Practical Necromancy talk @Scholarslab – part I

Below is a draft of the first part of my talk for Scholarslab this week, at the University of Virginia. It needs to be whittled down, but I thought that those of you who can’t drop by on Thursday might enjoy this sneak peak.

Thursday, March 21 at 2:00pm
in Scholars’ Lab, 4th floor Alderman Library.

When I go to parties, people will ask me, ‘what do you do?’. I’ll say, I’m in the history department at Carleton. If they don’t walk away, sometimes they’ll follow that up with, ‘I love history! I always wanted to be an archaeologist!’, to which I’ll say, ‘So did I!’

My background is in Roman archaeology. Somewhere along the line, I became a ‘digital humanist’, so I am honoured to be here to speak with you today, here at the epicentre, where the digital humanities movement all began.

If the digital humanities were a zombie flick, somewhere in this room would be patient zero.

Somewhere along the line, I became interested in the fossilized traces of social networks that I could find in the archaeology. I became deeply interested – I’m still interested – in exploring those networks with social network analysis. But I became disenchanted with the whole affair, because all I could develop were static snapshots of the networks at different times. I couldn’t fill in the gaps. Worse, I couldn’t really explore what flowed over those networks, or how those networks intersected with broader social & physical environments.

It was this problem that got me interested in agent based modeling. At the time, I had just won a postdoc in Roman Archaeology at the University of Manitoba with Lea Stirling. When pressed about what I was actually doing, I would glibly respond, ‘Oh, just a bit of practical necromancy, raising the dead, you know how it is’. Lea would just laugh, and once said to me, ‘I have no idea what it is you’re doing, but it seems cool, so let’s see what happens next!’

How amazing to meet someone with the confidence to dance out on a limb like that!

But there was truth in that glib response. It really is a form of practical necromancy, and the connections with actual necromancy and technologies of death is a bit more profound than I first considered.

So today, let me take you through a bit of the deep history of divination, necromancy, and talking with the dead; then we’ll consider modern simulation technologies as a form of divination in the same mold; and then I’ll discuss how we can use this power for good instead of evil, of how it fits into the oft-quote digital humanities ethos of ‘hacking as a way of knowing’ (which is rather like experimental archaeology, when you think about it), and how I’m able to generate a probabilistic historiography through this technique.

And like all good necromancers, it’s important to test things out on unwilling victims, so I would also like to thank the students of HIST3812 who’ve had all of the ideas road-tested on them earlier this term.

Zombies clearly fill a niche in modern western culture. The president of the University of Toronto recently spoke about ‘zombie ideas’ that despite our best efforts, persist, infect administrators, politicians, and students alike, trying to eat the brains of university education.

Zombies emerge in popular culture in times of angst, fear, and uncertainty. If hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that Zombies are bad news. Sometimes the zombies are formerly dead humans; sometimes they are humans who have been transformed. Sometimes we deliberately create a zombie. The zombie can be controlled, and made to do useful work; zombie as a kind of slavery. More often, the zombies break loose, or are the result of interfering with things humanity was wont not too; apocalypse beckons. But sometimes, like ‘Fido’, a zombie can be useful, can be harnessed, and somehow, be more human than the humans. [Fido]

If you’d like to raise the dead yourself, the answer is always just a click away [ehow].

There are other uses for the restless dead. Before our current fixation with apocalypse, the restless dead could be useful for keeping the world from ending.

In video games, we call this ‘the problem space’ – what is it that a particular simulation or interaction is trying to achieve? For humanity, at a cosmological level, the response to that problem is through necromancy and divination.

I’m generalizing horribly, of course, and the anthropologists in the audience are probably gritting their teeth. Nevertheless, when we look at the deep history and archaeology of many peoples, a lot can be tied to this problem of keeping the world from ending. A solution to the problem was to converse with those who had gone before, those who were currently inhabiting another realm. Shamanism was one such response. The agony of shamanism ties well into subsequent elaborations such as the ball games of mesoamerica, or other ‘game’ like experiences. The ritualized agony of the athlete was one portal into recreating the cosmogonies and cosmologies of a people, thus keeping the world going.

