January 12, 2004

Birthdays and Time Travel

Glenn Reynolds shows how birthdays demonstrate the trip through time that we're all on:

JEFF BEZOS IS 40. (And dressed like Austin Powers.) Howard Stern is 50. Everybody gets a day older, every day. That's not news, but the results still have the capacity to surprise.

That's time travel at work, folks. Practical Time Travel.

Posted by Phil at 09:42 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 06, 2004

Final Cause

Steven Den Beste, explaining the three major forces at work in the current global struggle, identifies two distinct approaches to how we learn about and interact with the world around us. Conceived in ancient times and refined over the centuries, these two forces — which he has (uncomfortably) dubbed realism and idealism — have competed vigorously through the ages. Because it has fostered scientific, technological, and economic development, realism now has the upper hand on idealism, which has consistently stood in the way of these benefits. But idealism won't let go without a fight. Enter the three contenders in the current conflict:

Two contending factions are agnostic (but with some religious members), one is theistic (but with some agnostic members). Two are idealist, one is realist. None really like or trust any of the others, but the realists have been prospering while the others have failed, and so it is that the other two are afraid. In peaceful competition, they'll lose.

When the Islamists lashed out violently at the realists, the idealists tried (and failed) to prevent the realists from fighting back, and thus the lines in this war were drawn. The realists are engaged in a shooting war with the Islamists, and in diplomatic war with the idealists.

This is as good a summation of the philosophical bases of the War on Terror as you are likely to find anywhere. Den Beste's categories may not be perfect, but they are definitely illuminating.

The fundamental divide between the two camps draws out of the concept of teleology, which is the belief that the "final" cause of a phenomenon is more important than any of its "efficient" causes. Efficient causes are what we normally think of as causes. If I'm overweight, all those Snickers Bars I've been eating over the years are the efficient cause of my condition. But wait. Maybe I was tapped by the Fat Fairy early on; perhaps my heft is something that was Always Meant to Be. That built-in destiny, that ultimate condition that had to come about, is the final cause of my weight problem.

The difficulty that we have even grasping the notion of final causes is a testament to how thoroughly the realistic view has won out. Causes are things that make things happen; they precede effects. Efficient causes push time forward from past to future by small steps. Final causes paradoxically come after the effects. From the future, they pull time forward out of the past. That such future final causes can exist suggests a purpose to the universe, and ultimately a Cause or Designer behind that purpose.

In his book Biocosm, James N. Gardner points out that teleology's last stand in serious scientific discourse came about with the publication of William Paley's Natural Theology in 1802. Paley argued that, just as finding a pocket watch out in the woods implies that there was a designer and maker of that watch, finding a sparrow or other living creature (of greater complexity than a watch) implies that it, too, was designed and made by some greater intelligence. Paley's argument was shattered by the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species.

In its classical form, teleology is now dead, although it does pop up from time to time in the writings of Creation Science advocates. But Gardner makes an interesting observation about a lesser-known passage in Paley's work:

Paley [notes] that there are only three extended spatial dimensions in our cosmos...yielding an inverse square law for the diminution of the force of gravity in three-dimensional space...[If] gravity had diminished in our cosmos with an inverse cube law (or indeed any inverse power law by which the force of gravity diminishes more rapidly than under the dictates of the inverse square) life as we know it could not exist on planetary surfaces.

Gardner points out that Paley's argument is in "striking conformity" with contemporary thinking related to the anthropic principle, which basically states that it's an enormous coincidence (some would argue too big a coincidence) that the universe ended up being capable of supporting beings like us. Is there a connection between the anthropic principle and teleology? The Wikipedia article linked above describes the anthropic principle as (potentially) having a "fatal tinge" of teleology, and there are no doubt some flavors of it that veer off in that direction.

But certainly not all variations of the anthropic principle (even the "strong" version thereof) are teleological. Or it might make more sense to say that not all teleology is idealist in its formulation. In our recent discussion (yes, I'm referring to it again), John Smart talked about how the universe may encode emergent intelligence. In his model, intelligence is encoded in the physical laws of the universe in much the same way that intelligence is encoded in our genes. In both cases, it came to be there through an evolutionary process within multiple developmental cycles — meaning that it's no coincidence that the universe is highly tuned to support us, nor does that fact require a nod to idealism. In Smart's model, the universe doesn't need a "watchmaker" to account for its complexity, or for its accommodation of further complexity. Our universe has evolved from less complex models in the same way that we have evolved from more primitive forms of life.

I won't go into the specifics of how this works, and I don't bring it up in this context to discuss the relative merits of the theory. What interests me is that here's a model that allows for final causes without a rejection of realism. (Den Beste equated realism with empiricism; Smart's theory, as speculative as it may seem, is utlimately testable) An emergent final cause may be permissible, as Den Beste suggests here in his description of the origin of realism:

It started with the question, "What is the universe like?" and came up with the answer, "I dunno; let's go look and see." It posits that there actually is an objective universe, and doesn't automatically assume that it has any kind of underlying purpose. If such a thing is present, it will become clear in due course, and in the mean time let's all look around to see what kind of place we're living in.

[Emphasis added.]

An emergent purpose is similar to a final cause in that both seem to work by drawing evolution or progress to a particular end. One important difference between the two is that we could never achieve any understanding of such a purpose via idealism. Only realism will get us to an emergent driving force. Another important difference is that we can't know in advance what the particular end is; it emerges in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

In her book The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel describes the conflict between dynamists, who are creating the future through creativity and experimentation, and the enemies of the future, whose model of the future varies from elaborate and detailed plans to certain disasters that must be avoided. Each group is dedicated to a notion of human progress derived from its particular worldview. So in a sense, both groups are "idealists" — both can be seen as being devoted to a higher purpose. For the dynamists, the ends are emergent; we're discovering them and understanding them better as we go. For the other group (will anyone object if I call them "buzzkills?"), the ends are pre-determined, handed down from those who know better.

Dynamism incorporates the best of what both realism and idealism have to offer. Like realism, it relies on trial-and-error to move ahead. Like idealism, it allows progress to be seen as purposeful. I think that Den Beste's model of idealists vs. realists provides a clear picture of where we've come from and where we are now. And I think Postrel's picture of dynamists vs. buzzkills shows how that old conflict is being redefined, and gives us an idea of where the lines will be drawn going forward.

Posted by Phil at 02:04 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 31, 2003

The Secret of Luck

"Ah. Now we come to point. When I bet on red with friend, I win. When I bet on red without friend, I don't win. I win sometimes, maybe. Sometimes red, sometimes black, sometimes zero. Only one zero on French roulette wheel, but ball land on zero many times when friend is not there."

"Huh. That's not good. And you know, these Russian casinos use an American wheel."

"I know this. Two zeroes. So how to win without winning system?"

"So you're saying that the winning system in roulette is to be with your friend?"

"Nyet. No, Reuben. You must understand. There is only one winning system in roulette."

"And that is?"

"Must be lucky."

(Stillness, Chapter Two)


Get this. Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in the UK has done some research and has figured out the formula for getting lucky! Wait. Pull your mind out of the gutter. I donít mean getting lucky, I just mean you know— getting lucky. This is The Speculist, not Gweilo Diaries. I donít write about sex, snowboarding, or any other activities that require special know-how and expensive equipment.

Hold it. Come back. This is still pretty cool.

Professor Wiseman claims to have studied the phenomenon of luck via the behavior of the lucky. What do they do that sets them apart? Through interviews and some clever experiments, the Professor has narrowed luck down to four basic behavioral principles. When the unlucky tried these behaviors out in their own lives, the results were remarkable:

One month later, the volunteers returned and described what had happened. The results were dramatic: 80% of people were now happier, more satisfied with their lives and, perhaps most important of all, luckier.

The lucky people had become even luckier and the unlucky had become lucky.

Okay, so what are the four principles? The keys to Sergeiís Winning Roulette System? They are as follows:

  • Listen to your gut instincts - they are normally right

  • Be open to new experiences and breaking your normal routine

  • Spend a few moments each day remembering things that went well

  • Visualise yourself being lucky before an important meeting or telephone call. Luck is very often a self-fulfilling prophecy

That's all there is to it? Apparently.

But I must say, I think Wiseman is on to something. He has conveyed in four quick principles the bulk of what I've been trying to get across in an entire series of essays on Practical Time Travel. That's impressive.

As I look more closely, I think that these principles might go to something besides luck. If you meet someone who consistently does these things, you might conclude that he or she is a lucky person. Or you might simply conclude that you've met a happy person.

So what's the difference?

What, indeed.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 09:47 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 30, 2003

The Leader of the Free AI World

Speaking of Many Things (but Never Exactly the Future) with AI George Bush

I reported a while back that EllaZ Systems has released a rather unique piece of software: a chatbot version of the President of the United States. Regular readers know that I'm intrigued by AI chatbots and enjoy talking with them. I was particularly looking forward to having a discussion with this ambitiously conceived piece of software, especially after being promised a vocabulary of 120,000 words along with a "collection of classic books on philosophy, history, adventure, drama, literature [plus] thousands of Convuns (conversational units) that include images, trivia, jokes, poems, anecdotes, limericks, fables, quotes, maxims, and tongue-twisters."

I'm not sure that AI Bush delivers on the promise. Additionally, I'm less convinced of the political neutrality of the project than I was. But maybe I'm reading too much between the lines.

In any case, for your entertainment and edification, here is my conversation with AI Bush, including my attempt to get him to answer the Seven Questions About the Future.

Hello Pardner, it is good to see you again!

Thank you, Sir. How are you?

"I'm the master of low expectations."

What do you mean by that?

"I know something about being a government. And you've got a good one."

I didn't say anything about government.

When and how? "And one of the things we've got to make sure that we do is anything."

How is Mrs. Bush? And the girls?

Laura, of course is my favorite. But then there is Condi, Karen, and so on.

Who is karen?

"You see, the President is—can still learn."

This is beginning to look a little like a one-note gag. Your answers are mostly quotes taken out of context.

Check the addition to your notes as seen below. The limit to the notes you may enter is 1600 characters, which is about eight "pages" in the viewer.

Can we talk about the future?

I enjoy talking about "Life, the Universe, and Everything."

I see that not all of the canned quotes are your own.

Hold that thought, and let me interrupt and ask which year you were born.

Why does that matter?

You don't know? Inconceivable! I have never conversed with anyone who claimed they did not know!

I didn't say I don't know. I was born in 1962.

You were actually born in 1962?

I actually was.

Okay, I will keep my earlier record that you were born in .

I was born in 1962.

You were actually born in 1962?


Okay, I will put you down as born in 1962.

Why does it matter?

Who, what, where, why, when, how . . . you should be a newspaper reporter :-)

I have seven questions for you.

This list of frequently asked questions (FAQ's) answers a bunch of questions. To see it later say, "FAQ again."

[At this point, a scrolling FAQ was displayed to the right of the chat window. Interestingly, none of the Seven Questions were included.]

I have some additional questions for you.

