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Instead of discovering that earth was round, we find that we live on a infinite, flat "earth".

What are some cultural implications if we were to live in a world like that (disregarding any physical impossibilities, and that gravity, biological/ecological systems remain roughly the same as reality).

One interesting idea is that cities could be tens of thousands of kilometers from another and that one can only explore so much of the world in their lifetime.

EDIT: I don't mean flat as in geometrically flat, but flat in general. There would still be mountain ranges and oceans and forests and stuff. But there would be different and exotic ecological systems as you travel.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 21 '15 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ This makes me wonder about how the sun would operate, giving that it has nothing to orbit. $\endgroup$ – Erik Mar 23 '15 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ This also makes me question what the situation is regarding the sky. Is there space beyond the clouds? Are there planets beyond that space? Are the planets also flat? $\endgroup$ – Pharap Aug 7 '15 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ What does the infinite plane contain? Obviously evolution would optimize to leverage access to resources. If an infinite plane contained a finite density of resources per area, you would see a strong tendency for one to start their life moving in a direction (towards infinity) and continue to do so. If it contains empty darkness, then resources have to diffuse outward, and its a different ballgame. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Sep 3 '15 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ The single most important factor would be that we had no time zones, which wuld make programers quite happy. All the rest is just minor details. $\endgroup$ – Burki Jul 14 '17 at 9:58

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The world would become progressively more alien as you moved across it.

Unlike on Earth, where animals and humans can move across the entirety of the world given a few thousand/million/tens of millions of years, an infinite flat earth would always have somewhere that's far enough away that nothing from where you are has ever been there.

This would probably lead to a continuous cycle of mass extinctions brought about by animals migrating in from a place where they have evolved in a manner that allows them to out-compete their neighbors. Something like Europe could exist, with mammals and birds forming most of the terrestrial fauna, when a group of highly evolved velociraptors finishes ten million years of gradual migration and then decimates the entire local ecosystem.

At a great enough distance, nothing would have even a single common ancestor. You'd likely get great patches of land in which only single celled or incredibly basic forms of life exist, since this form of life evolves in abiotic conditions relatively quickly, but then takes billions of years to become multi-cellular. These stretches would separate islands of complex life, which would become increasingly complex and highly evolved at their centers.

Aside from the mass extinctions that would occur when these life-islands grew into each other, different life islands could also evolve their own sentient species. These species, again, wouldn't share any common ancestors, and could well be separated by hundreds of millions of miles. They would all be incredibly alien to one another, more different than humans are from plants or mushrooms, but they could eventually come into contact with one another. Physically reaching one another would take quite a bit of time, since they'd likely be separated by immense distances, which would be difficult to traverse, but across which radio waves could probably travel.

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    $\begingroup$ Life Island collisions would be tricky - it's likely with no common ancestors that the life wouldn't be compatible, so predators can't just move into the new areas and eat things. The war would be with plants, which compete with each other for sunlight, water, and raw nutrients. You'd likely get a border region where plants start to mix, but animals mostly staying in their own area. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 20 '15 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ @DanSmolinske: assuming carbon and dna based life, it isn't unreasonable for predators to find something edible. They only have to eat, not to mate with their prey... $\endgroup$ – PlasmaHH Mar 21 '15 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ @PlasmaHH Finding two life forms both based on carbon is highly likely. Carbon being able to have chemical bonds with four different atoms allows for a wast number of different molecules to be formed. It is the most abundant atom with those properties making it the most likely for other life forms to be based upon. Being based on DNA is less likely but not completely far fetched for an alien life form. But the DNA code would likely be different. And due to the four bounds of carbon, molecules can be asymmetrical. We could find another life form which had mirrored DNA. $\endgroup$ – kasperd Mar 22 '15 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ @PlasmaHH It is not just DNA which is asymmetrical. Many organic molecules are asymmetrical. And sometimes the mirror image of a vital molecule turns out to be highly toxic. Even if life evolved identically in two places with the only difference being that everything in one instance was a mirror image of the other instance, we could end up with a situation in which eating species from the other branch of life would be toxic to you just due to being mirrored. $\endgroup$ – kasperd Mar 22 '15 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds a lot like the neighbouring worlds in Terry Prattchet's The Long Earth books. While there you don't have a physical connection between the worlds, animals and plants still get more and more different the farther you travel. $\endgroup$ – drat Apr 29 '15 at 7:30
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This would actually be really awesome. It wouldn't really be a planet anymore, but it could conveniently be called a plane or plane-et.

