Canaries and Coalmines

For a brief, shining moment in the middle part of the final decade of the twentieth century, it looked as if wire-frame punctuated real-time battle systems would replace the old turn-based or active-time combat systems in Japanese console role-playing games. Or, at least those produced by Squaresoft. Though the moment proved to be ephemeral, the idea of pausing real-time combat briefly to set up a planned sequence of attacks survived in later titles. Even if you’re old enough to have played the games to which I refer, it’s unlikely you recall the title I consider to be the superior offering: Vagrant Story. Beset by dismal sales and poor reviews, this sadly underrated delight languished on shelves, victim to half-hearted localization and a plot that was somehow both mediocre and confusing at the same time. Still, gameplay was fun, and the gear creation system was years ahead of its time. No, the game you’re more likely to remember if you were there at the time served as inspiration for George Lucas when he got around to revisiting the Star Wars film universe for the three prequel films. I mean, of course, Parasite Eve. 

Set in contemporary New York City, you play as NYPD officer Aya Brea, a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, mixed-ancestry detective with the 17th Precinct. Following a bizarre night at the opera, you find yourself thrust into the cross-product of David Cronenberg and Howard Philips Lovecraft. Things are afoot in the Big Apple, things with tentacles, things with hate in their bellies and fire at their fingertips. It is your job to stop them, to end the ruthless ambitions of the mother of ancient monsters that have dwelt inside the very cells of complex life since well before the Cambrian Explosion. In fact, eukaryotes had already been swimming in the oceans for half a billion years before that great Cambrian arms race. The game sees the heroine pit her own awakened mitochondrial power against the antagonist, the eponymous Eve, culminating in a showdown, if memory serves, on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Since it was a late-era PS1 title, it was a little limited in geographical scope. In this blasted, scorched hellscape thinly scabbed over with the return of green and growing things, I still pause from time to time and imagine what the Parasite Eve franchise would have been liberated from hardware limitations. Imagine those wonderful wire-frame gun-and-magic duels in a 1:1 scale, 1080p five boroughs (DLC to include Long Island and maybe Yonkers or something). Maybe it’s just me, but the prospect of open-world exploration combined with those lovely combat mechanics and a gear crafting system that rewards min-maxing makes me misty for a world that never was and now never can be. Of course, that’s just the limitations of my imagination. I’m quite sure that had things ended up differently for this shattered earth, game developers would have produced wonders beyond my imagination.

When I was a boy, I thought that railroad handcarts were movie props, something you’d include in a scene condescendingly meant to evoke the simpleton aesthetic of Middle America and the hayseeds that called it home. Having never worked in an trainyard nor knowing anyone who had, I could indulge my presumption without cause for worry about the consequences. With my two itinerant companions puttering down the rusting tracks atop a retrofitted yard carriage, I could no longer indulge my ignorance.

Me: “That’s quite the rig.”

Anika: “It looks like a bicycle factory barfed all over it.”

Clay: “It may not look like much, but I think you’ll appreciate the design on hills. Carbon fiber and aluminum is a lot lighter than wood and steel.”

Me: “It almost sounds as if you’re suggesting we continue our travels aboard that contraption.”

Brigit: “Look at this.” She pointed to the vertical pole bolted to the deck of the machine. “A mainmast. We figured that after you taught us how to sail, we’d get a sail installed. What do you think?”

Me: “I think that if you capsize on train tracks, it’ll hurt a lot worse than if you do it at sea.”

Clay: “That’s what I said.”

Brigit: “You guys need to grow a pair. You’ll thank me when we have to lug this crate over the Cascades.” I ignored the middle school insult.

Me: “The Cascades? This line runs north-south. It doesn’t go over the Cascades.”

Brigit: “It does when we’re going to the Yakima Nation.”

Me: “You’re joking, right?”

Anika: “What’s the Yakima Nation?”