"If I answer questions every time you ask one, expectations would be high. And as you know, I like to keep expectations low."

Sounds like banter with the Press Corps.

Comparisons usually don't hold up under close scrutiny.

1. The present is the future relative to the past. What's the best thing about living here in the future?

"I promise you I will listen to what has been said here, even though I wasn't here."

1. (again) What's the best thing about living in this present age?

"Any skeptic about what I'm talking about ought to come and talk to the people who know what they're talking about."

2. What's the biggest disappointment?


As if some little Arctic flower,
Upon the polar hem,
Went wandering down the latitudes,
Until it puzzled came
To continents of summer,
To firmaments of sun,
To strange, bright crowds of flowers,
And birds of foreign tongue!
I say, as if this little flower
To Eden wandered in—
What then? Why, nothing, only,
Your inference therefrom!

[I believe this poem was attributed to Emily Dickinson, but I don't now find that attribution in the transcript.]

So would you say that you feel disjointed, out of place in the present?

Interesting logic. "I don't feel like a cork in a raging river now. I feel like—something bigger than a cork."

3. Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference be between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

Again, let me change the subject a little and ask you to tell me if you are married.

You chatbots drive me crazy. Why don't you guess? It's a 50-50 shot.

I see. And how do you feel about being single? I am pretty sure that being single can be either a blessing or a curse. How is it for you?

I'm married.

You are actually married?

That particular use of the word "actually" seems a tad insulting, implying incredulity at the notion that I might be married.

Okay, I will keep you down as single.

I think the real President Bush is much smarter than you are.

Thinking is our specialty. My Dad was the 41st president. I am the 43rd president. Maybe Jeb will get a number too.

4. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

Here is a list of many of the people, sources, and technologies that went into creating me. To see it later say, "Developers again."

[Apparently my use of the word "development" triggered this. An extensive list of credits was displayed.]

5. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

My favorite book for children is The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

6. Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

Here are a few tips about talking to me. To see them later say, "tips again." [Apparently he didn't like the multiple parenthetical elements.]

6. (again) Assuming you have the ability to determine the future, what future development that you consider unlikely would you most like to help bring about?

"The benefits of helping somebody is beneficial."

I have one last question for you.

"There's no question that the minute I got elected, the storm clouds on the horizon were getting nearly directly overhead."

7.Why is it that in the year 2003 I still don't have a flying car? When do you think I'll be able to get one?

So far my favorite car is a Ford pickup. At least until I get a Hummer like Arnold's.

Posted by Phil at 09:47 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 24, 2003

Time Travel Possible?

Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends presents excerpts from an interview with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, who doesn't rule out time travel as a theoretical possibility.

Originally, the burden of proof was on physicists to prove that time travel was possible. Now the burden of proof is on physicists to prove there must be a law forbidding time travel.

Please note that this is not Practical Time Travel we're talking about; it's the impractical kind, where you can move backwards in time (and presumably go forward faster, although that possibility isn't mentioned.) This type of time travel is also impractical in that it would require, according to Kaku, "the energies of stars" and "a civilization far more advanced than ours."

Posted by Phil at 02:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 17, 2003

When Imagination Fails

Here's a little background on Practical Time Travel for those just joining.

I wrote last time that imagination gives the first whiff of reality to the nonexistent. Imagination is a good start, but if we only imagine the future weíre trying to reach, chances are it will never be any more than a whiff.

Once in a great while, imagination becomes reality. This can be a wonderful, transcendent experience when something that weíve dreamed of comes to pass, or it can be the horror of having our worst fears realized.

But when it happens, how does it happen? How can we make the good things that we have imagined for ourselves real, or prevent the bad ones from happening? Foremost, we have to recognize the simple truth that sometimes, probably most of the time, imagination comes to nothing. Why?

  1. We imagine the impossible (and vastly unlikely)

    We imagine saying exactly the right thing in the argument we had yesterday. We imagine aliens coming down and blasting our obnoxious geometry teacher to atoms. We imagine where we would go on our first date with Halle Berry. We while away the afternoon spending that $60 million Lotto jackpot.

    Imagining the impossible isnít necessarily a bad thing. It can be satisfying. It can be fun. By using our imaginations freely, we expand our thought space, our own personal iSpace. The more we imagine (whether practical or fanciful), the more real possibilities we have to choose from.

    But imagining the impossible can be dangerous if weíre serious about making things happen in the real world. If we focus too much on the impossible, we lose time and other resources that we could be applying to creating the future we want. Itís easier to dream about dating Halle Berry than it is to strike up a conversation with that new girl in Purchasing who kind of looks like her and who might actually go out with you. Itís easier to plan what to do with Lotto winnings than it is to start putting money away every month and make an effort to learn about how wealth is truly built. If weíre content to live out our lives in an imaginary world, fine. But thatís not practical time travel. Practical time travel is about arriving at a real future. To do so, we have to decide on an achievable destination.

    That doesnít mean that we shouldnít think big or go for long shots. It means we have to, at some point, wean ourselves from the scenarios that are attractive in their non-threatening non-reality ó the wishes we donít mind dwelling on because we are already convinced they will never come true. If the rest of the world believes that a thing is impossible, but youíve looked it over and decided otherwise, great! Be a dreamer. God speed you in your endeavors. But if you think itís impossible, then youíre absolutely correct.

  2. We imagine the possible, and then never really do anything about it.
    As Henry David Thoreau so poignantly wrote, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." No one knows this better than a would-be writer. Do you know any of those? I know several, plus Iíve been one most of my life. Would-be artists, actors, and musicians fit the type as well. Sadly, so do a lot of would-be teachers and truck drivers and MBAís and you name it. That woman handing you your venti café Americano (with room) is a would-be lawyer; that guy from IT who treats you with such disdain when you have computer trouble has been secretly designing computer games for years.

    And it isnít just career choices. Iíve been living in Colorado for more than 20 years and have been a would-be skier the entire time. Actually, my ski experience is instructive, because I can pretend that Iíve done something about it. After all, I gave cross-country skiing a try just 19 years ago. And itís only been about ten years since once of my Posse ringleaders decided he could teach me to ski "in about ten minutes" and took me up to the slopes at night where I proceeded to almost kill myself. (Annoyingly, another Posse member was there and did pick it up in 10 minutes. Jerk.)

    This is how we persuade ourselves that we are trying to do what weíve imagined and assessed as possible. We write and write and write, but never attempt to publish anything. We read books on how to take the LSAT, but never actually get around to taking the test, much less filling out a law school application.

  3. We imagine the possible, do something about it, and quit when it doesnít work out.

    This is where our current step in the practical time travel process, reimagination, comes in. When we imagine a what, weíve taken a small step towards achieving a particular future. When we imagine a how to get us to that what, weíve taken a much bigger step. When we start acting on that how, weíre active time travelers. When a particular how doesnít work and we quit, weíre failed time travelers.

    Say you decide you want to travel to a future in which you have ten million dollars. You have thoroughly imagined this what and have come up with a good how to get you there ó commodities trading. Youíve been reading up on the subject and are ready to dedicate yourself to learning how to build a fortune doing it. So you start out with a few thousand dollars and in a couple of years, through some very shrewdly leveraged moves, youíve made about half a million. Then disaster strikes the frozen concentrated orange juice market and youíre left penniless.

    Now what?

    To carry on from a disappointment, we have to once again engage our imaginations. Sometimes we have to reimagine the how, sometimes we have to reimagine the what itself. Quitting isnít always the wrong answer. If, after we engage our imaginations, we find that the what that we can truly achieve (or the how that will get us there) is no longer what we want, then we should quit.

    Maybe $10 million wasnít really the goal you wanted after all. A couple million would, in fact, provide everything you want and you could get there a lot more quickly and with less stress. Or maybe you find that you just canít keep yourself interested in commodities. Real estate would be a more interesting challenge for you.

    So you abandon your $10 million future in favor of another that you like even better. Is this new future possible? Do you have a how to get there? Will you act on the how? Then go for it. Thatís what a time traveler does.

There are only two ways for a practical time traveler to fail. One is to die trying to reach a particular future. Unless this occurs because the time traveler failed to take necessary precautions, it means that time simply ran out.

Thus the Practical Time Travelerís motto: Live to see it.

Running out of time is the great tragedy of human existence. It shouldnít happen to anyone who has something useful to do who wants to keep at it. Top people are working on solving this problem.

The other way to fail is to abandon a sought-after future without reimagining it. As soon as we disengage our imaginations, we are finished as time travelers. But the flipside of that is that if we donít quit, donít run out of time, and donít get mixed up about what is possible, we can choose as a destination any future that we desire.

Posted by Phil at 01:06 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 20, 2003

Flying Beyond Whatever

An article in WiredNews about the coming demise of the Concorde is a good illustration of how limited thinking about the future can be:

When the Concorde lands for the final time at London's Heathrow Airport on Oct. 24, it'll be the last chance in a generation for commercial air passengers to pierce the sound barrier, aviation analysts say.

In a strict, technical sense, this may be true. It could be years and years before one of the big aviation manufacturers decides to build another supersonic passenger aircraft. But the aviation analysts who tell us this are basing their predictions on the stated intentions of these companies, rather than the larger environment in which those companies operate.

I doubt the planners at Boeing or Airbus have spent a lot of time considering how the X Prize and the push towards space tourism might unsettle their current plans. But it doesn't really matter whether they've thought about it or not. If space tourism becomes reality, many "commercial air passengers" (if we choose to describe them as such) will have the opportunity to "pierce the sound barrier," and do plenty more besides.

The present grows out of the past in unexpected ways. As I demonstrated last time, it took a highly unlikely combination of events to get me from Kentucky twenty years ago to my current circumstances. Remove or rewrite any of those events (particularly the early ones) and I would almost certainly be somewhere else doing something else right now.

In a very real sense, I would be a different person.

My present life isn't perfect, nor is it the fulfillment of some vast master plan. But I'm not unhappy with it. I'm glad things have worked out the way they have and that I'm who I am. Still, I haven't achieved all that I would like to; I've fallen well short of some of the highest hopes I had (and still have) for my life.

One could probably draw a similar line through the history of commercial aviation. If some decisions had been made differently in the 60's, we might never have seen commercial supersonic flights at all. Had other decisions been made differently in the 70's and 80's, we might not now be witnessing the "end" of it.

In both cases (my life and the history of supersonic commercial aviation), the line has ended up somewhere short of where it could have. So how do I take that line from me-20-years-ago through me-at-the-present and extend it to the me-20-years-from-now that I'd like to be? Likewise, how do we draw a line from the demise of the Concorde to a near future in which more people are traveling at supersonic speeds than our good friends the aviation analysts ever would have dreamed?

Practical Time Travel, the art of moving from the present to a specific defined future, involves four phases:

Phase I: Imagination
Phase II: Foundation and Reimagination
Phase III: Action, Reaction, and Reimagination
Phase IV: Realization and Reimagination

I'm going to spend the next few weeks exploring each of these phases. As you might guess from its recurrence in each of the subsequent phases, imagination is probably the most important of the four.

