In the main hall of the hands-on science exhibits at the Cape Town Science Center in South Africa, a lifeless, tattered globe stands under naked fluorescent bulbs, all but ignored by children passing through on school tours.
Across a sunblasted courtyard and up a dingy staircase, another globe — a digital globe — stands in a darkened room. This globe is a shining sphere of light. Children stand awe-struck; adults of a certain age may be reminded of images like Apollo 8’s Earthrise photograph, while Tolkien fans of all ages will recall the spherical, swirling “palantír” of Saruman in “The Lord of the Rings” (forged in the days when Middle Earth was still flat).
Until recently, cost and technical limitations have largely confined these modern spheres to institutional settings like science centers. But as technology improves and prices fall, it’s growing more likely that a digital orb will someday arrive in a classroom or boardroom — even a living room — near you.