Clay: “It’s a… what’s the best way to describe it?” He hopped down from the cart. It was no longer accurate to refer to it as a handcart, since much of the machinery appeared to now be foot-powered. “I suppose you could call it a planned community.”

Me: “That’s one way to put it. Another way to put it is that it’s a totalitarian dictatorship. Yet another way to put it is that it’s perhaps the most brutal, illiberal society to ever grace this fair earth, and I include the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Castro’s Cuba, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in that list.”

Brigit: “What are you even talking about? That’s propaganda. Have you even been there?”

Me: “Nobody lies anymore. I’m inclined to believe the stories.” I was still quietly seething over the little secret the two of them had been hoarding, but nurturing grudges was a hobby I had little time or inclination for even in fair weather. After the death of the world, it was a luxury too dear to contemplate. “And I trust you’ll forgive me for not lending the pair of you a great deal of trust following your little performance.”

Clay: “What performance do you mean?” There wasn’t any explicit menace in his voice, but I could sense an edge, a hint of confrontation. I was reminded of the clouds that sometimes thicken over the Gulf Coast: a storm may brew, but it just as easily may not. “The one in which you made it up the coast with an injured ankle, yet without any other significant incidents?”

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been lousy at striking a reliable balance between respectful dissent and picking a fight. I’m also just self-aware to know that this is a chronic weakness, so my natural bent towards prudence means that I often force myself to overcompensate towards appeasement.

Me: “I’m grateful for the assistance, of course. But don’t you think that you should have mentioned your employment situation somewhere along the way?”

Brigit: “The Baroness likes to keep her activities compartmentalized.” She pulled a handbrake lever nearly as tall as her. “Sorry. ‘Likes’ probably has nothing to do with it.” She swung her legs over the side of the cart. “And ‘compartmentalized’ is an ugly word. Help me with their rucksacks, Clay.” He obliged.

Clay: “By any chance, did you receive instructions that we’re not to know about?” He lifted a single eyebrow. “Don’t answer that. Hang on, Anika. Don’t try to climb up yet.” He secured a little removable ladder to the edge of the rig. “Use this to climb up.”

Anika: “Thanks. That’s a lot easier.” She scrambled up. “But it would be nice to have something to hold on to at the top. Especially if it rains I bet.”

Clay: “Good thinking. Let me know if you find any rope or something we might use.” He stowed the rest of the gear in sun-yellowed plastic bins bolted to the deck.

Brigit: “I hope we didn’t keep you guys waiting too long.”

Anika: “Not long. It took us all morning to find a place that had blank paper. We got here maybe an hour ago. We were talking about cats”

Brigit: “Cats?” Lachesis perked up her ears a little at the word, but retained her comfortable perch atop an open container of linens. “What about them?”

Anika: “Sam says they domesticated people rather than the other way around and that they used some kind of brain parasites to do it.” She looked around at the array of mechanisms on board and sat down on the smallest of the seats. “I suppose this one is for me?”

Clay: “That one is for you. Pull up on the lever in front to adjust the seat if you need to get closer to the pedals.”

Anika: “Like this?” She slid six inches closer.

Clay: “Like that. You should have your leg fully extended on the downstroke. Just like when you ride a bicycle.”

Anika: “I don’t know how to ride a bicycle.”

Clay: “Shame on you.” This was directed at me. “Just make sure your leg is straight and your toes are a little pointed when you’re at the bottom of the crank.” This was directed at Anika.

Brigit: “I’ve heard that argument before, and I’m not sure I buy it. ‘Domestication’ is deliberate. The flip-the-script claim that ‘hey dude, what if like, cows domesticated us, man?’ is late-night rantings of stoned philosophy majors.”

Me: “Sure, from an individual perspective, it’s silly. A cow is an eating and pooping machine, one that produces hamburgers and delicious brisket at the end. But a single cow is not the species, neither is a single human all of humanity. What’s wrong with thinking of a large-scale, long-term transaction like domestication as an overarching contract written by entities that represent entire species?”

Brigit: “Because entire species don’t build a corral or plant turnips. Entire species don’t plow fields or cut hay. Entire species don’t relax and tell stories around a campfire. Individuals do that. There’s no collective decision that gets dirt under fingernails or blood on the tip of a spear. Individuals decide. Individuals act.”

Me: “Individuals can be influenced.”

Brigit: “Of course they can. That doesn’t mean is isn’t asinine to say ‘cows domesticated humans’ when no cow ever sat down and said ‘hey, you know what would be a great idea? Let’s get penned in by these weird monkeys so they can milk us and turn our skin into assless chaps!’ People can make decisions like that. Individual people. Cows can’t. Cats can’t. Dogs can’t.” Clotho had availed himself of the ladder and Anika’s eager assistance to join his people on the rig.

Anika: “What are assless chaps?”

Me: “You don’t want to know. And it’s a metaphor. It’s easier to picture when thinking of hive animals.”

Anika: “Clay, what are assless chaps?”

Brigit: “Like ants?”

Me: “Like ants, like bees, like termites. Each individual organism is far too simple to understand, appreciate, or even recognize the behavior of the hive. An ant knows to follow a pheromone trail or to fetch a leaf or herd an aphid or whatever. No ant decides what the colony does en masse. No ant dictates the foraging patterns for the other ants. No ant masters the swarm. The same goes for people.”

Brigit: “Don’t you think it’s kind of silly to say that in a world that has had in it Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Vladimir Lenin, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Adolph Hitler, Ieyasu Tokugawa, and… and Abraham freaking Lincoln is one without lords, masters, or great men?”

Clay: “They’re thick leather leg protectors used to keep the brambles from scratching your legs while you’re riding a horse in the backcountry.”

Me: Tell me something. If you put a six year old at the front of a parade and told her to walk down the street, would you say that she’s the leader of the parade?”

Brigit: “Don’t be fatuous. That’s an awful analogy and you know it. Anyone with ‘The Great’ after their name actually went out and actually mustered armies and actually marched over actual real estate to actually conquer. Without Hannibal, no pachyderm on earth would have ever tasted alpine air. No Xerxes, no Thermopylae. Hell, no George Lucas, no Star Wars.”

Me: “Other than Lucas, you seem to focus a bit much on conquest. Conquest redistributes fortunes, and it destroys stuff, but on balance, it doesn’t really make the world a better place. If I were making the case you seem to be going for, I’d pick people like Daniel Faraday, Edward Coke, Jonas Salk, or Euclid. People responsible for major improvements to human welfare are better candidates for illustrating the importance of individuals, at least in their capacity for advancing civilization.”

Anika: “Why assless though?”

Brigit: “Wrong Faraday. Michael Faraday was the father of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. Daniel Faraday was a character on a TV that seemed promising.”

Clay: “What show’s that?” He turned to look Anika in the eye. “And they don’t include a seat so that you can still feel the saddle through your jeans. A cowboy needs his hands free to rope cattle, so he steers the horse with his knees, you see? More leather just gets in the way of that.” I had to hand it to Clay, I would have probably gone with the lewd explanation.

Brigit: “Lost.”

Me: “Yeah, it was a pretty good show. Kind of a shame they didn’t get a chance to finish it. There were lots of good unanswered questions.”

Brigit: “So?”

Me: “So?”

Brigit: “So no Jonas Salk and it’d be a lot more likely that you’d be in a wheelchair right now.”

Clay: “Or worse. She’s got a point. Well, I guess you both do.”

Me: “Did you know that the Wright Brothers weren’t the first humans to fly a heavier-than-air craft?”

Brigit: “One, no I didn’t, and two, so what?”

Me: “The story’s a little apocryphal, and he denied any claim that he got there first, but a New Zealand farmer named Richard Pearse flew his homemade contraption nearly a year before the famous Kitty Hawk tests. He would have kept working on it too, except he moved from the Canterbury Plains to Otago, where it’s a little too hilly to play with DIY aviation. More to the point, he did all of this with no knowledge whatsoever what was going on in coastal Carolina.”

Brigit: “So? There were lots of failed nineteenth century attempts to fly. It was sort of a hobby, if not a craze for a while there.”

Me: “That’s my point. It’s common enough to give credit to the Wright Brothers, or to Thomas Edison, or to Buckminster Fuller, but these guys weren’t really doing anything all that revolutionary. They were doing things in the fashion of the time and were just the ones lucky enough to get their names in the history books. Their names are convenient shorthand for teams, clubs, societies, or organizations—even cultures working together syncretically to create something that seems like a titanic breakthrough to an outside eye, but is really just a point of interest on a long, unbroken human project.”

Brigit: “You’re still being circuitous, and you used the word ‘syncretic’ wrong. People still have to organize teams, to govern, to make rules about how to decide in groups. Dig deep enough and you always find a dictator.”

Anika: “Would you guys please start pedaling? I’m not going to do this by myself.”

Brigit: “I am, dear. The transmission uses a something-or-other sprocket differential. If the pedals are moving, the drive train is getting power.”

Clay: “We have to use the handbrake to stop, and we have to set the track changes manually. Here, study this. It’s a manual of how to read rail signs.” He handed Anika a booklet. “You and I are facing forward, so we’ll be the lookouts. Okay?”

Anika: “Sounds fun, I guess.” Her voice disagreed with her words.”Who dictates to the dictator?”

Brigit: “What do you mean?”

Anika: “Well, if you dig deep enough to find a dictator, can’t you keep digging?”

Brigit: “No, you stop when you get to the person who made the decision.”

Me: “So you stop when you get to Isaac Newton then?”

Brigit: “Wouldn’t you?”

Me: “Why not Isaac Newton’s teachers, or his colleagues, or the founder of…” I made a wildly uneducated guess, “Oxford University?”

Brigit: “You just pissed off a few hundred years’ worth of the honored dead at Trinity College in Cambridge. And you don’t stop with the support crew for the same reason the people who built your house or the dog who guards it don’t own it. Their duty is discharged the moment their contribution is complete. Newton gets the credit-”

Clay: “Half the credit. Don’t forget Leibniz.”

Brigit: “Newton did more than just discover half of calculus. And he gets the credit because he did it. He wrote it down before anybody else did. It was him. It wasn’t his colleagues and it sure as hell wasn’t Henry the bloody Eighth.”

Me: “Would we have differential calculus or laws of motion without Newton?”

Brigit: “Well, Clay’s right. Leibniz also described calculus, and he probably did it better. But asking about Newtonian physics in the absence of Newton is more of your silly freshman how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin navel gazing you miraculously don’t seem to find irritating beyond description. I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t.” She reached for a small set of levers by her left hip. “Which one of these is the big gear and which one is for the little gear?”

Clay: “Big,” he pointed, “little” he pointed again, a few degrees to the right. She downshifted.

Anika: “I’ve made a decision.” The cart lurched a little as Brigit’s pedaling speed picked up.

Brigit: “Would they eventually have been discovered? Probably. They’re obvious enough in retrospect and there were enough people thinking about those sorts of thing during the Enlightenment that they would have made an appearance eventually, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was Newton that did it, and if not him, then someone else. People act. Groups don’t, except as a metaphor. Isn’t that one of the assumptions of your economics? Methodological individualism?”

Me: “I’m flattered you think of it as ‘my’ economics, but you need to stress the ‘methodological’ part of ‘methodological individualism.’ Economics stresses the role of relative prices in institutional settings to analyze choice under constraint. What it doesn’t do is second-guess tastes, urges, or preferences. It’s mostly silent on moral issues, at least on the origins of moral issues. Economics can’t tell us why a sunset is beautiful or why some people prefer Pepsi to Coke or even how it is otherwise rational, well-educated people with a modicum of taste could stand for a moment to listen to even a radio-friendly Rush song. Modeling aggregate preferences, tropes, otherwise inexplicable behavior patterns using anthropomorphic replacements is a convenient shorthand. It’s allegory. Or at least it is so long as everyone’s clear about it.”