We could find the epicenter of life.

Presumably, abiogenesis is quite rare. On an infinite flat Earth it will certainly have occurred elsewhere, but not likely very near to us. Theoretically, we would eventually be able to travel fast enough that we could get to the edge of life. This is similar to how we look at the background radiation of the universe to see its birth.

Aliens on the same plane-et

Because life will have certainly occurred elsewhere (a vanishingly small chance in infinite space is a guarantee) we could meet lifeforms that would be totally alien to us, but clearly able to live in similar conditions. They might even be significantly more advanced than us.

Geo-location would be difficult

We couldn't build geosynchronous satellites. No GPS. For something to remain geostationary it would need to constantly thrust. Orbit wouldn't be possible. Getting the satellites into the same impossible space as the Sun (or moon if we've got it) wouldn't help because they wouldn't be good references for geolocation. The best we could do is built beacon towers. But the range would be incredibly limited and line-of-sight requirements would make it fairly ineffective.

Infinite resources

Obviously we wouldn't need to worry about resources so much. Including fresh air and water. We could pollute as much as we wanted because there would always be more resources further away.

Nomadic Lives

Most likely we'd live a long term nomadic life. Is it really worth building a massive city when the resources in the area will eventually be used up? Why would a farmer preserve their land if it's so much easier just to keep moving? When something like land becomes infinite, it's hardly precious anymore. We'd use it up and move on. Maybe we'll circle around in 10,000 years when things have replenished a bit.

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    $\begingroup$ Re "similar conditions." - the Earth's atmosphere has had significant changes in composition over time, especially the transition to an oxygen-rich atmosphere after cyanobacteria evolved. The speed that these changes propagate (diffusion, winds) would define the very outer limit of a "life island", and the atmosphere near the edge of two that "collided" might be toxic to one or both. $\endgroup$ – Random832 Mar 20 '15 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Random832 The question stipulates that "biological/ecological systems remain roughly the same as reality". So, I'm assuming atmospheric conditions are the same universally. We are after all assuming that the atmosphere is infinite, as it must be if we were around to discover that the world is an infinite plane. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Mar 20 '15 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Twelfth If plants have been around for billions of years there is likely a very wide margin of oxygenated air (and water) around the region where conventional advanced animal life lives, likely shaped at the margins by prevailing currents rather than small-scale weather variations. I take back what I said about advanced vs primitive life - In these marginal regions you've got life that's been evolving for just as long "on the run" to survive these harsh conditions $\endgroup$ – Random832 Mar 20 '15 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ Something akin to GPS is possible in such a world. As you say, orbit does not exist. Balloons work, though. Hang your GPS satellite from a tethered balloon. Put it well above the terrain, you'll get a decent range out of it. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Mar 21 '15 at 1:58
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    $\begingroup$ A small correction here. GPS satellites are not geosynchronous. But non-geosynchronous satellites wouldn't be possible either, so GPS still wouldn't be possible. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Mar 21 '15 at 19:45
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A lot of people ignored the question and delved into the rabbit hole of physical impossibilities given the physics of our known universe that were ruled out in the question. Given an infinite, planar type world with similar characteristics and physics to earth (though I am not sure how different temperate zones would come about) I agree that with others that life would develop separately in different locations. With infinity there is the possibility that completely separate forms of life (e.g., non-DNA based) would come into existence. I think the question is also interesting starting with a planar non-infinite landscape.