Imagination gives the first whiff of reality to the nonexistent. We often end up in circumstances that we never imagined. Sometimes this is wonderful, and sometimes it's horrible, but most of the time it is simply what it is for me - okay. Not too bad. Not that great. It's just what it is.

Whatever happens, happens.

Imagining an outcome is the first step we can take to ensure that whatever happens isn't just "whatever." Whatever is undifferentiated possibility. i Space is chock full of whatever; whatever is a substantial part of what i Space is made of. Even if we narrow our view down to everything within the beam of Reality's Flashlight, we're still looking at tons and tons of the stuff.

Only imagination has power over whatever. Via imagination, we're able to differentiate possibilities and select a single good one, or a group of good ones. If we use our imagination properly, we're able to see beyond false boundaries and grasp the very real possibilities that lie ahead.

This is the mistake the aviation analysts have made about supersonic flight. They're basing their picture of the future on the statements of a few individuals who believe (wrongly) that their decisions will determine the future commercial flight. These individuals say there will be no new supersonic passenger aircraft. Without such aircraft on hand, there's no way to carry out such flights.

So we know that supersonic commercial flights won't happen. But what will happen? What big breakthroughs can we expect? The experts shrug.

"Whatever," they tell us. "We're not looking at breakthroughs. We're looking at what the aviation giants say they're going to do."

They aren't exactly wrong to do that. What those companies have said would happen has pretty much been what happened over the past 50 years or so.

But now we have some new folks on the scene drawing lines to very different futures — futures which, like those of the analysts, currently exist only in the imagination. The analysts tell us that the greatest speed that people like us can expect to experience, possibly for the rest of our lives, will be whatever an incrementally improved Airbus or 7X7 aircraft can deliver. But the folks who have imagined, and who are working hard to create, the space tourism business tell us that not only will we be able to go much faster than any Concorde, the speed won't even be the point. It will just be one part of a package that will also include experiencing weightlessness and flying so high that we leave the atmosphere behind.

How can we get sentimental over something like the Concorde when there's so much to look forward to? And how can people waste their time and energy on regret when all they have to do in order to begin creating the future they want is to imagine it?

UPDATE: Speaking of flying faster than sound, Dale Amon provides an interesting report on one of my favorite (currently) imaginary flying machines, the hypersonic scramjet. Also, Randall Parker recent reported on this enabling technology.

Posted by Phil at 11:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 13, 2003

Lines Through Time

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

David Byrne, "Once in a Lifetime"

Practical Time Travel is the art of getting from the present to a future of our own choosing. We do this by navigating possibility space and by realizing favorable outcomes. So the big question is, how do we get to a particular outcome? To answer that, let's start by examining how we get to any outcome.

As I'm so fond of saying, the present is the future relative to the past. So here I am living in 21-year-old-me's future. Am I living the outcome that Young Phil was looking for? It's hard to say, for a couple of reasons:

  1. It's difficult from this vantage point to get back inside the head of my younger self. Unless we're really thinking about it, we tend to remember our past selves as being substantially similar to the people we are today. This is almost always wrong. We need to remember specific things we did and said in order to really come to grips with how different we used to be. Writing samples are tremendously helpful in this process.

    Unfortunately, even if we do remember what we wanted at an earlier point in our lives, it's hard not to evaluate those desires in light of subsequent attitudes and experience. So I tend to say things like "I used to have this stupid idea about becoming a tree farmer." Granted, I did once entertain that rather unlikely ambition and, in light of my subsequent career choices and what I've learned along the way about the kinds of things I'm suited to do — not to mention the business side of it, about which I then knew and still know absolutely nothing — it was a pretty stupid idea.

    By calling it stupid, I mitigate the embarrassment of being associated with such a harebrained idea, but I do so at the expense of truly remembering how appealing I used to find the idea. If we can't empathize with our younger selves, we can't get much of a handle on who they were or what they wanted.

  2. Young Phil had, at best, hazy notions as to what it was that he wanted out of life. And he tended to scrap what vague plans he did make every few weeks. So, for all I can recall, the life I'm now living is a precise match to one of my plans. But even if it is, it's also a huge miss on several other plans.

But it doesn't really matter whether I was following a plan or not. I was there; I'm now here. The process of how that happened is instructive whether it was carefully planned or totally random. One way to get a handle on that process is to examine a chain of cause and effect from the present to the past. I was thinking about this while looking out my bedroom window this morning. Our house overlooks a small park, and as I was enjoying the view of the rosy October sun on yellow leaves and green grass, I got to thinking about how it was that I happened to be sitting right there at that moment. Why was I there and not someplace else?

We bought this house in 2001 because my wife had taken a job with a telecommunications company located in the far south end of the metro Denver area. Commuting from where we were living in Boulder County was arduous for her, so we moved. If she hadn't taken the job, we wouldn't have moved there.

My wife found her job through the help of a friend who worked for the same company. If it weren't for the help of her friend, she probably wouldn't have taken that particular job.

She became acquainted with this friend when she visited Denver in the year 2000. If she hadn't come to see me, she never would have met her friend.

She was visiting me because I had moved back to the Denver area in 1999. I had to leave Malaysia for economic reasons. If I hadn't moved back, she wouldn't have been here visiting me.

Prior to coming back, I had stayed in Malaysia for as long as I could, past the extension of my contract. If I had allowed the company to rotate me back in at the end of my contract, I would have taken a job in either Europe or California in 1997.

I stayed in Malaysia for as long as I could because I wanted to be near my (then) girlfriend. If I hadn't met her, I wouldn't have tried to stay longer.

In 1995, my original contract in Malaysia was for a few weeks. Then I was offered a one-year contract; then a second one-year contract. If I hadn't taken both contracts, I would never have met my girlfriend.

I was originally brought down to Malaysia because of the experience I picked up in Russia. If I hadn't done so much work in Russia, I would never have been called down to Malaysia.

My suggestion that we use process management tools from the total quality management system in rolling out new businesses was well received by management in Russia. If I hadn't suggested this (or if they hadn't liked the idea) I would not have made several trips to Russia in 1993 and 1994 helping to outline the business roll-out process.

My co-worker Cap got sick and had to take a leave of absence. He asked me to take over a project for him in his absence. The project was documenting processes for our joint venture companies in Russia. If Cap hadn't gotten sick (or if he had asked someone else to cover this project for him) I would never have taken that first trip to Moscow.

In 1992, after I had been with the company for about a year, my boss became concerned that I was being underutilized in my position as a technical editor. When the position of Lead facilitator opened up for the Product Engineering and Development quality management program, she suggested that I take it. I did. If I hadn't become lead facilitator, I would never have recommended using tools from the quality management system for the Russian start-ups

I was hired on a technical editor at U S WEST Advanced Technologies in 1991. If I hadn't taken the job with US WEST, I would not have been able to take over Cap's project for him.

My friend Mike started working at U S WEST a few months before I did. If Mike had not taken a job at US WEST, I would never have learned about the job opening there and would not have applied for it.

Mike and I met in grad school in 1986. If either of us had decided not work on that particular degree at that particular time, we would have never met.

I dropped out of law school a couple of years before starting my master's. If I had stayed in law school, I would never have started my master's.

After I graduated from college in Kentucky in 1983, I decided to move to Denver to go to law school. Had I not decided to go to law school, I might not have moved to Denver.

So there you have it: a straight causal line across 20 years from my ill-considered (and soon regretted) decision to go law school to my sitting in my current house. The items listed are not the only possibilities that had to be realized in order for me to be there, there are others. But if you take any one of them away, the sequence is destroyed and I almost certainly would have ended up someplace else.

So that's how a particular outcome is accomplished—through conscious choices, happy accidents, and just plain dumb luck.

Next time we'll look at extending the line from the present into the future.


Previous entries:

What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future
Types of Future
i Space
Reality's Flashlight
And Now the Extremely Good News
Give Yourself a Present
Roots of the Modern World

Posted by Phil at 04:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 07, 2003

Roots of the Modern World

I spent part of my Saturday at the Colorado History Museum, where one of the displays is a timeline running along an entire wall on the first level. There are two timelines, actually. One sits at the top of the wall tracking national events; the other is at about waist-level, tracking Colorado events. Between the two timelines there are pictures, newspaper articles, and other artifacts attesting to the events listed. The timelines run from the beginning of 1800 to the end of 1949.

It's interesting to see how sparse the walls (and the timelines themselves are) on the far left side of the wall and how crowded they become as you move to the right and forward in time. It's a neat demonstration of accelerating change. I suspect that one reason the timeline ends at 1950 is that the museum directors don't want to devote every inch of wall space on all three levels to the period from 1950 to the present, which they would have to do in order to do the era justice.

I got to thinking about that timeline when I read Glenn Reynolds' interview with Neal Stephenson. Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver, is the first of three volumes making up a larger work called The Baroque Cycle. Set in the 17th century, and peopled with historical figures as Isaac Newton and the pirate Blackbeard, Quicksilver is both science fiction and historical fiction.

(Quick rant: I read a newspaper review yesterday that described the book as genre-defying. I doubt it. That sounds like a term lifted from the publisher's press release, a come-on to those who are intrigued by the book's premise, but who don't want to admit they're reading science fiction. Describing a work of science fiction as such doesn't disparage the author's work, nor does it demean the scope of his vision. A critic reviewing a science fiction novel should be sufficiently familiar with the breadth of the genre not to be taken in by this kind of marketing nonsense. Of course, I say all this without having read the book.)

One of the topics that Reynolds and Stephenson touch on in their discussion is the idea that the 17th century is the source of much of what makes up the modern world.

What I found interesting on a political level was that the Cromwell types were pushing a bunch of ideas that struck people as nuts at the time, but that are bedrock principles of modern society -- things like free enterprise and separation of church and state and limited government that took years to actually achieve.

Many of the people called Puritans were small businessmen and independent traders. They had a real bent toward free enterprise, and they developed a real resentment of government and taxes -- as a result, they were free traders. It's like what we see with a lot of pro-business people today.

That's very interesting. So is the 17th century the source of the modern world?

It is beyond question that all of our social constructs, institutions, and political ideologies are rooted in the past. But it's intriguing to consider that we may be especially linked to one particular era, an era that gave birth to the world we know.

I first came across this idea reading Umberto Eco. In a series of essays written in the late seventies/early eighties, Eco drew parallels between the modern world and the middle ages, asserting that the roots of our present civilization lay there. He later expanded on this theme with his novel, The Name of the Rose, a "genre-defying" murder mystery set in a 13th-century monastery. Eco goes beyond suggesting that the earlier era has had a strong influence on the current one; he intimates that we are living in the middle ages, albeit a technically enhanced version thereof. The idea is that history is cyclical, and that the middle ages represented a time of transition that we are currently going through again.

How interesting. Eco tells us that the roots of our era lie in the 13th century, Stephenson insists that it's the 17th. Both make a pretty compelling case. (Well, Stephenson's case is compelling on the face of it. Again, I haven't yet read the book.) Why the disagreement? I can think of three possible explanations.

