Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tombstone and the future of history

"The town too tough to die." That's the proud slogan of Tombstone, which perches in splendid isolation at the eastern fringe of the Sonoran desert, an hour's drive southeast of the city of Tucson, Arizona, and about 30 miles north of the Mexican border. I've come to Tucson for the weekend, and since my friend mysteriously failed to pick me up at the airport two days ago, I've had to improvise an alternative agenda. So it is that I find myself sharing a rental car with four other young travellers, hailing from Bermuda, Liverpool and Utrecht, all fellow denizens of a hostel a short walk from downtown Tucson. Unlike me, all are in their early twenties and in the midst of their respective trans-continental quests to "see America". Today, Tombstone is our chosen day-trip destination.

As no visitor to the area can fail to notice, this settlement, which some 1,600 souls call home, prides itself on being an icon of the Wild West. As a tourist attraction, it taps into that lucrative cultural reservoir of collective memory, part history and part myth, which has been immortalised -- or, to those inclined to emphasise the latter ingredient, generated -- by a thousand movies. The town's excellent name is perhaps one of the most effective imaginable evocations of hardbitten frontiersmen and devil-may-care gunslingers (possibly outdone only by the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico -- although in point of fact that town was actually named after a radio show in the 1950s). Tombstone's real claim to fame, however, is that it was the site of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881. Though the original event has long since passed, thankfully you can enjoy a re-enactment any time you care to visit: "Gunfight daily!" cry the billboards scattered en route.

Probably like many others unfamiliar with these parts, what I know about the actual history of the colonisation of the West by European Americans could fit comfortably on the back of a postage stamp, and despite my passion for cinema, the western is surely the genre of American film with which I'm least familiar. Even so, the look and feel, the sensibility, or mythos invoked here is so familiar from culture (and yet so remote from my own experience) that in my mind it is the very essence of B-movie cliche: hard stares, bold moustaches, stray bullets, and dust.

Why did I come here? I have no satisfactory answer to that question. I don't know what to make of the fact that I am spending time and money in this bone-dry, baking hot place in the middle of nowhere. But while pondering that I'm put in mind of an interesting comparison. While I was studying at the University of Melbourne at the turn of the century, part of my family lived in Ballarat, Victoria, an hour and a half away; a town founded during southeast Australia's gold rush. Ballarat has a major tourist attraction named Sovereign Hill, a recreated 01860s gold mining settlement and so-called "living museum". There are certain historical and aesthetic similarities -- both places are recreated frontier towns in the New World (albeit on different continents, though you'd be hard-pressed to pick that from appearances only) and owe their existence to the mid-to-late 19th century mad dash of prospectors seeking precious metals. Both are filled with wooden buildings, have walls adorned with ersatz parchmenty official looking posters, and have horses regularly clopping past, carts and passengers in tow... But whereas Sovereign Hill is a paid-admission only, privately owned attraction in its own right, near but not integrated with the modern city of Ballarat with its 80,000 inhabitants or so, the town of Tombstone, which is a place where people actually live and work in the early 21st century, is itself the attraction. Here ordinary life overlaps with the historical streetscape that is maintained by dint of tight local regulations, and which has made it a nationally listed attraction since the 01960s. Sovereign Hill is at pains to provide some kind of sense of life in the era (it has a working mine set up, you can pan for gold, there are educational programs including a school in which children can experience the classroom of a bygone era, writing out lines with a quill and inkwell). In Tombstone, by contrast, there are no fences between the dusty street and the desert -- the centre of the original town is itself the attraction -- but as a result, modern life keeps intruding. There are Harley Davidson motorcycles parked everywhere. You have to pay to get into the OK Corral. Every store is jammed full of souvenirs. (Oddly, visiting the town, and commemorating -- or commodifying -- your visit for future reference are merged, so seeing all those souvenirs and witty posters through every doorway inevitably becomes one of the main recollections you take away.) It's a place where people live, but to seems to operate almost entirely at the level of appearances and legend, throwing back to the Hollywood-made mythos. This creates a kind of paradox: the real town of Tombstone contrives to deliver a far more crassly commercial and less authentic experience of history as it might have been than the thoroughly controlled simulacrum at Sovereign Hill.