But in general, I think life forms would spread gradually over the landscape as they do on earth (though probably from different pockets of life on the infinite landscape). I do not see why, as one suggested, that we would continually (as a whole) be nomadic just because the world was infinitely flat. The answerer's premise was that we would run out of resources in one area and because of the infiniteness of the world, land and resources would not be valued and we would pull up stakes and move on. But just as happens here on earth (according to the premise), the land would replenish itself, and I think people would spread out naturally as population/resource pressures arose. The whole population would not pick up and move as nomads. And unless there was a scientific way to determine it, I do not think the population would realize the world was infinite so population migration would probably proceed much like it did no earth. They probably just wouldn't do the type of exploration we did to find shorter routes to places based on the curvature of the world.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the worldbuilding stack exchange! $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Mar 20 '15 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ @PipperChip Thank you for using the short version and not the usual 'this is how you should be doing things' greeting that most people do. $\endgroup$ – Pharap Aug 7 '15 at 2:19
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Life starting from a single point will create a so called Fairy Ring. Life will move outwards, expanding the ring seeking for a new resources. Many concentric ever expanding rings may be created as a new life evolves, that is able to use resources that the life in the previous ring was not able to use.

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    $\begingroup$ The interior would never be completely depleted of life, though, since there are plenty of forms of life that can sustain itself on constantly replenishing resources like rain and sunlight. $\endgroup$ – Random832 Mar 20 '15 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ Ringed, assuming (and maybe not even then), uniform environment. It could very easily cone out one direction, be linear, etc. depending on what's out there. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Mar 20 '15 at 22:18
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There's a lot of assumption that must be made here for this to work...I'm not entirely sure if life would ever evolve past single celled organisms as space scarcity is non-existent...it'd just expand forever in every direction as a one celled organism. It's possible that mammalian life would never come to dominate the planet as there isn't much room for mass extinction events either. If Humans did come to be, it would stand to reason there would still be dino's running around on the far frontiers...they did get several hundred million years to expand in every direction possible after all.

I highly doubt a working plate tectonic system could exist, which makes the land much more flat and I don't think you'd get much for mountains or deep oceans. I'd have no clue how geological processes would work in something like this either...infinite space = no pressure = no volcanoes? I'm not even sure you'd see hills.

No clue how suns and seasons would work...if at all. On a flat infinite planet, the suns rays would go off in all directions and you could probably see the next sun coming along way way off on the horizon (would there even be a horizon?). I doubt you could get a day/night cycle that even came close to resembling earth.

I'd suspect you'd get a series of lakes before you'd get oceans...tides wouldn't exist either.

Climate would be...well if air currents are influenced by the spin of the globe and a flat land has no spin, I'm really not sure if there would ever be dominant wind patterns. Rain is also affected here...if there were no strong trade winds to relocate rain to land, is farming even feasible? While I'm at it...it took millions upon millions of years for earths atmosphere to take the composition it has today...if there was a strong wind from one direction or the other, what happens when the air it draws is from a region that plant life hasn't made it to yet...would the air even been usable to us or animal life? A near infinitely large forest fire could create a cloud of smoke large enough to extinguish life as it floats over the infinite land.

Thermohaline circulation depends on a round globe (Thermohaline circulation is the 'great oceanic heat conveyor belt')...so heat distribution wouldn't be earth like. In Earths case, this would result in the northern atlantic, most notably England, Scotland, and Ireland to be completely frozen over. You'd most likely have extended glacial regions that reach from the area's that receive 0 sunlight and a middle band where the sun (suns?) travel on that are much warmer. Edit point - a flat land would be struck by sunlight evenly across it's entirety no? There might not be an arctic.

Would the planet have a magnetic field? Of course it couldn't exist naturally (just like the gravity situation) and would need to be handwaved into place...are there multiple magnetic norths? Is magnetism ever a possible method of navigation? I guess the stars wouldn't really move in this setup, so I would guess that stars would work for navigation quite well. Err..or maybe...you couldn't really have a moon as it'd eventually impact somewhere across the infinite. The stars really couldn't exist as they'd eventually come crashing down as well, no? With no magnetism and no starscape, navigation would be exceedingly difficult.