The bull-leaping game at Knossos is perhaps one example of this, according to some commentators. Some have seen in the plan of the middle minoan phase of this palace (towards the end of the 2nd millenium BC) a replication in architecture of a broader cosmology, that its very layout reflects the way the Minoans saw the world (this is partly also because this plan seems to replicate in other Minoan centres around the Aegean). Jeffrey Soles, pointing to the architectural play of light and shadow throughout the various levels of Knossos argues that this maze-like structure was all part of the ecstatic journey, and ties shamanism directly to the agonies of sport & game in this location. We don’t have the Minoans’ own stories, of course, but we do have these frescoes of bull-leaping, and other paraphernalia which tie in nicely with the later dark-age myths of Greece

So I’m making a connection here between the way a people see the world working, and their games & rituals. I’m arguing that the deep history of games  is a simulation of how the world works.

This carries through to more recent periods as well. Herodotus wrote about the coming of the Etruscans to Italy: “In the reign of Atys son of Menes there was a great scarcity of food in all Lydia. For a while the Lydians bore this with patience; but soon, when the famine continued, they looked for remedies, and various plans were suggested. It was then that they invented the games of dice, knucklebones, and ball, and all the other games of pastime, except for checkers, which the Lydians do not claim to have invented. Then, using their discovery to forget all about the famine, they would play every other day, all day, so that they would not have to eat… This was their way of life for eighteen years. Since the famine still did not end, however, but grew worse, the king at last divided the people into two groups and made them draw lots, so that one should stay and the other leave the country’.

Here I think Herodotus misses the import of the games: not as a pasttime, but as a way of trying to control, predict, solve, or otherwise intercede with the divine, to resolve the famine. In later Etruscan and Roman society, gladiatorial games for instance were not about entertainment but rather about cleansing society of disruptive elements, about bringing everything into balance again, hence the elaborate theatre of death that developed.

The specialist never disappears though, the one who has that special connection with the other side and intercedes for broader society as it navigates that original problem space. These were the magicians and priests. But there is an important distinction here. The priest is passive in reading signs, portents, and omens. Religion is revealed, at its proper time and place, through proper observation of the rituals. The magician is active – he (and she) compels the numinous to reveal itself, the spirits are dragged into this realm; it is the magician’s skill and knowledge which causes the future to unfurl before her eye.

The priest was holy, the magician was unholy.

Straddling this divide is the Oracle. The oracle has both elements of revelation and compulsion. Any decent oracle worth its salt would not give a straight-up answer, either, but rather required layers of revelation and interpretation. At Delphi, the God spoke to the Pythia, the priestess, who sat on the stool over the crack in the earth. When the god spoke, the fumes from below would overcome her, causing her to babble and writhe uncontrollably. Priests would then ‘interpret’ the prophecy, in form of a riddle.

Why riddles? Riddles are ancient. They appear on cuneiform texts. Even Gollum knew what a true riddle should look like – a kind of lyric poem asking a question that guards the right answer in hints and wordplay.

‘I tremble at each breath of air/ And yet can heaviest burders bear. [implicit question being asked is who am I? – water]

Bilbo cheated.

We could not get away from a discussion of riddles in the digital humanities without of course mentioning the I-ching. It’s a collection of texts that, depending on dice throws, get combined and read in particular ways. Because this is essentially a number of yes-or-no answers, the book can be easily coded onto a computer or represented mechanically. In which case, it’s not really a ‘book’ at all, but a machine for producing riddles.

Ruth Wehlau writes, “Riddlers, like poets, imitate God by creating their own cosmos; they recreate through words, making familiar objects into something completely new, rearranging the parts of pieces of things to produce creatures with strange combinations of arms, legs, eyes and mouths. In this transformed world, a distorted mirror of the real world, the riddler is in control, but the reader has the ability to break the code and solve the mystery (wehlau 1997)

Riddles & divination are related, and are dangerous. But they also create a simulation, of how the world can come to be, of how it can be controlled.

One can almost see the impetus for necromancy, when living in a world described by riddles. Saul visits the Witch of Endor; Oddyseus goes straight to the source.

…and Professor Hix prefers the term ‘post mortem communications’. However you spin it, though, the element of compulsion, of speaking with the dead, marks it out as a transgression; necromancers and those who seek their aid never end well.

It remains true today, that those who practice simulation, are similarly held in dubious regard. If that was not the case, tongue in cheek articles titles such as this would not be necessary.

I am making the argument that modern computational simulation, especially in the humanities, is more akin to necromancy than it is to divination, for all of these reasons.

But it’s also the fact that we do our simulation through computation itself that marks this out as a kind of necromancy.

The history of the modern digital computer is tied up with the need to accurately simulate the yields of atomic bombs,  of blast zones, and potential fallout, of death and war. Modern technoculture has its roots in the need to accurately model the outcome of nuclear war, an inversion of the age old problem space, ‘how can we keep the world from ending’ through the doctrines of mutually assured destruction.

The playfulness of those scientists, and the acceleration of hardware technology lead to video games, but that’s a talk for another day (and indeed, has been recently well treated by Rob MacDougall of Western University).

‘But wait! Are you implying that you can simulate humans just as you could individual bits of uranium and atoms, and so on, like the nuclear physicists?’ No, I’m not saying that, but it’s not for nothing that Isaac Asimov gave the world Hari Seldon & the idea of ‘psychohistory’ in the 1950s. As Wikipedia so ably puts it, “Psychohistory is a fictional science in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation universe which combines history, sociology, etc., and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people, such as the Galactic Empire.”

Even if you could do Seldon’s psychohistorical approach, it’s predicated on a population of an entire galaxy. One planetfull, or one empire-full, or one region-full, of people just isn’t enough. Remember, this is a talk on ‘practical’ necromancy, not science-fiction.

Well what about so-called ‘cliodynamics’? Cliodynamics looks for recurring patterns in aggregate statistics of human culture. It may well find such patterns, but it doesn’t really have anything to say about ‘why’ such patterns might emerge. Both psycohistory and cliodynamics are concerned with large aggregates of people. As an archaeologist, all I ever find are the traces of individuals, of individual decisions in the past. It always requires some sort of leap to jump from these individual traces to something larger like ‘the group’ or ‘the state’. A Roman aqueduct is, at base, still the result of many individual actions.

A practical necromancy therefore is a simulation of the individual.

There are many objections to simulation of human beings, rather than things like atoms, nuclear bombs, or the weather. Our simulations can only do what we program them to do. So they are only simulations of how we believe the world works (ah! Cosmology!). In some cases, like weather, our beliefs and reality match quite well, at least for a few days, and we know much about how the variables intersect. But, as complexity theory tells us, starting conditions strongly affect how things transpire. Therefore we forecast from multiple runs with slightly different starting conditions. That’s what a 10% chance of rain really means: We ran the simulation 100 times, and in 10 of them, rain emerged.

And humans are a whole lot more complex than the water cycle. In the case of humans, we don’t know all the variables; we don’t know how free will works; we don’t know how a given individual will react; we don’t understand how individuals and society influence each other. We do have theories though.

This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. The direction of simulation is misplaced. We cannot really simulate the future, except in extremely circumscribed situations, such as pedestrian flow. So let us not simulate the future, as humanists. Let us create some zombies, and see how they interact. Let our zombies represent individuals in the past. Give these zombies rules for interacting that represent our best beliefs, our best stories, of how some aspect of the past worked. Let them interact. The resulting range of possible outcomes becomes a kind of probabilistic historiography. We end up with not just a story about the past, but also about other possible pasts that could have happened if our initial story we are telling about how individuals in the past acted is true, for a given value of true.

 We create simulacra, zombies, empty husks representing past actors. We give them rules to be interpreted given local conditions. We set them in motion from various starting positions. We watch what emerges, and thus can sweep the entire behavior space, the entire realm of possible outcomes given this understanding. We map what did occur (as best as we understand it) against the predictions of the model. For the archaeologist, for the historian, the strength of agent based modeling is that it allows us to explore the unintended consequences inherent in the stories we tell about the past. This isn’t easy. But it can be done. And compared to actually raising the dead, it is indeed practical.

[and here begins part II, which runs through some of my published ABMS, what they do, why they do it. All of this has to fit within an hour, so I need to do some trimming.]

[Postscriptum, March 23: the image of the book of random digits came from Mark Sample's 'An Account of Randomness in Literary Computing, & was meant to remind me to talk about some of the things Mark brought up. As it happens, I didn't do that when I presented the other day, but you really should go read his post.]

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