not know what India is.
The island was most recently in the news in 2018 when John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old US missionary, attempted to convert the Sentinelese to Christianity. He illegally paid fishermen in nearby Port Blair to take him to North Sentinel Island and made two successful landings to the island, though the second time he was shot at with bow and arrow. Upon returning to the fishing boat, he bid the fisherman farewell, swam ashore for a final time, and was killed.
John was supported by the Kansas City-based missionary organization All Nations, where his training involved being dropped off blindfolded in a mock village in rural Kansas. During the simulations, fellow missionaries pretended to be hostile tribespeople (they dressed in thrift store clothes, wielded fake spears, and spoke gibberish) while John practiced conflict de-escalation and preached from the Bible. After his death, the international executive leader of All Nations reported that John was one of the best trainees the program ever had: “We pray that John’s sacrificial efforts will bear eternal fruit!”, read his obituary on their website.
North Sentinel Island (Source: NASA EO-1 team via WikiCommons)
There are about a hundred uncontacted tribes remaining in the world, most of which are in the Amazon and West Papua. These peoples live without sustained relationships with the outside world, but it would be too much to say that they are not influenced by it: climate change, logging, and mining affect them disastrously. The Indonesian government doesn’t grant territory to the uncontacted peoples of West Papua. In part, this is because they believe that formally declaring territory would undermine their status as uncontacted peoples and lead to increased meddling by the public, but there are of course more nefarious reasons that they aren’t granted land. The Brazilian government has taken a different approach and, since 1988, has sealed off lands in which indigenous people can live free from the pressure to assimilate. One man, believed the last member of an unknown tribe, has been tracked by the Brazilian government since 1996. It is illegal to trespass or develop within 42 square miles of him.
Screenshot from Flight Simulator 1.0, released in 1982.
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