Monday, August 15, 2005

The Wrath of Kahn

An adjunct of the Douglas Aircraft Company called Project RAND created its first future oriented study in May 1946, called "Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship." But that wasn't the future that seemed most crucial.

The government and military wanted to know the future of nuclear war, for any other future depended on the answers. Everyone knew almost immediately that nuclear warfare had the potential to destroy the world's civilizations in fairly short order. But those in charge wanted better information, a more realistic idea of what might happen, in order to plan to fight and win it, or to avoid it or survive it.

So even though the independent RAND Corporation would produce a long list of reports on urban problems, health and education, its early fame and the development of its systems for studying the future came from its work on nuclear war.

The new futurism's intellectual energy came mostly from the new approach to organizing and understanding information called systems analysis, which emerged from MIT at the end of World War II. Together with game theory and information theory that developed in tandem with it, systems analysis generated conceptual tools such as cross-impact analysis, modeling and simulations that made creative use of early computers.

The key insight that encouraged the futures field to blossom was probably the idea of alternative futures, promoted by the most visible and controversial figure in the field, Herman Kahn. In assessing future risks and possibilities, Kahn assembled packages of causes and effects. There wasn't just one possible future, he argued. Change a variable here and there, alter an assumption slightly, put in a new variable you hadn't considered, and suddenly, there is a different future.

Applied to nuclear war, it figured in various ways in which the war could start and proceed, who had how many nukes where, and which side's nukes got in the air first and whose would be destroyed, and by what proportion. Those different packages of variables acting in different time sequences resulting in different outcomes---different "futures"---Kahn called "scenarios."

That word is fairly familiar to us today, as meaning a particular imagined situation. We have different "scenarios" for how the school year will go, or how to get the money for a new car. Each sequence of video game play is often an acting out of a Kahn scenario. But before Kahn, "scenario" mostly meant the story in a theatrical production, such as an opera. A scenario is a kind of story.

Basically that's what Kahn was doing: he was creating narratives resulting in alternative futures. Unfortunately, his scenarios were all horror stories. Not only were the outcomes horrible, but the terminology governing how the stories went were ghastly in their bloodless abstraction: the main characters were missiles with particular "throw-weights" dispatching "megatons" of radiating cyclones of fire, resulting in "megadeaths." The difference in the various scenarios turned out to be statistical: how many megatons resulted in how many megadeaths.

These scenarios resulted in analyses that were further abstracted into doctrines like Mutual Assured Destruction (or MAD), a name that seemed all too accurate. Yet it was the basis for policy governing the future.

With all of this, plus his penchant for insane-sounding paradoxes like "the rationality of irrationality" and "thinking the unthinkable," Herman Kahn became one of the principal models for Dr. Strangelove. And the stories of the future became nothing but nightmares.

But the dreamlike stories of the future told in the 1939 World's Fair exhibits and the nightmare stories told by RAND (and picked up by the movies) had a common weakness: they had no real people in them. They had no texture, no life, no human complications or decisions, no emotions, not even simple human logic. No soul.

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