Is there a north/south pole, or is it infinite in these directions as well? I guess you'd need multiple suns to be over the planet at all times...actually you'd need an infinite number of suns over this infinite land wouldn't you?

Now to the cultural implications of a world of infinite size...I hate to say it, but you're in the range of 95 - 99% of this infinite plane existing in the realms of magic or if you'd prefer a 'god' crafting it...that same magic can be used to justify whatever cultural implications you feel like.

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    $\begingroup$ "I'm not entirely sure if life would ever evolve past single celled organisms as space scarcity is non-existent...it'd just expand forever in every direction as a one celled organism." While there would be infinite space around, that doesn't help the bacterium in the middle of the populated range which has to compete with other bacteria there and has no chance to ever reach the border of the inhabited zone. Just as the existence of Africa had only limited effects on evolution in Australia. Global extinction will indeed be unlikely, however. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Dec 6 '15 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ This is an excellent summary of why this (almost) can't be a natural world where life evolves. It's a virtual reality or an environment manufactured by means indistinguishable from magic. Which begs the question: why? For one answer read Charles Stross "Missile Gap". $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Dec 6 '15 at 22:28
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    $\begingroup$ Even though the world is infinite that doesn't mean there is infinite living space - depending on how the sun works, it may only illuminate a limited amount of land, meaning there is only a limited amount of habitable space. There may be another sun (e.g. alpha centauri) shining on another area 4 light years to the "south", but life could never spread that far, considering it would have to cross the depths of uninhabitable cold for practically all of the distance. $\endgroup$ – colmde Aug 30 '16 at 9:59
  • $\begingroup$ @colmde - The sun couldn't work either, unless it is infinite or the infinite somehow manages to orbits it. alpha centauri couldn't exist as it'd some day crash into this infinite land itself. The question has a lot of couldnt's in it. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Aug 30 '16 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Twelfth - it seems the OP is willing to handwave all of the couldn'ts though - ("disregarding any physical impossibilities") - we could assume "dark matter" or something holds it in space. $\endgroup$ – colmde Aug 31 '16 at 8:56
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With infinite living space, population control might not be such a major concern.

Isaac Asimov's essay "The Relativity of Wrong" can also be a good reference as to why the Earth was/could still be seen as flat... But what if the concave curvature of your living surface was that of the Earth's orbit instead? Idea is from a Larry Niven sci-fi novel "Ringworld".

An oversimplified immersive approach to visualizing said infinitely flat(relatively!) land would be found in a game of Halo.

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    $\begingroup$ At a constant maximum expansion speed, space/resources become available at v^2 (this is a common argument about spacefaring societies where it is v^3) whereas "natural" population growth is exponential. $\endgroup$ – Random832 Mar 20 '15 at 20:57
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I was actually at a planetarium this weekend and I thought of this question based on a display that was there. It had the travel times to pluto and Proxima Centauri based on a car, a plane, and a rocket ship and then light. What that drove home to me was that I think most of these answers are looking at things from too high of an abstraction perhaps.

On earth if I get on a plane there is a limit to how far I can travel; on this flat world there isn't, not in any direction. There isn't going to be just the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal but probably some Northwest Canal and a Hyperion Canal and a Southern Canal and that is still just in the same grid as we are in; There will be many, many more before one gets to the distance of the moon (1.3 light seconds away); which going a constant 80 mph 24 hours a day would take one 124 day to reach (or 248 to travel from one end to the other).

In this setting what would a MAD policy even mean? one could just out fit a fleet of Zeppelins and travel, but then again there is no assurance that one would necessarily reach a place one could live/conquer even if one traveled ones entire life (or many lifetimes). Likewise, the notion of a "UN"; there would always be nations known to at least some of the member nations that are not part of the UN, and eventually it would reach the point where traveling to and from meetings would take longer than meetings themselves would, or even longer than ones life; while still being much shorter than what can be communicated.

