Deep Time, Deep Space, Deep Play: Writing (to) the Future
Deep Time: recognition that humans, and human concerns,
originated in an extended period of time before humans existed;
Deep Field: enormity of space, relative to human experience of it;
Deep Play (per Clifford Geertz): games where the stakes are so high
that it is irrational to engage in them...
AND where the irrationality of the enterprise increases the meaningfulness of it all (?).
I take my starting point from a student named Jessica (April 2005):
I also like being reminded of how briefly we've been here. That's been happening plenty in this class, but I think I've been keeping evolution time and real time on seperate planes in my mind. Like there are the eons that Mayr and Dennet and Grobstein dealt with, and then there is the real time that Dalke and Barbin and (even) Eugenides live in.
This always happens in that course, "The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories"
which Paul and I have co-taught now a number of times (2004, 2005, 2007, 2009):
a shift in scale from the history of the universe that,
after spring break, leaves me the belated younger sister,
functioning (only) in the (puny) human dimension of time and space--
along with forty students who mostly DO NOT "like
being reminded of how briefly we've been here...."
I pick the biggest books I can find--Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass,
am contemplating the Bible and Bhagavad Gita for next year;
but on the immense scale of the universe--of deep space and time--
I (and my humanist's bag of tricks) will never measure up.
So, today, I'm/we are going to do some deep play, take an irrational risk,
try to find some meaning in this game, this interminable conversation
where I arrived late (and which we will all leave early....).
My focus will be not be (as Paul's was two weeks ago) on systems that
lack intentionality, but rather on those that have it, and want to signal that they do.
In chosing that focus, I am picking up from the forum:
Doug, The language of agency: will "agency" and all of the language that goes with it (intentionality, story-telling, etc.) help with the understanding of these [emergent] systems?
Tim, Intention as Beaver Dam or Blindspot: Maybe...outcomes produced by intentional action are never what the conscious intent of story-tellers was aiming for because our minds don't really understand how complex causality really works....unexpected or unintended outcomes following on intended action are a sign of incomplete work...the leaks in a beaver's dam, yet to be plugged....
Paul: the phenomena of "unintended consequences"/"unconceived alternatives" might...be regarded as "features" or "assets," in that they provide the wherewithal to continue the ongoing process of evolving....
I want us to look this morning @ some of the outcomes produced by intentional action;
I want us to think about the degree to which they might actually be assets in emergence.
I want to do this through the lenses provided by
1) looking @ contemporary work in "transatlantic literary studies"
2) reversing Paul's "unintentional" ripple-patterns
3) re-asking Mike's question, tabled two weeks ago
(as Paul was explaining the "bidirectional causal relation"
among the active inanimate and the model builders):
"how far back we can trace the reverse arrow of causation?"
How deep are the reciprocal interactions?
4) using Tim's gift of Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates
Across Millennia, by the physicist Gregory Benford (1999).
I. Transatlantic Literary Studies
This week's NYTimes Week in Review reported on American Literature: Words Without Borders:
Three of the five candidates in the fiction category of this year’s finalists for the National
Book Awards were not born in this country; two of those three live abroad. 'The American
idea...disregards national boundaries.' Or: you don't need an American address to write
an "American" book.
Wai-Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time (2006)
Dimock and Lawrence Buell, eds. Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature (2007)
Susan Manning and Andrew Taylor, eds. Transatlantic Literary Studies: A Reader (2007)
Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2007)
(for a critique, see The Valve, A Literary Organ: Improving Circulation, Venting Steam...)
all these folks are studying the evolution of literature on expansive scales (both temporal
and geographic); others are helping me think, in particular, about the difference that the
internet is making in the evolution of literary and critical forms--
"The Digital Humanities":
Ed Folsom, "Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives" (PMLA,October 2007)
N. Katherine Hayles, "Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts" (PMLA, October 2007)
But the American literary material looks backward, and the "digital humanities"
aren't looking far enough forward (yet), not beyond our current technologies.
What I/we have to do, to engage this deep play, to enter deep
time and space, is to stop looking backward, and head towards our
shared (contingent, unpredictable, improbable) future.
So I want to reverse both the pattern of Paul's ripples and Mike's question
about how far the arrow of reverse causation might go, to ask how--and
how far forward in time--we can project our intentions, and our meanings.
We're going to take an (imaginary) trip into the future together.
Step One: reversing the pattern test.
Paul asked us which of these was not designed,
and how we could know (how do we know that
the first five images were not designed?
are there any indices to non-intentionality?)
Variations of persistent pattern and explanations
Let's flip the question.
Which is these was designed?
How do you know?
Are there any indices to intentionality?
"Perhaps the most reliable wordless message to send across the millenia is awe....Great monuments...seek to carry messages through the ancient language of mass" (Benford 19, 21).
The great questions Benford asks in his book are precisely
the reverse of those Paul posed in our last session-->
Benford is prodding us towards recognizing,
not the power of randomness, as a generator of meaning,
but rather the opposite:
how would you recognize intention?
and how would you preserve the index to intentions?
Tim, Motel of the Mysteries: Benford isn't just satisfied to imagine a construct that could communicate that its builder was sentient: he wants it to reliably mean something across deep time, and he's savvy to the fact that meaning is slippery even in contemporaneous communications or representations.