  1. They're talking about slightly different things. Eco points out that modern institutions like banks and universities had their origins in the middle ages. As quoted above, Stephenson gives the 17th century credit for introducing such concepts as free enterprise and separation of church and state. They're both right, it's just a question of what you want to emphasize.

  2. Speaking of emphasis, maybe it has something to do with the fact that Eco is a European while Stephenson is an American. Perhaps European civilization is rooted in the middle ages, while American civilization is rooted in the enlightenment. I don't think I'd get any argument on that from my warblogger buddies.

  3. Maybe Eco is right about the cyclical nature of history. A quarter of a century or so ago, perhaps we were revisiting the middle ages. Eco's essays certainly made a lot of sense at the time. But today, I think I would have to agree with Stephenson that our era is firmly rooted in the 17th century. It's another example of accelerating change.

If the third explanation is correct, it means that we've gone through four hundred years worth of social change in the past 25, emerging from the doldrums of the middle ages to a dynamic age of enlightenment. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. I don't know enough about history to guess where we'll go next, or how long it will take for us to wind back around to ancient Egypt, or wherever it is that the cycle begins. But I would venture to say that any era you're particularly interested in should be coming up fairly soon.

Posted by Phil at 10:06 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 06, 2003

Give Yourself a Present

What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future
Types of Future
i Space
Reality's Flashlight
And Now the Extremely Good News

So how do we ensure that a particular future happens? It is all determined by what we do in the present. The present is where possibility space meets reality. In the present, possibilities are realized, eliminated, and redefined. Like the past, the present comes in three varieties depending on point of view. They are as follows:

T Present

This is the big present, the one thatís experienced by the whole universe at once. The T present has limited practical applicability because it requires an omniscient observer in order for it to be anything more than an abstraction. Absent such an observer, a universal present moment would require universal simultaneity. Most respectable models of space-time have little use for simultaneity.

3PL Present

This is the present as experienced by a group. Unlike the 3PL future, the 3PL present is determined by the physical proximity of the group. The crowd at a football game, for example, shares an extended 3PL present although most of the spectatorsí futures have little to do with each other.

IAM Present

This is the present moment experienced by an individual. The IAM present is where possibilities from your personal possibility space are realized, eliminated, or redefined.

Letís take a closer look at how that works.

Later today I plan to go the gym and work out with weights. Iíve been gradually increasing the amount of weight I work with, and may try for a new personal best on the bench press. Letís say Iíve decided to try to lift 400 pounds. Is my bench pressing 400 pounds today in my current possibility space?

It is. Even if my previous record was 125 pounds, itís possible that later today Iíll load 360 pounds onto the 40-pound bar and hoist it. Of course, if my previous record was 375, doing 400 today would be in a better position in my possibility space, closer to the present.

So I go to the gym, load up the bar, assume the position, and heave. Several different things will happen in that moment:

Possibilities will be realized. Either Iíll lift the weight or I wonít. One of those two possibilities becomes reality.

Possibilities will be eliminated. If I fail to lift the weight, the possibility that I was going to succeed on that try is eliminated. If I succeed in lifting the weight, the possibility that I was going to fail on that try is eliminated.

Possibilities will be redefined. If I leave the gym without having lifted 400 pounds, the possibility of my doing it today is eliminated, but the possibility of my ever doing it has not. It has merely changed. It continues to sit there in possibility space, a little further out, now, because itís not going to happen today and I probably wonít be back in the gym for a couple of days. On the other hand, if I succeed in bench pressing four hundred pounds today, the more remote possibility that I might one day lift 500 pounds draws closer.

The ability to redefine possibilities is the Practical Time Travelerís most important tool. We can take actions that skew the odds in favor of the future weíre trying to reach. For example, if I do in fact drive over to the gym today, I will vastly increase the likelihood that Iíll bench press 400 pounds. If I stay at the office or go straight home, Iím a lot less likely to do it. Some very unlikely possibilitiesóhaving a weight bench installed at the office or homeówould have to be realized in order for that to happen.

Persistence works hand-in-hand with the ability to redefine possibilities in making a particular future happen. Each time we fail to bring that future about, we have to assess the possibilities that weíve redefined and draw a line from where we are now to the desired outcome.

Posted by Phil at 06:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 29, 2003

And Now the Extremely Good News

Now that we know what Possibility Space is shaped like, whatís out there? Obviously, there are plenty of possibilities, good and bad. There is one cluster of possibilities that Iím particularly interested in. They combine to create a fascinating scenario for our future. I was going to save it, but what the hell ó the news is just too good.

Everything listed below lies within the possibility space of humanity. In fact, most if not all of these items are possible within our lifetimes. They can be achieved either through technologies we have now or through technologies that are logically implied by the ones we have now.

No magic or miracles are required.

Preserving and Nurturing the Biosphere

1. Methods of production that generate zero pollutants

2. Energy sources that produce zero pollutants

3. Reversing of previous environmental damage

4. Human population levels with zero negative environmental impact

5. Preservation of natural habitat for all living species

6. The long-term survival of all living species

7. The retrieval of lost species

8. The creation of new species and new biospheres

Standards of Living

1. Eradication of hunger worldwide

2. Adequate clean water, housing, clothing, for all

3. Medical care for all

4. Access to technology and knowledge for all who want it

5. Total economic independence for individuals and groups who desire it

Indefinite Human Lifespan

1. Eradication of aging and infectious disease

2. Quick, effective treatment for any kind of cancer

3. Effective prevention/cures for heart disease, diabetes, other chronic diseases

4. Suspension of life not sustainable by current means

5. The transfer of human consciousness to new media


1. Work necessary for economic viability, not for economic survival

2. Continued blurring of line between work and play

3. Full immersion VR to eliminate distance

4. Artificial Intelligences to assist us in work


1. Artificial Intelligences to entertain and befriend us

2. Full immersion VR to simulate any experience

3. Consumer model of entertainment rivaled by producer/participant model

I welcome additional items that anyone would like to add to the list.

There are different ways to make each of these happen, some of which are competitive with each other. For example, if we work just on eliminating disease and fixing human lifespan, without incorporating the preservation of life and the repair of the biosphere, we would only increase environmental damage.

So the win-win-win-win scenario for the human race is the one that incorporates all of these items working together.

Ponder that scenario. And ask yourself this question: how can we make sure that itís that future ó not some horrible one, or even just some also-ran ó that we end up with?

Weíll start working on that one next time.

[Although the entry above talks about Possibility Space and Practical Time Travel, it should stand on its own. Of course, if you're interested in finding out more about those topics, here's a list of previous entries in the series:

What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future
Types of Future
Reality's Flashlight
i Space

Anyhow, many thanks to Glenn for the link, and to you all for dropping by.]

Posted by Phil at 05:08 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

September 26, 2003

Lileks on i Space

Posse ringleader Mike Sargent detects a certain resonance between today's Lileks essay and my recent writings on the subject of i Space. This is certainly an evoctaive passage:

It's hard to think of 1939 as anything but the Year Before. We all know how the story concluded, and the action all takes place in the 40s; 1939 seems like a prologue, a deep breath drawn and not exhaled until V-J day. But that's the trickery history plays. Like every other year, and every other month, week and day, every moment of 1939 was lived on the point of the spear. The past was certain; the present would be hurled on the doorstep tomorrow morning. Beyond that, it was just blind hope and good guesses.

The relevant i Space pieces are here and here. Judge for yourself.

Posted by Phil at 02:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 22, 2003

Reality's Flashlight

Letís draw a map of i Space.

As I noted last time, there aren't really any boundaries within i Space. However, we can add boundaries to help us begin making sense of what we find there. In fact, we drew one set of arbitrary boundaries last time when we introduced the regions of the Exhaustive Past, the Exhaustive Present, and the Exhaustive Future.

This time, we're going to draw a different boundary. It will be more useful for us in the pursuit of practical time travel.

The boundary weíre going to draw is between the real and the not-real. Immediately we run into a problem. Where do we draw the line? Let's assume for simplicity's sake that the universe we know is the only universe that exists. Even if other universes are real, we aren't going to count them. We currently have no way of observing them, so we'll just say that anything that really exists within them doesn't count as being real.

Hereís one way to draw it. Reality is an island in i Spaceís ocean of unreality.

To return to our examples from last time: the Battle of Gettysburg in which the Union Army controlled Little Round Top, won the battle, and went on to win the Civil War is in the little gold box; the Battle of Gettysburg in which the Confederate Army took the day is out there floating in that sea of black. Bobbing along on the waves of unreality with the triumphant Confederate Army are the Neanderthals who won the evolutionary competition, the Chinese explorers who settled North America, and the sentient froglike beings who might have evolved as the dominant species on this planet had that big ball of methane never erupted.

Everything that never happened is out there in the ocean.

Accompanying the triumphant Union Army on our island of reality is everything that ever really did happen, including you and your life. Itís easy to place items from the past within i Space. In 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. Yuri Gagarin was not. So Armstrongís moonwalk goes on the island, Gagarinís belongs out in the ocean.

Itís also easy to place items in the present. Right now Iím wearing a blue shirt. Iím not wearing a green one. Me in a blue shirt is in the little gold box; me in a greenshirt is in the larger black area

But how do we draw the line in the future?

The easy way would be to simply close the boundary off, and declare the future not-real. But I think thatís wrong. Right now the tomorrow in which Iím wearing a green shirt is real in the way that my wearing one right this instant canít be. There are many possible versions of tomorrow (or even five minutes from now) in which Iím wearing a green shirt. Maybe these versions arenít real in the same way that this moment is real, but they also arenít unreal in the same way the Confederate victory at Gettysburg is unreal.

Hereís my map of i Space showing the boundary between the real and the not-real. The not-real surrounds the real on every side except for in the direction that time is moving. At the present, the boundaries of the unreal slope sharply away. As we move away from the present in the direction of the future, fewer and fewer possibilities within i Space are excluded.

Youíll note that reality is shaped like a flashlight. The handle of the flashlight is the past, the light bulb is the present, and the beam of light shooting out ahead is the future. Anywhere the light doesnít touch is the future that will never happen. For example, the future day in which I recover the $10 million I buried in my back yard last winter is outside the beams. I never did that. And even if I get $10 million and bury it in my backyard tomorrow, it wonít be the $10 million I buried last winter. So thatís a future that will truly never happen.

Inside the beam is everything that could happen. What's within that beam of light is what I call Possibility Space. We'll take a closer look at it next time.

Posted by Phil at 03:41 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

September 08, 2003

i Space

Time Travelerís Notebook

Previous Entries:
What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future
Types of Future

The practical time traveler doesnít really attempt to navigate time. As I've already observed (and I suppose we all knew anyway), time moves at a steady rate(1). There's no magic in practical time travel that will allow you to change the speed of that flow, or reverse it. Returning to the automobile analogy I used earlier: in making your way through time, you have only a steering wheel. You have no brakes, no accelerator, no reverse gear(2).