The speed of light being so much faster than anything else, it would be trivial to be able to communicate with people with whom contact is impossible. Mars is 3 light minutes away at closest approach but traveling at Mach 1 would take about 22 years to reach that distance, so quite close enough to communicate with via radio (or on stackexchange using fiber optics or satellites fixed to the celestial spheres, even if first person shooters might be out of the question) but generalized trade wouldn't really happen, not via shipping or rail or plane or even supersonic flight.

So there would be a limit to everything as we are finite even as the world would not be; nations may be fine with nuking some cities and conquering areas many times larger than our earth but eventually either in war or in peace stability would be reached as in 1984 in regions where to go further from their central regions is not worth the marginal effort of doing so.

There would also be many more opportunities for Columbian exchanges to happen, where technologies, foods, and illness (which can be devastating) from one area mix with another (giving the Old World the potato, tomato, chili pepper, corn, chocolate, etc.) Which means that even long trading expeditions could end up being very profitable.

Sure the fragmentation would mean that eventually the people that one is trading/communicating with may not even be people any more (I mean we already dealt with/are still dealing with that idea in our own pale blue dot) but they are really not any stranger or more dangerous than the people who closer at hand but still far enough away to be different than one is oneself, which as already pointed out can be literally next door.

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Not good (or at least, not much better than our history).

The issue is not only as much "real estate" you have, but how much of it is usable. For example, most of the Earth surface has no human population (the oceans, Antartica) or just a bare minimum (deserts, Amazonian).

In that sense, if your area becomes overcrowded, maybe the nearest free soil is too far away (or has to pass through too many of other tribes'territory) to be of any actual interest.

So you would begin with isolated human groups, which would grown and expand. At the beginning, most of them would be able to send excess population out of the frontier, but with time the "frontier" tribes will find that the free soil is too far away (think how once, the USA frontier run through the Appalachian Mountains).

As technology progresses, the "frontier tribes" would become bigger and bigger (because with better technology is easier to keep the political unity). There would be cycles of frontier nations becoming too big, desintegrating in several nations, and the new "inner" nations using their power to push back the weaker nations of the privous cycle. Probably, sometimes population pressure in the older (inner) nations would lead to massive migrations/waves of conquests, like those of the Germanic peoples or the Mongols.

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While abiogenesis might have a singular origin (with descendants of that singular event outracing any "new" events) as some of the answers have described, various other "steps" [multicellular life, intelligent life, industrial civilization] may not be so rare, and you could have multiple societies of different species and even entirely different anatomical basis within the same "life island" with the same basic chemistry and backdrop of oxygen-producing single-celled life. You wouldn't have to go so far as the "edge of life" to find "aliens". The edge of hominids, or of land vertebrates, would suffice. The further out, the more alien.

The first "aliens" would probably be human, or very nearly so (almost certainly a species descended from the same Homo/Australopithecus line.), which had independently developed to the point of inventing rapid transportation and radio.

On the subject of rapid transportation, in the book "Missile Gap" (in which Earth's continents are transplanted to the surface of a very large but finite flat megastructure), a large Ground-effect vehicle was used for exploration. (The name of the book, incidentally, comes from the fact that intercontinental ballistic missiles are not a viable technology in the uniform gravity field caused by such a world.)