So, the weekend we're here, as it happens, the United States marks Memorial Day, which is an opportunity to celebrate the sacrifice of servicemen in the country's growing list of wars. But it's "Wyatt Earp Days" in Tombstone. This makes it one of two occasions annually when people descend on Tombstone to stroll around dressed gloriously in 01880s style -- the other is the 26 October anniversary of the O.K. Corral showdown. It is impossible to say in most cases which of these elegantly dressed are locals pandering to tourists, and which are tourists indulging their own eccentric hobby. I overhear one woman, elaborately dressed in heavy dresses, gleefully declaring that "We came here once and keep coming back!" At first I'm puzzled as to what the attraction could be -- wandering around in an overheated costume for a weekend. However, my fellow hostellers can't resist having their photos taken with a dapper couple in Wild West regalia who turned out to be repeat visitors from Michigan, and I begin to see how this role play could be fun: authenticity might be much less of a concern than the thrill of participating in the illusion, like actors on the stage.

What a place to visit! But what must it be like to live here? Evidently there are certain costs to living in a museum. I meet a bright eyed young lady behind the counter at a wild west outfitter. She's perhaps 16 or 17 years old, wearing a black dress recalling Jody Foster in "Maverick". I ask her about what it's like to live here. She explains that she didn't grow up in this town, but is originally from California, and her mother had decamped here in pursuit of her dream home -- a 01904 Victorian. Clearly, for a young woman, though, it's almost unbearably boring. "I'd love a skyscraper here," she says wistfully. "Or a McDonald's, a drive-in theater... anything!" Earlier this year, it seems the streets were restored to their unpaved state by the Tombstone Restoration Committee, because the asphalt may have endangered its coveted designation as a National Historic District. It's an interesting situation when an American town reverts to stones and dust in search of authenticity. And it is not unanimously appreciated, either. One of our group spotted a flyer in one of the store windows alluding to this, evidently an ongoing dispute in the town -- should the dust stay, or should it go?

What keeps these streets dusty in 02006 is a myth that is too tough to die. We feed the myths with our attention. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." What then of the future of Tombstone? Well, if Rukeyser is right, then as long as its stories persist, it seems Tombstone's viability as a place to visit, its existence in our universe, is assured. The most recent contributions to this corpus of storytelling, as far as Tombstone is concerned, are the movies Wyatt Earp (1994, starring Kevin Costner) and Tombstone (1993, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer). As one storekeeper remarked to me, there was a major resurgence of tourist interest in the area after these films came out. In fact, many of the souvenir posters and t-shirts for sale here feature those stars' faces rather than the less recognisable ones of the town's real historical inhabitants.

I asked my travelling companions whether they could think of anything interesting or special going on in our own era that people might see fit to devote their lives to preserving in this fashion in 130 years' time. We couldn't think of anything offhand. (Maybe, with our emerging ironic postmodern sensibilities, the real story in the future will be the idea of people dressing up their bodies, and dressing down their streets, to "recreate" the surface layer of a long-gone past.) Perhaps Michael Crichton's 1973 sci-fi movie Westworld had the right idea: the tourist attraction of the future could be a theme park which faithfully recreates the favourite, most highly mythologised times and places in the popular imaginary -- history's greatest hits. In Crichton's story, a whole Wild West theme park is populated with human-looking robots that can, at least in theory, be safely exploited by the (human) guests who pay a premium to satiate their appetites for realistic brothels and gunfights.

I picture that young lady from the clothing store getting her wish: a skyscraper in Tombstone -- now that would be worth seeing! You could put the whole town's population inside, with a spectacular, towering view of the surrounding landscape, and let the tourists amuse themselves by tussling with robots in the dust below. If our stories shape our world, we should choose them wisely. There are surely some sacrifices associated with making a living off the past, and this shrine to a past that I suspect in many ways never really existed, though fascinating, raises a lot of questions. Among them: what might a settlement be like that evinced as much devotion to its futures as Tombstone, Arizona does to its history?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Coulda woulda shoulda

"There are ever so many ways that a world might be; and one of these many ways is the way that this world is." ~David Lewis (On the Plurality of Worlds, Blackwell, 1986, p. 2)

On comedy show Saturday Night Live last week there was an ingenious opening segment featuring Al Gore, playing himself in a parallel universe in which he'd beaten George W. Bush and been elected 43rd President of the United States. Anyone paying attention to the Presidential contest in 02000 knows how close it came to happening that way. At a personal level, not everyone has a "what if" story as dramatic as Gore's, but it's salutary to think back on our own lives about the chance events, serendipities and unlikely twists of fate which sent us down one path rather than another: people we almost didn't meet, opportunities that happened to catch our attention; and other forks in the road...