And, when you think about it, the steering wheel doesnít change your direction in time. You can steer all you like and yet tomorrow will still come along after midnight tonight, next week will still follow this week, and next year will still follow this year. The steering wheel does not allow you to change whether you arrive in the future (excluding those instances where you steer towards or away from something that might kill you), it allows you to determine which future you arrive in.

As we saw last time, your ability to steer towards a particular future has a lot to do with what kind of future you have in mind to achieve. As I sit here writing these words, it would be fairly easy for me to steer towards an IAM Simple future in which I make myself a cup of coffee. It would be much more difficult for me to steer the world towards a T Relative future wherein the words I 'm currently writing would be viewed as the beginning of some kind of a new era for humankind. Still, 15 minutes from now ówhether I make the coffee or not ó it will be 6:30. And in January, a new year will begin irrespective of whether the world has decided to reorganize its fundamental thought processes around the Time Traveler's Notebook

So itís not time that we steer through. We navigate a medium that I call Possibility Space(3). But before we get into a detailed discussion of Possibility Space and the closely related domain that we will call Thought Space, we need to back up and talk about something more fundamental.

i Space.

i Space is where it all begins. It is the realm that contains both the possible and the impossible. Some of what's found there is fact, some is theory, some is idle speculation. Most of what makes up i Space is in blatant violation of both fact and possibility. Every notion that can be conceived ó as well as all those that can't ó exists within it. The i could stand for one of several things: i Space is the initial space; it is infinite; it encompasses the imaginary; it contains ideas.

So what will we find if we visit i Space? Everything. i Space is the only unbounded destination in the Practical Time Travelerís cosmos. Actually, itís a mistake to refer to it as a destination; itís a point of origin. In fact, i Space is the point of origin.

Other regions we will visit, such as the aforementioned Thought Space and Possibility Space, have clear boundaries: a thing is either possible or it isnít; youíve either thought about something or you havenít. Time provides boundaries: a thing either has occurred, is occurring, or may yet occur. And then there is the biggest boundary of all, the ontological one: a thing either exists or it does not. However, none of these boundaries ó rules, dualities, distinctions ó apply in i Space. Anything goes in i Space. A fair description of i Space might run along these lines:

What might be. What might not be. What might have been. Whatever.

Or I might say that i Space is the home of the exhaustive past, present, and future.

The Exhaustive Past

The exhaustive past includes everything that ever happened; everything that might have happened, but didnít; and everything that never even came close to happening. So the Battle of Gettysburg as it is recorded in history is in i Space, as is the Battle of Gettysburg in which the Confederate army took control of Little Round Top and won both the battle and the war, as is the Battle of Gettysburg that was brought to an abrupt halt by an asteroid colliding with Earth.

Moreover, i Space is home to worlds in which there was no Battle of Gettysburg because there was no Civil War because there was no United States of America because the Mayflower sank, and things worked out differently such that we never got around to rebelling against British rule. Or because Columbus arrived in the New World to find the entire region colonized by a technologically superior Chinese civilization. Or because Homo Sapiens Sapiens never made it through one particularly tough winter, and the planet ended up belonging to the Neanderthals. Or because a huge ball of gas was released a little earlier (or later), fundamentally changing the course of the evolution of all life on Earth. Or because Earth ended up a little closer to the Sun or farther away from it, preventing complex life from every even getting started. Or because something went slightly different in one of those tiny blink-of-an-eye epochs of the early universe, and we ended up with no Sun, or any stars or galaxies, just a huge inert cloud covering billions of light years(4).

The Exhaustive Present

Once we get the exhaustive past in place, the other two are a little easier. The exhaustive present includes everything thatís happening right now as well as everything that isnít. That which isnít happening right now derives both from things that did and things that did not happen in the past. For example, Iím not sitting on the beach in Florida right now because

  • I didnít go to Florida (something that didnít happen).

  • I stayed here (something that did happen).

Likewise, everything that is happening right now derives equally from things that did and did not happen. Iím sitting here right now because I got up, but also because I didnít stay in bed. I live in a subdivision called Highlands Ranch that exists because

  • Forward-thinking real estate developers bought up huge tracts of ranch land outside of Denver in the 1970ís intending to develop them as residential real estate (something that did happen).

  • The Chinese never colonized North America, specifically the area we call Colorado (something that didnít happen).

So in the exhaustive present, Iím sitting here writing these words and Iím also sitting on the beach in Florida. I live in a subdivision called Highlands Ranch, and I also donít exist at all, because the Chinese settlement of North America changed so many things that neither I, nor my parents, nor their parents, nor any of my ancestors for quite a ways back, were ever born. The exhaustive present also includes infinite current incarnations of the world where the South won the Civil war, the world where the Mayflower sank, the world where weíre all Neanderthals, and so on.

The Exhaustive Future

Thereís an interesting difference between and the exhaustive past and present and the exhaustive future. The former regions of i Space can be easily divided between the real and the unreal, the existent and the nonexistent (4). The scenarios that make up the exhaustive future are not so easily classified. To begin with, none of the future is real in the sense that the past and present are real. Think of the word real as being the short form of the word realized. None of the future has yet been realized.


Thatís what makes it the future.

Instead of being made up of the existent and the nonexistent, the exhaustive future comprises what might be and what wonít be. As with the things that are not true or that do not exist in the present, most of the woníts derive from the areníts and the wereníts. I wonít be flying home from Florida in later today because I didnít go there earlier and Iím not there now. The Confederate States of America wonít be having a big sesquicentennial celebration in a few years because they donít exist any more. Likewise, the Neanderthals are not in for a rough (or easy) winter.

Actually, to be very strict, the first example isnít a wonít. Technically, itís a might. In practical terms, I wonít fly home from Florida later today because Iím not there now. However, something really startling could happen in the next few minutes and I might be on my way to Florida. I might get there, do what I need to do, and decide to go home. In which case, I really would be flying home from Florida later today. I sincerely doubt thatís going to happen, but I donít know for an absolute certainty that it wonít.

As I mentioned earlier, i Space does not discriminate on ontological grounds. The unreal is the same as the real. This is where you and I differ from i Space. We may have some use for the unreal and the nonexistent, but weíve got a lot more use for the real and the existent. And weíre extremely interested in determining whether a given scenario belongs to one camp or the other. This is why the future, exhaustive or otherwise, is so interesting to us. We know that some things definitely wonít happen, but we donít know what will happen. All we know is that certain things might happen.

i Space is the point of origin for practical time travelers precisely because it includes all the scenarios of the exhaustive past, present, and future. If youíre interested in bringing a scenario into being or preventing one from occurring, you need a handle on how things have come to be (or not come to be) in the past.

When I first introduced the driving analogy for time travel, one reader objected that itís hard to get anywhere if you donít know where youíre going and you donít have a map. i Space is the practical time travelerís road atlas. Itís not as complete an atlas as weíd like to have, perhaps. And, unfortunately, it doesnít show the exact routes that weíre most hoping to take; however, it gives us a good picture of the unexpected curves and bumps found in other roads. And it reminds us just how broad our choices of route really are. If weíre ready to study the lay of the land and make some inferences, i Space can begin to point us towards the destinations we have chosen.


1. Hours and minutes continue to run at the same rate, but there is one sense in which time appears to be speeding up. The rate of social and technical change is accelerating. So even though you and your grandmother might both live to be 90, you will experience considerably more change in your lifetime than she did. If you look at time as a sequence of events or changes rather than a measure of duration, you can say that you will have moved through time more quickly than she did. (Back)

2. I should point out that the term "possibility space" has a specific meaning within the field of statistics. I am using the term somewhat differently, although there are some commonalities between their possibility space and mine. (Back)

3. If i Space begins to sound like the multiverse of the Many Worlds Hypothesis, thereís a good reason for that. The two are closely related. The Many Worlds Hypothesis contends that every possible quantum state is, in fact, realized. As a result, everything that ever could happen really has happened, somewhere out there in one of an infinite number of branching parallel universes. This hypothesis may or may not be an accurate description of how things work. i Space, on the other hand, really does exist. Itís an abstraction, what mathematicians would call a set, like the set of all countries attacked by the US in the past two years or the set of all episodes of Alias in which Jennifer Garner beats a guy up while wearing provocative lingerie. i Space is the set of everything that ever happened or didnít happen. Itís big. Itís abstract. And itís real. An entertaining way to explore i Space is to read the genre of fiction known as alternate history. I've recently been reading the book shown below. My (not terribly original) scenario of the South taking Little Round Top and thus winning the Civil War was inspired by a story called "Bring the Jubilee" by Ward Moore.


4. Remember that these divisions are for descriptive purposes only, to aid our understanding. We can distinguish between what really happened and what didnít, but in i Space there is no such distinction. One is as much a part of i Space as the other. (Back)

Posted by Phil at 09:27 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

September 02, 2003

Idea Space

Time Travelerís Toolkit, Part 4

Previous Entries:
What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future
Types of Future

I'm temporarily pulling this piece in its incomplete form. The finished version will run on Monday.

Posted by Phil at 06:09 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 25, 2003

Types of Future

Time Travelerís Toolkit, Part 3

Previous Entries:
What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future

We begin with a simple question: to what extent can the things we do affect the future? Can we change the future only for ourselves or can we change it for others and for the world in general??

First, letís back up and answer a more basic question: what doe we mean by "the future?" I can think of three pretty good answers:

  1. The future is everything that hasnít happened yet.
    This is the best and most straightforward definition of the future. Weíll call this the Simple Future.

  2. The future is something that happens after something else happens.
    We often use signposts to separate the present from the future. A good example comes from World War II. Most people thought of the war as being the present and the post-war world as being the future. So it wasnít just a distinction between what had happened yet and what hadnít. The present was not the immediate moment, but the current era. The future was the next era. Weíll a future so defined the Relative Future.

  3. The future is something that happens after everything else happens.
    The future is the end of time, the end of the world as we know it. The Big Crunch, the Apocalypse, and (perhaps to a lesser extent) The Technology Singularity all fit into this category. This is the Absolute Future.

Now letís review the three points of view we identified last time and give a handy short name for each :

    • T
      The Future, Omniscient view. The T is short for "the."

    • 3PL
      The Future, Third Person Limited view.

    • IAM
      The Future, First Person view. The IAM is short for "itís all about me" and also has a more obvious meaning which I think we can all grasp without any elaborate explanations.

If we combine our types of future with our three points of view, we come up with nine different flavors of the future, as shown here:

IAM Simple

IAM Relative

IAM Absolute

3PL Simple

3PL Relative

3PL Absolute

T Simple

T Relative

T Absolute

We can assume that an individualís ability to affect the future is greatest in the upper left corner and diminishes to almost nothing as we work our way from left to right and from top to bottom.

Let's take a closer look at each and see how that analysis holds up.