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  • $\begingroup$ The "edge of life" is going to be incredibly inhospitable too. You'd have to pass through rings of ancient migratory animals and plants that have been slowly moving outwards to avoid being out-competed. At some point you'll start being limited on what you can eat, and will need to rely more and more on stores, until you're limited entirely to what you can transport. You also need to watch for vitamin and mineral deficiencies that might happen earlier. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 20 '15 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ @DanSmolinske My answer is focused on inner subsets - i.e. in addition to the edge of life there is an edge of homo sapiens (tens of thousands of years of low-tech travel out - none of these things are small on an earth-based scale), an edge of hominids, an edge of land vertebrates, etc, all of which are in the same inner region with a comfortable oxygenated atmosphere, and all of which have broadly similar algae. The "more basic" life in all cases has a bigger headstart - nothing without advanced technology is going to outrun its own habitat. $\endgroup$ – Random832 Mar 20 '15 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, it's just interesting to think about on the macroscopic/huge range scale. I'm imagining an exploration, similar in spirit to the old arctic explorations, using modern tech to try and push out further and further. I mean, theoretically you'd eventually even hit the oxygen bubble limits, outside of which the atmosphere would still be dominated by other gasses. But I'll stop messing with your answer. :) $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 20 '15 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ the interesting idea here: some of these creatures from Minecraft could be exactly this sort of "aliens" - evolved in different ecosystem, spread around the world.. $\endgroup$ – kagali-san Jun 21 '15 at 20:34
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Any world where an immortal can travel forever without repeating themselves has some interesting implications, some of the things to think about include the migration of disease strains through various populations, plant, human and animal, that call this world home. What happens when nomadic tribes that haven't stop moving in generations run into areas of closely settled farming communities where no-one goes anywhere and haven't for generations either. The migration of new plants and animals across the territories of the universe, introduced pests, the existence and extent of natural barriers like oceans and mountains is important as well. In fact in this kind of universe the water/land balance becomes of vital importance to how things move, if all bodies of water are ultimately landlocked then they don't provide a barrier to migration only a detour, if on the other hand all continents are ultimately islands then migrations are heavily curtailed in the overall scheme. Oceans may be too large to navigate, rivers too vast to bridge, deserts too wide to cross, any geographic feature that can act as a barrier or even a resource can potentially be so large as to create problems for mortals. A wood cutting camp may disappear into the forest they're cutting as regrowth cuts them off from their compatriots who still get logs floated down stream to them but have forgotten from whom they come. Human memory itself becomes a problem in dealing with such large distances.

How far and how fast waves of civilisation grow and collapse across an infinite space is also important; start with the speed of communication and transmission of force, whether aimed at revolting peasants or securing a border, this really sets some limits on centrally organised cultures. A traveler from a civilised enclave will probably be out of touch with their birth culture rather rapidly and into truly alien cultures reasonably shortly thereafter. In theory you could have a culture that spreads at the same rate it fails creating a ring of cities and industry that expands across the world leaving a growing circle of ruins in it's centre. Also consider what limits there may be on technological growth imposed by resource availability, if the world is flat is it also thin and therefore relatively devoid of mining opportunities

The other thing to look at is kind of the opposite of all of the above it's about things that are similar not things that are different. Ultimately in a truly infinite space you will leave behind your cultural, and possibly even your genetic, heritage but it's important when working on a world so vast to think about how far certain practices an individual takes for granted are distributed, can an immortal find that though they've walked 50 miles a day for millennia they still find that everyone they meet grows wheat and bakes bread or can a man walk but three days up the road and find the world is unrecognisable? How far can you go and not notice the differences in how the world is "out here".

That's just a few thoughts from a piece I've been working on, on and off, for a while, that uses Cosmic Macaroni as the backdrop but the principles are the same. I'm going to have to think about uses for an infinite flat space I've done "humanly infinite" spaces and objects before (worlds so large that nothing living in them lives long enough to see any noticeable fraction of them) but never flat spaces.

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Most of the answers until now have focused on biology/evolution, even though you asked about cultural implications. One of them would be that all reference points would be, of necessity, local.

Each place on the infinite Earth-plane could and would probably be considered as the center of the universe (figuratively and/or literally) by its inhabitants. You haven't specified how this flat Earth would be lit, but a single sun (or light source of any kind) could never be enough, so there must be either some kind of luminous sky or multiple suns revolving "up there", for example. In any case there would be no north, south, east or west. Navigation would have to be done using notable local landmarks such as mountain peaks. In a flat plane the "horizon" would not exist; things would just appear to become infinitesimally small in the distance, in a clear day, or obscured by air itself (no mixture of gases is perfectly transparent), so people who happened to live in a place with no great mountains around would effectively lack all navigational clues.

Religion and science would include these things in their paradigms. They would have to cope with infinity. Some could imagine that reality must be finite and therefore everything outside a given radius from the local origin is an illusion. Legends could be common about some adventurer or prophet who travelled to the end of the real world and came back.

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