Now, I have no hard evidence for this -- it's more of a sneaking suspicion -- but it seems to me that people unaccustomed to futures thinking may actually find it easier to entertain alternate histories than alternative futures. There's a superabundance of literature out there dealing with these counterfactual "what ifs" in terms of alternate histories. (See the alternate history website Uchronia -- formed from the Greek ou- "not" and chronos "time", c.f. utopia, "no place" -- or this Counterfactual Thinking page, for a philosophical introduction.)

At first it seemed to me that this might be the case because when it comes to past events, we can easily resort to a "default" story (whether personal memory, or the historical record) to use as a springboard for thinking how things could have been otherwise... but then, we also have that for the future, don't we -- continued growth, anyone? So the existence of a baseline or default story might not be the key factor; although the availability of specific reference points in memory (decisions made, random events, etc) surely helps bring the "reality" of these past alternatives much more alive to us.

My thinking now is that it may be easier for many people to think about counterfactual histories than divergent futures because in the former case we're relieved of the need to "get it right", and can explicitly situate ouselves in the realm of imagination, and feel safe about doing that. In the latter case, however -- the imagining process ("futureS") constantly gets mixed up with the desire or habit of evaluating predictive correctness ("The Future"), which keeps reining the imagination back in. Hence, the heuristic value of Dator's Second Law: the reason to entertain "ridiculous" ideas about futures is that they give licence to the mind to soar.

Could this perhaps be a kind of cognitive bias that serves to help us avoid the paralysis of having to consider too many alternatives, prospectively?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Kurzweil's dangerous idea

Last Saturday, 13 May 02006, was the Singularity Summit at Stanford University, featuring such luminaries as Ray Kurzweil, Douglas Hofstadter, Eric Drexler, and others. The Singularity is a rather fascinating concept pioneered by mathematician John von Neumann, popularised by Vernor Vinge in a famous 1993 paper and made famous in the last couple of books by Kurzweil. It is a hypothetical technological event or scenario in the not too distant future in which artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence. In mathematics a singularity is defined as "a point where a mathematical function goes to infinity or is in certain other ways ill-behaved". Applied to historical change, then, it's a sort of metaphor for the experience of scaling the dizzying heights of the curve of accelerating change, which amounts to an historical discontinuity -- an event so sudden and far-reaching that it's virtually unimaginable what things on the other side look like.

None of the speakers at the Stanford Summit that I can recall provided examples of previous singularity-like events. However, sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, in a very entertaining presentation for the Long Now Foundation in 02004, cited three historical instances that provided a foretaste of singularitarian discontinuity: the atomic bomb, LSD, and computer viruses. These were world-reinventing phenomena. Proponents of The (upcoming technological) Singularity claim it would be the mother of them all, bringing a transformation tantamount to an end to human limits, including death.

Now, some futurists use the concept of "wild cards" (high-impact, low probability events) to think about possible large scale changes. This can be a useful way to provoke thinking about sudden events that defy the assumptions and practices which collectively constitute "business as usual". A straightforward example of a wild card is the natural disaster -- tsunami, earthquake, or volcanic eruption. But the technological Singularity is not a wild card scenario in this sense. Yes, it is characterised by its advocates (of which Kurzweil is the chief prophet) as an extremely high impact event, but also one with high probability attached -- actually, they say, it's inevitable. Here is a cause for concern about the idea of The Singularity, or rather the way it is presented in some quarters.

John Brockman's 1 January 02006 Huffington Post article supplies a range of prominent inellectuals' responses to "The Edge" annual question, which was simply, "What is your Dangerous Idea?" The intention was to elicit from respondents their main thoughts that that could be considered dangerous not because they might be false -- but because they might be true. Kurzweil's answer was "The near-term inevitability of radical life extension and expansion." (There are lots of other interesting responses on very different themes - take a look.)