Benford's game: devising long-term marks for nuclear waste
sites, a mission to Saturn, the Russian Mars lander.
He asks: how might we create a message that will say,
to the last of our species (or to new life forms that evolve):
This was made by humans! Pay attention!
Stay away (from nuclear waste)!
How to say "hi" across deep space and time,
how to be recognized as having (had)
intelligent and meaningful lives??
What qualities would make the message
recognizable to a reader we cannot imagine?
(It couldn't be text, or language;
it couldn't be on paper,
or on any other current technology....)
How would we assure that the reader would know that
there was conscious intention behind the message?
What would make the message distinctively
representative of an architect, a meaning-maker?
How to communicate that this is a pattern-with-a-purpose?
(Not to broach yet the question of how we would
assure that our future readers could actually
understand the meaning of our message...)
In Tim's terms: Makes you wonder about the arrow leading onward from story-tellers in Paul's diagram: is there a kind of information-storing or manipulating entity which someday plausibly could have agency which is compatible with and cognizant of emergent/evolving systems?...
One possibility: that we aim for the "obviously artificial,"
@ la the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey:
Another is that we mimic nature's non-intentional patterns:
Contemplating a message that could well outlast humanity....What sorts of messages can we transmit to our distant descendants in the language of the planet itself--in biological and environmental information? (Benford, 28)
7 modern wonders of green technology
I owe to another student, Julia Lewis, an essay by W. J. Thomas Mitchell,
"The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction,"
Modernism/Modernity (10, 3: September 2003), 481-500:
"we need a 'paleontology of the present,' a rethinking of our condition from the perspective of deep time, in order to produce a synthesis of the arts and sciences adequate to the challenges we face....If we are indeed living in a time of the plague of fantasies, perhaps the best cure that artists can offer is to unleash the images, in order to see where they lead us, how they go before us. A certain tactical irresponsibility with images might be just the right sort of homeopathic medicine for what plagues us.”
The problem w/ all these scenarios?...
is that the communication is one-directional:
we are trying to (imagine) sending a message, knowing that there will be no response. So the value of the indeterminacy and unpredictability of language (that we will not be understood exactly, and so learn back what we don't already know) is moot.
Mustn't an evolving system require something more than simple
"transferral of information": some interchange, and some alteration...?
(Mike's question again:) How deep are the reciprocal interactions?
A 10/13/09 New York Times article, The Collider, the Particle and a Theory about Fate,
also challenges the common assumption of unidirectionality:
We always assume that the past influences the future. But that is not necessarily true in the physics of Newton or Einstein. “For those of us who believe in physics,” Einstein once wrote to a friend, “this separation between past, present and future is only an illusion"....
Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, [one of whose projects] is an effort to show how the universe as we know it, with all its apparent regularity, could arise from pure randomness, a subject he calls “random dynamics"...
and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan, [have put forward the idea that the Large Hadron Collider] is being sabotaged by its own future....the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.....
This is a story about the future communicating w/ us.
My questions have been about how/can/might (do we want to) communicate w/ the future?
A discussion summary (Paul)
To further explore the difference between emergence and "intentionality" (story telling) and the question of "reverse arrows of causation" Anne offered a larger array of pictures and the challenge of whether a being could successfully signal to future beings that it itself had "intentional" (story telling) capabilities.
In looking at the images, a number of suggestions were made about how one might infer "intentionality" (story telling): multiple different patterns in a small space, imperfections in a generally patterned region, "the data too good." It was also suggested that there was in fact no certain way inherent to an image of saying whether it was the product of "intentionality" (story telling) or not since, in principle, any image can be created, given enough time, by a random generator (by analogy to typing monkeys producing The Tempest). Various cues can be used to estimate the likelihood that an image involved a design/intention but the key issue was whether the observer attributed to the processes involved in creating the image an intention to convey meaning.
Two issues "tabled" at this point were
- Can there be patterns independent of human observers?
- Can there be "intentionality" independent of humans?
The question of the communicability of "intentionality" (story telling) provoked a number of responses, including some questioning of why one would or wouldn't want to. One point was that all communication depends on technology, on some mechanism to decode a message, and that one had no way of knowing that the appropriate decoders (eyes, a CD player, a computer running a particular operating system, etc) would be available at any future time. Without it, there could be no communication of a message into the future, regardless of intent of the message. A second point was the thought that one may not be in principle be able to infer "intentionality" (story telling) without reciprocity, ie without the receiver being able to respond to the message and elicit a new message. This may be an important limitation on the assessment of "intentionality" (story telling) both from the future about the present and from the present about the past.
A third issue in thinking about the future was the issue of whether the very concept of a future was itself an "intentional" (story telling) concept, in being itself a "counter-factual." There is what we experience and then there is an imagined "what is not being experienced now," a counter-factual, ie the "future" (and, for that matter, the past).
[note added by meeting summarizer: I've used "intentionality" (story telling) throughout this summary instead of simply intentionality because there seemed to be some ambiguity in exactly what the latter term was intended to convey by different people at various points in the conversation. More on this in my own comments below]