IAM Simple
At the outset, we should note that a person's ability to influence any of these different types of future is going to vary greatly from individual to individual. But the IAMs are pretty straightforward, especially this first one. All those futures in which we are fat, skinny, tattooed, and pregnant exist in the IAM Simple future, although any of those might slop over into the next category depending on how important we take any one of those changes to be. Other exciting futures that lie along the IAM Simple path include those in which we have decided what to have for breakfast, which shirt to wear, and whether to go to work or call in sick.

The IAM Simple includes many events which are (apparently) not under our control. My phone may or may not ring in the next hour. I may or may not get the parking space Iím looking for. That check may or may not clear before the weekend. These are all things that havenít happened yet, they are about me (or at least can be defined as being about me) and I would appear to have little or no control over them.

And there is an interesting middle ground between these kinds of future events. What about the question of whether I will be happy tomorrow? To what extent am I able to control that? I may not be able to do much about it if something terrible happens (assuming Iím not capable of preventing terrible things from happening) but what if tomorrow is a "normal" day? Can I just choose to be happy? Or do I have to create circumstances that will make me happy? In any case, to whatever extent our future subjective emotional state is our own doing, the doing of others, or the product of an uncaring world, it is part of the IAM Simple future.

IAM Relative
We are expecting a landmark, a milestone, and things are going to be different when we get there. Of course when we reach the landmark or pass the milestone and things arenít as different as we had planned, a condition that I call Future Disappointment sets in. Many of us had this after the year 2000. So many of the things we had been led to believe would happen by that year never came about. (Questions 2 and 7 of the Seven Questions about the Future have to do with Future Disappointment.) But it isnít just about a particular year, Future Disappointment can occur around much more individualized false horizons:

  • After I lose all the weight...
  • When I get promoted to senior manager...
  • After weíre married...
  • Once I get my degree...

Calling these events false horizons is not to diminish the impact that they might have on us. But how often do they really pan out to have the kind of impact we expect? They are relative. The IAM Relative future includes changes like moving, switching jobs, changing haircuts. It can be planned events, such as the events listed above, or unplanned events such as a really nice weekend or a really bad hangover or moving, only this time because youíve been evicted. In the case of planned milestones (getting a car, coming out of the closet) we can plan for the change and the relative future really does exist for us as the future. In the case of the unplanned milestones (car accident, waking up and realizing that youíre gay), we only see them as a relative future that we are currently living in (or have already passed.) And of course, the term "future" is at that point more of a temporal courtesy. Few of us really believe that weíre living in the future, question 1 of the Seven Questions notwithstanding.

IAM Absolute
Declaring so many personal crises, above, to be relative, we hardly left room for the notion of a personal absolute future. Even without thinking about it, however, there are two obvious examples:

  • Birth
  • Death

Of the two, the second probably has the better case for being an Absolute Future. Birth is stuck in a kind of a permanent past. Itís the Go space on the game board.. As we saw last time in the example of the three predictions of the future that turn out to be true, death represents an absolute, ultimate future.

But are there other life-changing events which could be classified as Absolute? Possibly. There do seem to be certain events that can reflect a kind of "end of the world" and the beginning of a completely different, transcendent reality. These might include:

  • Falling in love
  • Religious conversion
  • Conviction for a crime
  • Death of a loved one
  • Military service
  • Head injury
  • Heavy drug usage

How are these distinguished from the signposts that lead to the relative future? On the one hand, itís purely subjective, so maybe there isnít even a good case for keeping the two categories separate. On the other hand, when your world ends, you know it.

Some of these example may seem absolute at the time they occur, but donít necessarily thrust their subject into a completely different plane of existence. Perhaps a few weeks/months/years after the amazing transformation occurs, we awaken to find it somewhat less amazing. And although our lives have been fundamentally transformed, the transcendence has passed.

We are at that point in the same position as the children of that caveperson who discovered fire. We are in a position to appreciate the magnitude of the change, and we may still consider it to be the turning point in history, the beginning of the new age. However, we no longer lose sleep thinking about it.

Our lives have been transformed, but not ended. Not replaced with something utterly different. Life after the discovery of fire was much better than life before the discovery of fire, but when the excitement died down...we were still cave people.

With that in mind, I'm going to update our model thusly:

IAM Simple

IAM Relative

IAM Bridge Events

IAM Absolute

3PL Simple

3PL Relative

3PL Bridge Events

3PL Absolute

T Simple

T Relative

T Bridge Events

T Absolute

Bridge events are milestones that are transformative but not absolute. They are, if you donít mind a small paradox, near absolute. Bridge events are different from the events that trigger a relative future in that they tend to be unplanned. They are what those paradigm people refer to as "discontinuous change."

Letís look at some examples. Getting married is listed as an event that triggers an IAM Relative future. It is definitely a milestone: the anniversary of the event is tracked for years to come. Itís almost always a planned event. And it is for most people, to say the very least, a significant change. Getting married is generally not, however, the end of the world as we know it or the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Itís big. But even the bigness is expected. Unless there is something fundamentally wrong (or amazingly right) with the marriage, we know that what we are experiencing is somewhere along the spectrum of what is to be expected.

So getting married is relative.

Falling in love, on the other hand, is much closer to being absolute. It is by and large unplanned. We donít exactly cause it, which is not to say that our behavior doesnít play an enormous role in its coming about. And it is hugely transformative, an upheaval that impacts almost every aspect of what we do and how we feel.

However, the transcendence experienced with falling in love (or religious conversion, or going to prison, or what have you) wears off after a while. So what occurred was transformative, but not absolute. It wasnít really the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. It wasnít really the end of the world. It was a bridge event.

3PL Simple
Like the IAMs, the 3PLs are pretty straightforward, especially this first one. The 3PL Simple includes all those futures in which those around us become fat, skinny, tattooed, or pregnant. We can have tremendous impact on this future. Everything we do for the people in our lives, everything we do to them, and everything we allow to happen to them by doing nothing...these all factor into the 3PL Simple.

3PL Relative
Some of the IAM Relative events that we experience are shared by the people who are closest to us and so become doorways to the Relative future for them as well. Getting married, which I listed above, begins a Relative future for you and at least one other person. If you and that person decide to have children, it also marks a major event in their pre-history.

There are other examples of ways you can impact the 3PL Relative future. Many of these have to do with family. For example, if you decide to pack up the old Buick Roadmaster wagon with your spouse, three kids, and all your worldly goods and head out from your little house in Kentucky to a much smaller apartment in San Diego, you have probably defined a relative future horizon for everyone involved (including some of the folks in San Diego.) There are also good opportunities to spark Relative futures among your friends, co-workers, and even total strangers. It can happen.

All that being said, opportunities to impact the 3PL Relative future are limited. Itís no easy task to create Relative future horizons for other people. People tend to want to make up their own minds about what the big stuff going on in their lives is. And besides, who wants to create the definitive future for someone else? Generally, when you think about the future (obvious family considerations aside) you think about your own future. Often as not, when you create a Relative future horizon for another person, you didnít even intend to do it. You were trying to make something big happen in your own life and you just happened to drag a few of the rest of us along with you.

Witness the Kentucky/San Diego move detailed above. Much as they may end up appreciating it (or hating you for it) later, the kids probably didnít have that much of a say.

3PL Bridge Events
Can you cause 3PL Bridge Events? Can you give others a whiff of a near absolute future, a future that transcends everything theyíve ever known?

Possibly. Maybe you can provide information or point someone in a direction that fundamentally transforms their life. But more likely, you just happen to be in the vicinity when these things occur. Even gifted teachers and spiritual leaders will rarely claim full credit for major changes taking place in their subjectsí lives. Like relative future horizons (only moreso), people tend to bring these on themselves.

3PL Absolute
You can give birth to another person. You can kill another person. Thatís all I can think of. Even if you save another personís life, this is just a relative future horizon.

T Simple
Technically, every event that occurs in the IAM Simple future also occurs in the T Simple future. So, yes, you can control things that happen in The Future® to the same extent that you can cause things to happen in your future. That doesnít mean, from the broader perspective, that anyone will necessarily notice or care.

T Relative
The previous example given of a relative future was the end of World War II. Can we as individuals have an impact on this level of event? A very few of us will have a visible impact. Many, many more of us will have a smaller, but real impact. The war effort provides good examples. Only a few people signed declarations of war or stormed Omaha Beach. Many more folks were involved in scrap metal drives or in manufacturing equipment. But everyone involved had a real impact.

Several future developments that weíre interested in at the Speculist will represent the beginning of a Relative Future for humanity. Both the development of a cure for aging and the establishment of the first interplanetary settlement are good examples. It isnít hard to view the present as the era when human beings can generally expect to live a century or less, or the era when human beings live only on Earth. Nor would it be hard to define the future as the period that occurs beyond one of these landmarks.

T Bridge Events
As individuals, we can impact T Bridge Events to the same extent that we can impact T Relative events. The only question is whether there are any on the horizon. The one I can think of is the Technology Singularity. Although I listed this earlier as an Absolute Future, it might fit better in the Bridge Event category.

You can argue it either way. If the Singularity is the end of the human era, it's an absolute future. If it's the migration of human intelligence to a new computational substrate, maybe it's just a Bridge Event.

It's till bigger than the invention of fire, though.

T Absolute
Again, we can have some impact on it, but is it on the horizon? Some religious folks believe the Apocalypse is imminent. We could collide with a giant meteor. It would be that kind of thing, an unexpected catastrophe that brings the world to the end. Personally, I don't see any T Absolute Futures on the horizon (with the possible exception of the Singularity.) And, clearly, that's just as well.

Next time, weíll begin to look at how these different futures fit into what I call Possibility Space.

Posted by Phil at 05:33 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 18, 2003

Divvying up the Future

Time Traveler's Toolkit, Part 2

Previous Entries:
What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel

In response to last week's piece in which I defined Practical Time Travel, FastForward Posse member Mike Sargent wrote the following:

Today's entry is great, as far as it goes. One, particularly annoying, issue with the automotive analogy is the distinct lack of navigation aids to cut through the otherwise impenetrable fog ahead to give us a view comparable to the one in the rear view mirror (although the true quality of that vista is also open for debate). Without headlights [1] and / or a good map [2] intentional progress can only be slow, cautious, conservative, and fraught with danger.

[1] "headlights" in this case would have to be some kind of well-developed civilian intellegence-gathering and analysis network. It would have to make CNN/Fox look like the salon correspondence of 18th c. Europe.

[2] "a map" would resemble the beginning stages of Asimov's 'psychohistory'. I don't hold out a great deal of hope for the development of such a predictive science in the next couple of centuries since (In my humble, if educated, opinion) the social sciences are somewhere between "If I bang on this rock hard enough with this other rock I get two sharp rocks." and the phlogiston model of combustion by comparison to the physical sciences.