I like this suggestion. Radical life extension and expansion is most certainly a possibility worthy of careful consideration. Much public discussion coasts uneasily on a tissue of assumptions vulnerable to periodic disruption by unforeseen events. In light of current worries about funding the pensions of baby boomers on the verge of retirement, for instance, think how this challenge would be shifted by a series major medical breakthroughs extending their life expectancy. Many current problems would look very different today if they had been thought about carefully much earlier, when they were still just distant possibilities on the horizon. Our political debates have not yet evolved to expect the unexpected, but opinions about the future found in mainstream discussion, based on the need to seem reasonable, are so often wrong that it behooves us to entertain much more outlandish, radical, and yes, dangerous ideas. (Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick: "History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.") This rhymes with futurist Jim Dator's Second Law: "Any useful idea about the futures should appear to be ridiculous."

I no longer find the Kurzweilian outlook ridiculous -- though until quite recently I suppose I did. The idea of a technological singularity appeared somehow absurd to me, until I read and heard more about it and realized I had not been taking the acceleration of change in computing power seriously enough. (When change is accelerating, more happens during a short period late in the process than a long period early on.) I think the singularitarian views of Kurzweil and friends, not despite but because of their extremism, can be highly useful as a provocation and an example of the surprising or apparently ridiculous ideas that can become plausible in circumstances of extremely rapid change: twenty or thirty more years of Moore's law, exponential growth in computing power, and we could expect a lot of things to look different. I applaud singularitarians for challenging us to take accelerating change seriously. There are other, very big doubts I have about this line of thinking -- for instance, I am not convinced that other systems, such as ecological ones, will necessarily continue to support smooth sailing up the curve of computational speed for that period of time -- but we can focus on those concerns another time.

What troubles me is the posited inevitability of the Singularity; and the messianic end-of-days character with which it seems to be imbued. The idea has been described as "the rapture of the nerds", a comical name, but one with a disturbing grain of truth about it -- and the problem is right there in the label "singularity" ... it's a singular, exclusive, totalising conception of the future of humanity and the world, with a distinctly religious, eschatological air about it. In this light, it's a discourse that brooks no dissent; for the corollary message of inevitability is: get on board or get out of the way -- there's nothing else you can do. This notion of inevitability -- applied to *any* scenario that results from human decisions and behaviours, unlike a volcanic eruption -- truly is a dangerous idea. The danger is that people make it inevitable by accepting it as such; and to that extent they forego, or fail to recognise, the need and opportunity to imagine and pursue their preferred alternatives. We make and set these trends in motion, and then disown responsibility for them as if they were acts of God. This is highly suspect from a political as well as philosophical perspective.

Let's be clear: this is not an argument, luddite-style, against the "contents" of The Singularity scenario as undesirable (to the extent that such contents can actually be discerned, amid all the fluff and excitement). Perhaps it would be a desirable future, even a magnificent one, at least for some. Nor is it an argument that The Singularity can't or won't happen. Perhaps it will. But these are the wrong questions. Who's making these changes occur? Who wants it to happen, and why? What might we do or refrain from doing, individually and collectively, to make the things we'd like to see happen, and avoid or mitigate the things we don't? The implications of these possibilities for our action was not the focus of this particular event, but it absolutely should be. Otherwise, what's the point?

The argument I'm trying to make is that some proponents of The Singularity appear to be preparing themselves, and as many of the rest of us as possible, for The One True Future, and proselytising for recruits. Especially if their enthusiasm springs from a perception that stronger-than-human-AI would be an unqualified good, those people advertising its inevitability are, wittingly or not, colonising the future for us -- ensuring that debates on these other issues (that scenario's preferability and probability) are framed in terms that marginalise dissenting views. They place this human process beyond the scope of any discussion of preferences or values. Hence the Singularity Summit, while extremely well organised, well attended, and thought provoking -- all of which made being there more than worthwhile -- felt largely like a rally of the faithful. Two sceptical voices were featured in the program, Douglas Hofstadter and Bill McKibben, yet neither of whom made the point forcefully enough that I think most needs to be made. History is a human story, which ought to be written collaboratively and carefully, and the Singularitarian who treats that favourite scenario as a fait accompli is either naively or deviously denying the responsibility to consider our other possible paths.

That's why I'm a Singularity Sceptic.