People have been making maps of the world for more than 2,500 years. In that time, we’ve gathered enormous amounts of data about anything and everything that we can measure. In visualization, we’ve found the most efficient way to make sense of it all, refining cartography to a point where we can evaluate complex situations with a glance. And as the accuracy and precision of mapping have grown, we’ve been able to act on our ideas of the world with growing confidence —and consequence—in the world itself, and beyond.

In more recent years, the cartographic impulse has turned inward. Equipped with PET scanners and fMRI machines, neuroscientists are starting to chart the human brain. Even at the earliest stages of this research, the basic arrangement is becoming clear. And as it turns out, the cognitive structures they’re revealing are mirrored by the structure of mapping itself. In other words we’ve spent two and a half millennia taking the way we make sense of our immediate surroundings and reproducing it on a planetary scale. In the hands of people unaware of what they were doing, a perceptual system that first appeared on Earth some half billion years ago has now reached global dimensions.

The advent of virtual reality marks the point where these structures, the inner and the outer, converge. The point of intersection is the sense of space. In virtual reality, we can trigger it synthetically, giving mapping a canvas with depth and volume while giving our perception of maps the same tangible quality we find in our immediate surroundings. By connecting these representations to billions of sensors, light-speed networks, and massive computational power, we turn the cognitive superstructure of mapping into a direct extension of human vision.

Like telescopes bringing distant galaxies into the field of view, we can step into realms that are incomprehensibly large or small as easily as if  we were walking from one room to another. And, to the extent that we can use the same channels to respond, we can apply unprecedented intelligence to realms that were once beyond imagination. Most dramatically, we can exchange our own cartographically enhanced perceptions of the world with billions of others, seeing not only what they see but also their deeper connections to the planetary systems that bindour fates together.

It’s an astonishing moment in human history, and it’s not happening not a moment too soon. Having also unwittingly destabilized Earth’s climate, we must—very rapidly—develop the awareness to keep the disruptions we’ve caused from being the end of the civilization that caused them in the first place. This means cooperating on unprecedented levels in taking conscious control over our chief interface with the planet. That requires a combination of scientific, mathematic, cultural, and historic understanding; a perspective with the depth and scale to match the situation we’re in. For the generation that will need to cultivate this the most, the story of how we reached this point offers a place to begin