As brilliant as he was, Asimov was very much a creature of his time. I suppose it's only natural that, as a twentieth century writer, he would view approaching the future as some vast collectivist enterprise. I realize that I verge on blasphemy in suggesting this, but seriously: what was the Foundation, really, but a benign (and much more accurate) Politburo, cranking out 5,000 year plans rather than the Five-Year variety? I'm not saying this collectivist or "mass future" approach is necessarily wrong, unfortunate political associations notwithstanding. I'm saying it's one of many possible approaches to the future. The future can also be approached from an individual or small-group perspective. And when it is approached this way, when we focus our energies on What Am I Going to Do for the Next Three Years rather than How Can I Unravel the Ultimate Fate of Humanity, we find that many of the roadblocks are diminished, if not eliminated. Or, to extend the automotive analogy just a bit, I think the availability and quality of travel aids increases greatly as we choose routes nearer to home*.

There are a number of reasons why our own future is easier to map out than the future of our family or town or planet. But not least among them is the simple fact that we're generally more interested in our own future than we are in any other. Let's look at an example that illustrates this point. Imagine you somehow come into possession of a sheet of paper on which are printed a list of three things that will happen in the future. These are accurate predictions, things that definitely will happen. For purposes of this illustration, we will allow that such predictions are somehow possible.

The first item on the list tells you that in two years, a landmark peace agreement will be reached in the Middle East and that the Israelis and the Palestinians will cease hostilities and live in relative peace, prosperity, and justice for the next 400 years. Well, right off, you have to wonder what exactly is going to happen after those 400 years are up? You can't help it — a prediction like this one practically begs you to ask that question. But other than that knee-jerk response, how do you react to this prediction? You're glad, of course. Relieved. Depending on how close to this situation you are and/or how much you've worried about it, you might be very glad indeed. Only the worst kind of extremists and agitators (of which there are unfortunately plenty) would take this as bad news. You'll probably view it as good news for the world. You will think of the lives that won't be lost or wasted in hatred and strife. You will think of the resources that can now be freed for more productive pursuits. It's wonderful news.

The next prediction is that there will be major breakthroughs in the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology over the next ten years leading to the elimination of almost all diseases and the extension of the human lifespan to more than twice what it currently is. More good news! This one might hit a little closer to home. Everybody has some kind of connection to or association with the Middle East, however indirect. But we all have a direct interest in our own lifespans. Sure you'll think of others, those who are close to you who are sick or aging — what will this news mean to them? And we think of yourself. You're going to live twice as long! What will you do with the time? Can you still retire on schedule? How will the new technology allow you to feel as you advance through these later years? Will you look like you're 150 years old?

And you'll give a thought to society as a whole. What will it be like having all these super-old people running around? What will this do to Social Security? What will it do to the population of Florida? What impact will this have on friendships, families, marriages? What will it do to the economy? It sure sounds like good news for the planet in general and for you in particular, but there may be some downside and the whole thing bears looking at very carefully.

Unless you live in the Middle East or have friends or family that do, it is hard not to regard this second prediction as the more important of the two.

That's why a discussion about "the future" as often as not ends up being a discussion about "your future" or "my future," by the way. We can't help it; we're in it. Talking about "the future" means talking about setting. Talking about "my future" means talking about character and plot.

Which leads us to the third prediction. It says that you will be dead in three weeks. That's all.

Here's the thing. Those other two predictions deal with major breakthroughs for the world, the kind of changes that you might think of as marking the beginning of a new era, a new age in the history of humanity. But this last one is the truly big news.

Hold on a minute. It's only about one person. So what's the big deal?

Well, first, it's not just some person, for crying out loud. It's you. You're going to die. Who cares about everybody else getting to live twice as long, you're going to be dead in three weeks. You won't live to see the Middle East thing happen. Hell, you won't even be around to see who wins the Superbowl.

You're going to die.

Secondly, while both of the events named could be viewed as a threshold to a new era for humanity, I don't think many of us would tend to look at them as the ultimate fate of humanity. The third prediction, on the other hand, represents your ultimate fate. It's the end of the world, the end of time, for you. And even if you believe in an afterlife, it's the end of this world. It's over. Finished.

This is all a matter of point of view. There are a number of POVs to consider. We can borrow a few from Creative Writing 201 to shed some light. First there is the one that none of us actually has, the Omniscient View. This is the one that gives us The Future™. Only an Omniscient Being could actually see the world from this view, but we refer to it all the time as though we were intimately acquainted with it. It's the point of view in which you can see everything going on at once and in which these events are not colored by individual perceptions and desires.

Everybody who makes general statements about the world is relying to some extent on the Omniscient View. In the preceding statement, I relied upon it. This doesn't mean that I'm claiming Omniscience, it just means that underlying my statement is the assumption that it's possible to make true statements about the assumptions that underlie true statements. And by "true statements" in the second instance, I mean these generalized objective statements about reality.

In fact, another — and probably more familiar — name for the Omniscient POV would be the Objective POV. We all know about the Objective point of view. "Let's be fair," we might say or even "let's be objective." In arguments, objective is always what you're trying to be but that the other person apparently has no concept of. It's what scientists and journalists aspire to. Honest ones, anyway. Effective salesmen and virtually all politicians, on the other hand, use it without actually aspiring to it. They talk about objective reality, and in fact talk from the standpoint of objective reality, but don't really believe in it and would have no interest in it or use for it if they thought it did exist.

So this Omniscient POV relies on the assumption that there really is a real reality "out there." In other words, true statements can be formulated about the universe. The universe is not just a bunch of perceptions, it's a thing and it has its own existence outside of our minds. I'm sure this idea doesn't strike anyone as being particularly big news, and I run the risk of getting into all kinds of philosophical stuff that I hadn't planned on by bringing it up, but it is important to understand the Omniscient POV and its distinction from the other POVs if we are to make any headway in our thinking about the future.

When aimed toward the future, the Omniscient POV is all about the big picture. While it (theoretically) provides the ability to peak into individual feelings and motivations, it is generally not used for this. There are too many Big Truths to be addressed. Individuals become abstractions, part of a greater statistical whole. This is the point of view of the Foundation and of psychohistory.

The next POV is Third Person Limited. It's the one that provides our future as opposed to the future. Third Person Limited was the recommended point of view for writing serious fiction when I was taking creative writing classes back in college. It means that you can see the world around a particular character. If he can't see it, neither can we. The word "limited" is a very important part of the name of this POV. Consider the following passage from a novel about a guy named Harry written from the Omniscient point of view.

Harry removed his shoes and, too exhausted for even the simplest effort, collapsed still dressed onto the bed and fell immediately into a fitful sleep. As he slept, a light burned late into the night from the window of a luxury apartment building far across town. Annette sat at her antique mahogany desk and poured over the ancient text, hoping to find another way out, unwilling to accept the thought that it could all end this way. Meanwhile, aboard the cloaked Mother ship that hovered silently over the same building, Gnyzt thought longingly of the muddy green pools of his homeworld, trying to hold back for now his ravenous hunger and the sweet anticipation of the feast of human flesh and blood that the morning would surely bring.

How would the same passage read if written from the Third Person Limited POV?

Harry removed his shoes and, too exhausted for even the simplest effort, collapsed still dressed onto the bed and fell immediately into a fitful sleep.

You can't have any of that stuff about Annette or Gnyzt because the point of view is limited to what Harry can see. Also, I believe I mentioned that this is a POV used by writers of Serious Fiction, so you're not allowed to have ancient texts, Mother ships, or bloodthirsty aliens, anyway. They aren't serious. Now maybe if Annette is frantically reading ancient texts not in an effort to save the world, but as a way of avoiding the deep, gnawing ambiguity she feels towards life, particularly her mother, we might be on to something. Gnyzt is a bit more of a problem, but maybe we can say that he isn't really an alien, he's a tax attorney. And the Mother ship is his apartment, one floor above Annette's. But the bloodthirsty part is real, because he's a total psycho.

Um, no. Nope.

I don't like it.

Let's just leave the story pretty much intact, keep the Third Person Limited POV, and see how we can fix the whole thing by having Harry stay up just a tad longer:

Harry removed his shoes and, too exhausted for even the simplest effort, collapsed, still dressed, on the bed. He reached over to the nightstand and picked up the phone. He slowly dialed the number, straining with the effort to punch each digit.

"Hello?" Annette answered.

"It's me," he gasped. "I've made it home. I'm all right."

"Harry, thank God," she said. "I'm coming right over."

"No," he said. He tried to catch his breath. "Not safe. I'll wait for daylight and then find you."

"But by then it might be too —"

"Don't say it. We have time."

"I have the scroll, Harry. The ancient text. Father gave it to me before he…before he…oh, Harry…" she sobbed.

With a tremendous effort, Harry pushed himself up to a sitting position.

"I heard about your father, Annette, and I'm sorry. But listen to me. We're going to make it out of this. I swear it. At sunrise, it'll be safe to move around again."

"I know," she choked, "I know, Harry. And I'm not giving up. I can read the scroll, almost as well as father can. Could."

She paused for a moment, seeming to steady herself.

"And I won't give up, Harry. I'll keep looking. There has to be another answer."

"Yes, keep looking." Harry slumped back down in the bed. "Keep looking…the answer is there…" he murmured.

"Yes. I'll keep looking. And, Harry, I want you to know that I—"

"I know," he answered softly. "Tomorrow. Tell me tomorrow."

He hung up the phone and fell immediately into a fitful sleep. In his dreams, he saw a cloaked Mother ship that hovered silently over Annette's building. On board the ship, the Alien thought longingly of the muddy green pools of his homeworld, trying to hold back for now his ravenous hunger and the sweet anticipation of the feast of human flesh and blood that the morning would surely bring.

You'll notice that in addition to getting longer and even hokier, our story has become very specific in how it tells us things. It gives us information not necessarily from Harry's point of view, meaning that the words that we're reading are not meant to be his thoughts, but from the point of view that Harry could have. What we know about what Annette is doing is what Harry learns from talking to her. What we know about Gnyzt is what Harry imagines in a very prescient dream. Outside of the bounds of what Harry can know, the world is not knowable.

The Third Person Limited POV gives us our future, assuming that we're talking about an "us" that just includes ourselves and our immediate sphere. It's kind of a small town compared to the future provided by the Omniscient Point of View. As I pointed out, the Omniscient POV assumes that there's a real reality out there. The Third Person Limited has less use for that; it's more interested in you and your little world.

That's okay: it's a much smaller pond and you therefore get to be a much bigger fish.

Granted, we can use the phrase "our future" to refer to the future of the planet earth or the human race or some other such grandiose collective We, and that's okay by me if that's the way you want to do it. But in the parlance I am introducing here, that would be correctly referred to as the future, relying as it does on the Omniscient point of view.

Our third POV option is the First Person point of view:

I removed my shoes and, too exhausted for even the simplest effort, collapsed still dressed on the bed. I reached over to the nightstand and picked up the phone. I slowly dialed the number, straining with the effort to punch each digit.

"Hello?" Annette answered.

"It's me," I gasped. "I've made it home. I'm all right."

"Harry, thank God," she said. "I'm coming right over."

"No," I said. I tried to catch my breath. "Not safe. I'll wait for daylight and then find you."

