Sometimes being an anthropologist surrounded by archaeologists has its benefits. Engaging with them conceptually has certainly helped me to think through the materialisms that I have encountered in my theoretical explorations, and given me a deeper appreciation for infrastructure. But another thing it has done for me is to give me a better understanding of the meaning of the past and memory in our lives. This is something I think I can also apply to models as projections of the future.
There is an abundance of literature in archaeology on memory and the social construction of the past (see e.g. Shanks and Tilley’s Social Theory in Archaeology). The underlying premise – put very simply – is that the past is not an objective fact, but is constructed and continually reconstructed in the present. In that sense, the role of the past and memory in our lives and social worlds is not to project an image backward, but to compose relations between people and objects here and now. We seek to make sense of the past, and this in many ways shapes the way our world is structured today. The implication for archaeology – the study of the past through material culture – is that, rather than attempting to uncover the “real” past that will tell us how things really were, the purpose of archaeology is to explore new ways of constructing the past in the present. This has resulted in practices like critical archaeology, the archaeology of race and gender, public and collaborative archaeology, etc.
My research deals only marginally with the past. There is the history of the models, the history of the ecological systems that they are meant to represent, and the histories of the institutions that have developed around modeling and managing those ecologies. These pasts are relevant and important but not the major concerns of my work. However, my work deals significantly with the future – models have become a kind of oracle through which we can project current conditions and processes out into the future. This is a new kind of science. Field and lab research couldn’t tell us what the future would be like, they could only tell us what could be observed in the present. Models bring a dimension of prophecy to the world of science.
It’s like the Tarot or I Ching – we call to mind some problem, cast the oracle, and the oracle tells us what might come of the future. Obviously, I don’t believe in magic or the transcendent forces that underlie these methods and lend them legitimacy, but I have always been fascinated with practices of divination. I think it was reading Joseph Campbell and subsequently Carl Jung that led me to accept that these practices might have some value even when those transcendent forces were removed. The power of divination lies not in the power of the cards, sticks, stones, tea leaves, etc. to predict the future, but rather in their symbolic ability to redefine the present and encourage us to think differently about it. The media function as catalysts for reinterpreting the current conditions by way of a prediction of the future so that we might become more aware of the various possibilities open to us and then act to manifest those possibilities in our present lives.
This is the same thing that archaeological theory tells us about the past and memory, so there is in many respects an analogy between the role of the past and the role of the future in our lives. If the past is a construct that enables us to make sense of and restructure the present, then so too is the future, and methods of divination are the processes and practices by which we construct the present by way of the future.
As I’ve suggested, modeling too is a method of divination or oracle consultation. It differs from the others, of course, in that it is based in empirical observation and mathematical representation rather than symbolic projection and the unconscious, but there are many similarities nevertheless. There is always a dimension of uncertainty around modeling. No matter how well calibrated the model is (i.e. how good it is at representing the past – another way that my research touches on the role of history) future conditions are always fundamentally unpredictable. We can project what we know forward, but there is always the possibility that some unknown factor will come into play and change the whole system making all of our predictions irrelevant. With that in mind, the idea that models can predict the future is just as spurious as the idea that Tarot cards can tell us when we will die or with whom we will fall in love. It may be that the model provides a better approximation of future events than the Tarot, but the uncertainty always remains.
Following the implications of archaeological theory and the non-transcendent understanding of the value of divination, however, it becomes apparent that predicting the future is not the function of models at all. Modeling is not about the future. Like divination and archaeology, modeling constructs the future in the present, and provides a catalyst for reinterpreting present conditions. This allows us to be more conscious of the various possibilities open to us so that we can act to manifest those possibilities in our present lives. Whether or not a particular possibility will manifest is fundamentally unknowable – there are simply too many factors at play – and this is why we must continually reconsult the oracle. As with the past, the future must be continually reconstructed in the present in order to structure and restructure our world.
Again, following archaeology, but this time in terms of praxis rather than theory, this raises a lot of implications for how modeling is performed and how the future is constructed. As I mentioned, in archaeology the result has been a shift to critical approaches, as well as collaborative methods. I think the implications are similar for modeling, but first we have to rethink the role of modeling along the same lines as divination.
Models have to be deprived of their seemingly transcendent authority – as more-or-less accurate representations of a pre-existing and eternal Nature. This is not to say that models shouldn’t be based on the best empirical knowledge we have at the time, but that we should recognize the limitations of that knowledge and understand that the future is fundamentally unknowable. Modeling must come to be recognized as a tool for understanding and restructuring the present by way of a prediction of the future just as divination methods have done and as archaeology has come to define itself in relation to the past.