Brigit: “Being clear about it is part of the problem, I think. Once you start talking in anthropomorphics, you encourage thinking in anthropomorphics. And that’s where atrocities begin.”

Me: “Ooh, how meta. The turtle at the bottom of the stack. The egregore of egregore theory. Cronus.”

Brigit: “Gaia or maybe Chaos would be more accurate, but yes. And you can count me not a big fan of theories that explain everything well enough to explain nothing.”

Me: “I don’t think ‘theory’ is the right word. Theories should be testable. Unless you’ve got one heck of a laboratory and a very long time available, I can’t quite imagine a good way to gather enough evidence to rigorously support the claim that domestication is a mutual transaction.”

Clay: “It’s a shame for your metaphor that the world ended.”

Me: “Huh?” I began mentally redesigning the sail rigging to provide shade against the noonday sun. I reckoned I’d need a dozen feet or so of branch or pole. “How do you mean?”

Clay: “If your analogy, allegory, metaphor, whatever is any good, it should be applicable when humans are the ones being domesticated.”

Me: “I’m listening.”

Anika: “I want a pair of assless chaps.”

Brigit: “Hush, Anika. No you don’t, and I want to hear this.”

Clay: “The next step in domestication should have been a transaction between humanity’s machine offspring and the ol’ flesh and blood us. You know, supposing your species-domesticate-each-other metaphor is any good.”

Me: “Machines aren’t a species.”

Clay: “Aren’t they? They’re not much of a biological species, but a computer is surely more complex than an bee, and probably about as self-aware. Sure, computers can’t reproduce without human assistance, but there are plenty of organisms that need help reproducing. Isn’t there some tree on some Pacific island somewhere that was just about to go extinct because it relied on a particular bird to broadcast its seeds and that bird had been extirpated? And don’t get me started on parasites. Even something as simple as a cordyceps fungus has an insanely complicated and specific procedure it needs to follow to ensure it passes on its genetic information. What do ants have that computers don’t? That worldwide Argentine Ant colony is basically just a weird meat Internet for aardvarks.”

Brigit: “God, you two are starting to sound exactly the same.” I was impressed how little the tracks had grown over. Rights of way elsewhere on my travels had become impassable thickets.

Me: “Aren’t there also continent-wide fungus colonies or something?”

Clay: “Yeah. Point is, if you think of a species as less a taxonomic category and more as an emergent phenomenon, you should be able to make testable predictions about the relationships between species that use similar relative price economic analysis to what we use for individuals. It’s not exactly microeconomics, nor is it traditional macroeconomics. I’m not sure what to call it? Aggronomics? It’s a way of thinking about production and exchange, except without all those strict iid requirements.”

Anika: “Alaska is a wilderness, right? I don’t want my legs scratched if we’re going to be in the wilderness.”

Brigit: “We’ll be on foot most of the time. Leather is heavy, and the extra protection you might get won’t be worth the fatigue.” She opened the lid to a cooler built into the platform. “Remind me to look for eggs later.” The lid fell shut with a thud declaring that the cooler a fit rampart against enemy air. “Yeah, I get it. I’ve heard it before. And I’m telling you I don’t think it’s a useful way of thinking about things. Even if you kept going where I think you’re going, what actual predictions would you make that fit with ‘technology needs humanity just as much as humanity needs technology’ but that wouldn’t fit with the more conventional ‘people make things and exercise dominion over beasts to suit their desires?’ Don’t you think a good metaphor should provide something more useful than the conventional explanations?”