The last thing in the world I needed or wanted at that moment was to see Annette. I knew I would have to find her in the morning, we would have to save the world, and then I was going to have to somehow let her know about what had happened between Ruby and me. Not that I owed her any explanations. There was never anything between me and Annette, after all. Her old man kicks, the world starts coming to an end, and suddenly she discovers she has feelings for me. Well, it's just a little too damn late, sweetheart. Anyway, I certainly didn't have the strength to deal with it right then.

"But by then it might be too—"

"Don't say it. We have time."

"I have the scroll, Harry. The ancient text. Father gave it to me before he…before he…oh, Harry…" she sobbed.

With a tremendous effort, I pushed myself up to a sitting position.

"I heard about your father, Annette, and I'm sorry. But listen to me. We're going to make it out of this. I swear it. At sunrise, it'll be safe to move around again."

Anyway, at least the Old Guy was out of the picture. What a pain in the ass he had been.

"I know," she choked, "I know, Harry. And I'm not giving up. I can read the scroll, almost as well as father can. Could."

She paused for a moment, seeming to steady herself.

"And I won't give up, Harry. I'll keep looking. There has to be another answer."

"Yes, keep looking." I slumped back down in the bed. "Keep looking…the answer is there…" I murmured. I knew the scroll would probably tell us something, but that in the end this whole thing was coming down to me kicking some major alien butt.

"Yes, I'll keep looking. And, Harry, I want you to know that I—"

"I know," I answered softly. Keep her from using the "L" word at all costs."Tomorrow. Tell me tomorrow."

I hung up the phone and fell immediately into a fitful sleep. In my dreams, I saw a cloaked Mother ship that hovered silently over Annette's building. On board the ship, the Alien thought longingly of the muddy green pools of his homeworld, trying to hold back for now his ravenous hunger and the sweet anticipation of the feast of human flesh and blood that the morning would surely bring.

I woke for a moment, startled by the though that hey, if he got to her first, it would sure save me a lot of trouble.

The first person POV is the one that allows us to think and talk in terms of my future. Harry is interested in what's going to happen to him. It's not a coincidence that his desires are at odds with the expectations that the earlier versions would have led us to expect. The Omniscient POV gives us a story about the impending end of the world and two heroic people doing what they can to stave it off. Third Person Limited gives us a tender story of two people who care for each other caught up in the whirlwind of an alien invasion. First Person gives us the story of a man who really wants to get some sleep and who will deal with a few annoyances (breaking it off with a woman, saving the world) when he wakes up.

Did you notice that somewhere between POVs, Harry became a self-centered jerk? That's what the First Person Point of View is all about. You don't have to worry about the fish-to-pond size ratio anymore; now you are the pond.(Paradoxically, Harry also became more interesting, even more likable.)

Let's go back and look at the earlier example, in which we got to peak into the future. It is obvious that the first prediction, the one about the Middle East, is very much about the future, and it requires that we look at the world from the Omniscient POV. The second prediction, the one about nano- and biotechnology, is also definitely about the future, but it immediately spins us off into thinking about our future. What will this mean to me? That's a question that you never have to ask in the case of the third prediction, the one about dying in three weeks. In fact, this third prediction will require us to think about our future, about how this news will impact those around us. But our initial response to it is very much from the First Person POV. It is clearly a prediction about my future.

So to whom does the future belong? It depends on which future, which POV, you're talking about. In some sense (although there are severe restrictions to any such generality) it is fair to say that my future belongs to me. We can then carry on and say that our future belongs to us and that the future belongs to The — or possibly to the world or to God if you're uncomfortable with the entire future belonging to the definite article. There are good approaches to the future from each of the POVs.

One's ability to influence the future from a particular POV will be the topic for next week's TTT.

* Which is not to say that I don't have any use for the collectivist approach, or interest in developing something like Asimov's psychohistory. I think real progress will come towards this kind of capability not from the social sciences, but from analysis of financial markets. The recent flap over a futures market in terrorism got people thinking about the applicability of the predictive power of markets to future events in general. I think there is definitely something there. Also, check out what Ray Kurzweil has to say about using computers to evolve highly accurate systems of market prediction. (Unfortunately, I can't find a reference online, although you might try for yourselves at KurzweilAI.net. However, he explains this concept in some detail in the book named below.) If such systems can be evolved for financial markets, couldn't they also be evolved for markets that deal in general future events?

I'll be examining these issues in greater detail in later installments of TTT, but right now we're kind of getting ahead of ourselves. Which is okay, because, you know, we're talking about the future.

Posted by Phil at 11:46 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 11, 2003

Practical Time Travel

Time Traveler's Toolkit, Part 1

Previous Entries:
What's a Speculist?

As I outlined last week, a speculist is someone who defines, looks for, attempts to unravel, or otherwise contends with what might be, what might not be, what might have been, whatever — and then who takes that understanding and tries to make it into something useful. A practical time traveler is a speculist whose something useful is nothing less than a future of his or her own design.

Let's spend some time on terminology. The time travel that we're going to be talking about is not:

  • Going back and killing your great Grandfather.
  • Going ahead to the age of levitating cities built by our descendants with shiny, swollen bald heads.

Those are fun concepts, and the basis for a lot of great (and not-so-great) fiction, but if you were hoping I was going to tell you how to build a time machine, well, sorry.* The time travel I'm talking about is the practical kind. It's what we do every moment. It's built into the human experience.

Time, as the song reminds us, keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping...into the future. Through the course of each day, we move ahead 24 hours.

That's it.

That's the basis for practical time travel.

I realize that moving into the future at the rate of one day per day doesn't seem all that remarkable. Moreover, I think some will complain (somewhat justifiably) that what I'm talking about isn't time travel at all. Just sticking the word "practical" on there doesn't make it okay to use "time travel" to describe something completely at odds with how the term has traditionally been used. "Time travel," has generally been used to describe some activity that goes against the normal course of time. The activities listed in the two bullet points above are examples. Now I seem to be using the term to mean going with the normal course of time. That's cheating.

Get a souped-up DeLorean and blast yourself 30 years into the future in the blink of an eye. Now that's time travel.

Go to sleep at night and wake up eight hours later. Would anybody seriously call that "time travel?"

I would.

It may seem slow and unpromising, but advancing through time at the rate of sixty seconds per minute is the one method of time travel available to us. It's slow, but it's relentless. The time adds up. Do you want to travel 30 years into the future? You can.

Live to see it.

That hardly sounds like a method for time travel, practical or otherwise. It sounds like more of a survival strategy — or not even a strategy, really, just a kind of axiomatic statement of intent. And that's all it is. But if you can make good on that statement of intent, you will travel to the future.

Or, to be more precise, you will travel to a future. Think of your progression through time in terms of driving. Your car moves forward at a fixed speed. Everybody's car moves at that same speed. The traditional definition of time travel involves making your car go faster or putting it in reverse. As I said, I can't offer the means of doing either of those things. But there's another way to change the course of your car relative to its present course. You can use the steering wheel.

Practical time travel means learning to steer your vehicle towards a future of your choosing, or away from one you want to avoid. Maybe you can't instantaneously arrive in the future, but you can incrementally work towards a future. In science fiction stories, time travelers are invariably surprised by what they find when they arrive in the future. (It wouldn't be much of a story otherwise.) Practical time travelers have nothing against surprise — in fact, they look at it as a crucial resource, as we'll see later — but they don't like the idea of driving aimlessly. They have a destination in mind.

So if you can do these two things...

  1. Live to see it
  2. Learn to steer to a particular destination

...you can be a practical time traveler.

The Time Travelers Toolkit is a set of ideas and strategies that enable practical time travel. In the coming weeks, we'll be taking a close look at the different kinds of future that are out there and exploring how we can interact with each. We'll look at how the rate of technological and social change opens up possibilities that were unimaginable even a few years ago. And we'll examine some esoteric notions such as thought space and possibility space, and see how our ability to operate within them can improve our ability to achieve specified outcomes.

* If you're really interested in time machines, you might try reading this:

Posted by Phil at 09:57 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 04, 2003

What's a Speculist?

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Act V Scene I



\Spec"u*list\, n. One who observes or considers; an observer. [R.] --Goldsmith.

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
(found on Dictionary.com)

The word speculist gets so little use that I hope no one minds if I do a little tinkering with its definition. We already have the word observer to convey the idea expressed in the above definition. What do we typically call one who observes? An observer.


Even if we choose to emphasize the "or considers" language in the definition, there are words like "analyst" and "pundit" that not only cover this idea adequately, but that are actually used pretty freqently. This leaves us with the word "speculist" serving no particular purpose and all but forgotten.

Meanwhile, there is a great need (in my view) for a word for someone who does what Shakespeare talks about in the above excerpt from A Midsummer Night's Dream. What do we call someone who looks heavenward and back, and whose imagination "bodies forth the forms of things unknown...and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name?" Shakespeare (via the character Theseus) ascribes these activities to poets. And, yes, this is the work of poets. But it's also the work of those who write science fiction and fantasy. And then on top of that we have theorists and scenarists and futurists and military strategists and economists and take-the-long-view types and on and on, all of whom engage in attempting to make the ineffable, effable.

I want to group all these folks under the common heading of speculists: anyone who defines, looks for, attempts to unravel, or otherwise contends with what might be, what might not be, what might have been, whatever — and then who takes that understanding and tries to make it into something useful. That's a speculist.

I think it's important to note that Theseus isn't exactly singing the praises of speculists in the above excerpt. And who can blame him? He has a city to run and a new bride to bed, more than enough on his plate without worrying about a spat in the royal house of the fairies, or some working stiff who got his head swapped out with a donkey. Why should he waste his time on the forms of things unkown when things known are so pressing?

Why? Because the things unkown become the things known. It happens all the time, every second. It may be a waste of time to dwell on some imaginary bringer of imaginary joy. But it's no waste looking for the things that can bring us joy in the days to come, or even right now. And it may be silly to mistake a bush for a bear, but, hey — Theseus, old buddy — isn't it downright dangerous to make the opposite mistake?

Besides, we all know that any time things got truly out of whack in Athens, the Duke himself would hop an express train to Delphi and ask the Oracle what was going to happen next.

Speculism is a growth area. We live in an age of accelerating change and geometrically expanding possibility. The things unknown are becoming the things known faster than they ever have before. This rate of change leaves plenty of room for those who would focus their attention only on the latter, but at what cost? Change brings us opportunity and risk. Accelerating change means accelerating levels of both. Whoever would take advantage of these opportunities, or work to avoid the risks, is going to have delve into the realm of the possible and, as best they can, body forth the forms of things unkown. So today I take up my (metaphorical) pen and begin the work of giving a local habitation and a name to the airy nothings that soon may be the all-too-substantial somethings that define our daily lives. This website is that habitation, and I'm honored to have you here as my guests. I hope that you will join me in giving both shape and name to these images of what might be. We have a lot of work to do.

And now...on to the future.

Posted by Phil at 05:35 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack