Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Can We Replay History?

After the kids' party games and the birthday cake came the action-packed Steve McQueen movie. My friend's parents had rented a movie projector. They hooked up the reel and let it roll. But the high point came later when they ran the movie backwards. Bullets streamed back into guns, blows were retracted and fallen protagonists recoiled into action. The mechanism that pulls the celluloid film forward for normal showing, can pull the film in the reverse direction, rolling it back onto the feeder reel and showing the movie in reverse.

If you chuck a round pebble off a cliff it will fall in a graceful parabolic arch, gradually increasing its speed until it hits the ground. The same pebble, if shot from the point of impact, at the terminating angle and speed, will gracefully and obligingly retrace its path. (I'm ignoring wind and air friction that make things a bit more complicated.)

Deterministic mechanisms, like the movie reel mechanism or the law of gravity, are reversible.

History is different. Peoples' behavior is influenced by what they know. You pack an umbrella on a trip to the UK. Google develops search algorithms not search parties because their knowledge base is information technology not mountain trekking. Knowledge is powerful because it enables rational behavior: matching actions to goals. Knowledge transforms futile fumbling into intelligent behavior.

Knowledge underlies intelligent behavior, but knowledge is continually expanding. We discover new facts and relationships. We discover that things have changed. Therefore tomorrow's knowledge-based behavior will, to some extent, be unpredictable today because tomorrow's discoveries cannot be known today. Human behavior has an inherent element of indeterminism. Intelligent learning behavior cannot be completely predicted.

Personal and collective history does not unfold like a pre-woven rug. Human history is fundamentally different from the trajectory of a pebble tossed from a cliff. History is the process of uncovering the unknown and responding to this new knowledge. The existence of the unknown creates the possibility of free will. The discovery of new knowledge introduces indeterminism and irreversibility into history, as explained by the philosophers G.L.S. Shackle and Karl Popper.

Nonetheless history is not erratic because each increment of new knowledge adds to the store of what was learned before. Memory is not perfect, either of individuals or groups, but it is powerful. History happens in historical context. For instance, one cannot understand the recent revolutions and upheavals in the Arab world from the perspective of 18th century European revolutions; the historical backgrounds are too different, and the outcomes in the Middle East will be different as well. Innovation, even revolution, is spurred by new knowledge laid over the old. A female municipal official slapped a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. That slap crystalized Mr Bouazizi's knowledge of his helpless social impotence and lit the match with which he immolated himself and initiated conflagrations around the Mideast. New knowledge acts like thruster engines on the inertial body of memory. What is emerging in the Mideast is Middle Eastern, not European. What is emerging is the result of new knowledge: of the power of networking, of the mortality of dictators, of the limits of coercion, of the power of new knowledge itself and the possibilities embedded in tomorrow's unknowns.

Mistakes are made, even with the best intentions and the best possible knowledge. Even if analysts knew and understood all the actions of all actors on the stage of history, they still cannot know what those people will learn tomorrow and how that new knowledge will alter their behavior. Mistakes are made because history does not unwind like a celluloid reel.

That's not to say that analysts are never ignorant, negligent, stupid or malicious. It's to say that all actions are, in a sense, mistakes. Or, the biggest mistake of all is to think that we can know the full import of our actions. We cannot, because actions are tossed, like pebbles, into the dark pit of unknown possible futures. One cannot know all possible echoes, or whether some echo might be glass-shatteringly cataclysmic.

Mistakes can sometimes be corrected, but never undone. History cannot be run backwards, and you never get a second chance. Conversely, every instant is a new opportunity because the future is always uncertain. Uncertainty is the freedom to err, and the opportunity to create and discover. 

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