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Day May 29, 2011

A belated Towel Day perspective

This year, on Towel Day, I was busy, putting together a fundraising dinner for the UW Anthropology Department and the UW Student Farm.  So I didn’t really write anything, as I have in years past.  But not for lack of something to say.  I’m not sure what it is, exactly, about “Towel Day,” the semi-bogus holiday celebrated by fans of Douglas Adams each year, but it seems to bring out the “long view” in me, visions of civilizations rising and falling.  You’d think such thoughts would be triggered by someone more profound…by a rereading of Edward Gibbon or at least Barbara Tuchman, or even Carl Sagan reflecting on the immensity in which our parochial concerns are lost.

Nope.  Douglas Adams does it every time.  It’s the Golgafrinchans, at the end of Restaurant At the End of the Universe.

Because, of course, they’re us.  They’re our bumbling, over-specialized, incapable of making a living for themselves, useless skills aplenty, useful skills thin on the ground, selves.

And, as an archaeologist and social scientist, the Golgafrinchans always remind me of how fragile our civilization is.  I am a social scientist, and I read a good bit of contemporary social science, of course, but in my work I analyze phenomena at a much longer time scale.  I study societies and social groups as they come and go, are born by fission from some other group of people, flourish, perhaps give rise to social “offspring,” and eventually go extinct.  And what is more emblematic of social extinction than Adams’s portrayal of the Golgafrinchan Ark “B”, carrying the non-essential members of society off to form a new world….

The Golgafrinchans occupy a place in my personal “wax museum of humanity” right next to Danny Hillis’s Long Now Foundation, and their 10,000 year clock.  Although the 24 hour news cycle and the buzz of tweets and instant information would have you believe otherwise, it is over much longer time scales that we can evaluate the success, and equitability, and sustainability of the various ways we humans have, of being human.  Our battles might be fought in days or years or lifetimes, but it is only our descendants that can truly “keep score” and decide how well we did.

The Long Now clock is designed to transcend us as a civilization, and as one of the ways we can communicate some of what we’ve learned with our far-future descendants.  It is designed not to require folks to be close enough to us in time and culture that they can read our writings, or comprehend our ideas, but to draw upon principles that are presumably deeper — not necessarily built into the laws of physics, mind you — but comprehensible to beings who are descended from our kind of minds, our kind of bodies.

Combine the perspective of an anthropologist studying the slow coming and going of societies, and the perspective of a software and systems engineer, and I think you get a sub-genre of futurism and speculation:  what it takes to “recover” the good bits of a civilization, after a collapse or other disaster.  Or simply the slow erosion of deep time.

I think of this problem in algorithmic terms.  If you wanted to maximize the chances of being able to recreate us, down the road after we’ve lost our knowledge, lost this particular set of scientific/democratic values, what is the “minimal instruction set”?

In short, what is the “boot loader” for an open, democratic society  combining expressive freedom and respect for scientific discovery?

This is the closest I can come up with, and I do not claim that it’s a deterministic algorithm.  In other words, starting here, you are not guaranteed to replicate the aspects of our civilization we value.  It’s clearly stochastic, and there’s clearly a lot of noise.  Which means only that I’m giving an “initial condition” and transition probabilities for processes which are in the “basin of attraction” of the product we’re looking for, and that if you follow such rules, “more often than not,” you’d end up with something we’d recognize as an open society.  Assuming you either replicate the experiment a lot (i.e., send LOTS of Golgafrinchans to LOTS of uninhabited worlds), or wait for the experiment to repeat itself over and over (i.e., deep time).

But here’s the algorithm (and I don’t claim full originality here):

  1. Pay attention and observe patterns in the world around you, keeping an open mind.
  2. Bang the rocks together, so to speak, and make things.  Especially new things.
  3. Understand how competition and cooperation work, and why each is necessary.
  4. Study those who are different, with an open mind.
  5. Pass on what you learn, without too much prejudice.

Put this algorithm on an endless loop, and you have something approximating the progressive parts of the last several thousand years of Western Civilization.   Ignore a couple of key clauses, and you have a much wider array of outcomes.  Not all good, and some downright scary.   Do it just like this, and you might, if you’re lucky, end up with an open, tolerant, prosperous, enlightened democracy.

That’s it.  That’s what it takes.  The Golgafrinchans managed it, apparently…and so did we.  But it was a narrow victory, and the question is whether we can manage to keep it up…..

Happy Towel Day!