Clay: “Well, like I said, you get all the benefits of using standard Fischerian price analysis and Coasean institutional economics. You can think of, I don’t know, spelt as a species that turned out to be a poor negotiator, at least compared to wheat or rice. It provided a lower kilocalorie-to-cost ratio than the more popular grains, so it lost its privileged position as a major trading partner. Only as costs fell thanks to modern mega-agriculture practices did it see a resurgence, and now that there are no more megafarms, there’s basically no more spelt. It doesn’t get any more pity commerce. The same quid pro quo logic should work in reverse for machine intelligence.” He paused for a moment, tasting the words. “No, ‘in reverse’ isn’t even really true. These exchanges are always reciprocal, so I don’t think there’s really a reversal at all. A between-species relationship is mutually beneficial when we’re talking about domestication. Both species are better off for the arrangement. If the end of the world had gotten here maybe a hundred years after we’d ceded our reproductive fortunes and fitness to the computer networks, we might be able to witness if our own fate resembled spelt. Or the aurochs,”

Me: “Yeah, that’s sort of what I mean.”

Brigit: “Get out of the bush league, guys. The egregore/demiurge/whatever-you-want-to-call-it allegory you’re using is a lot bigger than that. And it has a lot more problems than you seem willing to acknowledge.” She scanned the horizon for evidence of wind irregularities just like I taught her on the way up the coast. Satisfied, she hauled a familiar mainsail up to its upper reef line. “If you aren’t already buckled in, now’s the time.” She yanked on the sheet a bit. It was still spilling plenty of wind, but I could feel a little jolt as the breeze began assisting our pedaling. “It’s not just a violation of methodological individualism, it’s a violation of methodological integrity. It’s incoherent and incomplete.”

Me: “How is it incoherent?”

Brigit: “Tell me what the appropriate construal level is for a demiurge. All of humanity? All of space and time? A household? That magical summer when you were twelve years old? The hoary breath of a sleeping city? Mesopotamia? IBM? Dreams? Dewey Decimal series 600? Is there a clustering method that isn’t utterly ad hoc, suited solely for the purpose of telling a lovely just-so story? I don’t always care that much for economics, but economists usually have the analytical restraint to stick to well-defined construal levels like cities, nation-states, firms, households, or individuals.”

Me: “Usually.”

Brigit: “Yes, usually. But these anthropomorphic allegories lack boundaries. Or is it ‘bounds?’ What’s the difference? Is there a difference?’ I wasn’t sure, as my gawping mug could attest. “Whatever. You might be able to map one to a word or some nomos, but how do you keep from indulging circular reasoning? Are you naming something just because it has a name? Are you identifying something that doesn’t yet have a name but could use one?”

Anika: “Gnome house?”

Me: “It’s a Greek word. ‘Nomos‘ means something like ‘order’ or ‘collective viewpoint.’ It means other things too, but I think that’s how Brigit’s using it here.”

Brigit: “It is. Anika, have I ever told you about semiotics?” I suddenly felt the urge to intervene.

Me: “If it’s a boundary issue alone, would you reconsider if the definitions were more rigorous?” She looked at me as if I were a toddler who had walked into a discussion about tax law.

Brigit: “Sure, pumpkin. Let’s see how that works out for you.”

Clay: “Okay then. How far is it to the junction we need?” He gestured to map tucked in the back of Anika’s pamphlet.

Anika: “Uh, how fast are we going? Does this thing have a speedy meter?”

Me: “There.” I pointed to the central gauge mounted on a panel next to the mast. “Looks like we’re doing almost 30. Wow. That’s a hell of a clip for this Jerrycan.”

Anika: “If we keep this pace and stop at nightfall tonight, and if we keep this pace tomorrow, we should be” she angled the map towards Clay, pointing at a handmarked red circle east of Seattle, “is this it?”

Clay: “Yep. That’s the junction.”

Anika: “We should be there before it’s time for lunch.” She grinned broadly. “I like this more than the boat. I hope we can stay on it for a long time.”

Clay: “You and me both, kid.” Brigit smiled warmly. I did not.

Thoughts shrugged in the pits of my skull. Dark thoughts.

Previous Episodes in this Series

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