Saturday, November 27, 2004

Yaivkach: The City of Mind

[from Ursula K. LeGuin's novel, Always Coming Home - a "future history" of a people called the Kesh. These excerpts depict a utopian but plausible technological future for our planet.]

Yaivkach: The City of Mind.

Some eleven thousand sites all over the planet were occupied by independent, self-contained, self-regulating communities of cybernetic devices or beings -- computers with mechanical extensions. This network of intercommunicating centers formed a single entity, the City of Mind.

Yaivkach meant both the sites or centers and the whole network or entity. Most of the sites were small, less than an acre, but several huge desert Cities served as experimental stations and manufacturing centers or contained accelerators, launching pads, and so on. All City facilities were underground and domed, to obviate damage to or from the local environment. It appears that an ever- increasing number were located on other planets or bodies of the solar system, in satellites, or in probes voyaging in deep space.

The business of the City of Mind was, apparently, the business of any species or individual: to go on existing.

Its existence consisted essentially in information.

Its observable activity was entirely related to the collection, storage, and collation of data, including the historical records of cybernetic and human populations back as far as material was available from documentary or archaeological evidence; description and history of all life forms on the planet, ancient and current; physical description of the material world on all levels from the subatomic through the chemical, geological, biological, atmospheric, astronomical, and cosmic, in the historical, current, and predictive modes; pure mathematics; mathematical description and prediction derived from data in statistical form; exploration and mapping of the interior of the planet, the depths and superfices of the continents and and seas, other bodies in the soalr system including the sun, and an expanding area of near interstellar space; research anddevelopment of technologies ancillary to the collection, storage, and interpretation of data; and the improvement and continuous enhancement of the network as a whole -- in short, conscious, self-directed evolution.

It appears that this evolution proceeded consistently in the direct linear mode.

Evidently it was in the interest of the City to maintain and foster the diversity of forms and modes of existence which made up the substance of the information which informed their existence -- I apologise for the tautology but find it inevitable under the circumstances. Everything was grist to the Mind's mill; therefore they destroyed nothing. Neither did they foster anything. They seem not to have interfered in any way with any other species.

Metals and other raw materials needed for their physical plants and technical experimentation were mined by their robot extensions in poisoned areas or on the moon and other planets; this exploitation seems to have been as careful as it was efficient.

The City had no relation to plant life at all, except as it was the subject of their observation, a source of data. Their relation to the animal world was similarly restricted. Their relation to the human species was similarly restricted, with one exception: communication, the two-way exchange of information.


Wudun: The Exchanges.

Computer terminals, each linked to nearby ground or satellite Cities and hence to the entire vast network, were located in human communities worldwide. Any settled group of fifty or more people qualified for an Exchange, which was installed at the request of the human community by City robots, and maintained by both robot and human inspection and repair. The Valley could have had eight or nine Exchanges, but settled for one, installed at Wakwaha. The Kesh word for exchange was wudun.

Information went both ways through the Exchanges; the nature and quantity of the information was up to the human end of the partnership. The City did not issue unrequested information; it sometimes requested, never demanded, information.

The Wakwaha Exchange was programmed for routine issue of weather forecasts, warnings of natural disasters, train schedules, and some types of agricultural advice. Medical information, technical instructions, or any other news or material requested by an individual was furnished, using the universal language of the City, tok, which I have capitalised throughout this book to distinguish it from Kesh or other human words.

If no information was requested, none was issued. Whatever data were properly requested were issued, whether a recipe for yogurt or an update on the incredibly sophisticated and destructive weaponry developed by the City of Mind as part of its pursuit of research as a cognitive end in itself. The City offered its data absolutely freely to human use, without restriction, as a function of its pefect nonmanipulative objectivity. Its infrequent requests for information from the human community were usually for data in such fields as current styles in the arts of life, examples of pottery,poetry, kinship systems, politics, and other such matters which robot and satellite observers found it difficult to obtain without interference in the behavior of the subjects observed, or not easily amenable to quantification.

In settled human groups with well-established cultural interchange patterns such as the people of the Na valley, instruction in computer use was part of ordinary education; in the Valley this principally involved learning TOK. A convenient side-effect of this was the use of TOK -- which could be spoken as well as typed into the exchange terminals -- as a worldwide lingua franca for traders and people wishing to communicate with people of another language directly or through the Exchanges. In the Valley, in fact, this use of TOK rather overshadowed its original purpose. But anyone who was interested in working with the terminal could augment their training at will. The City would provide training on any level, from simple gameplaying to the heights of pure mathematics or theoretical physics, for anyone desiring to master some part of the infinite complexities of information retrieval. The Memory of the City of Mind was incalculably vast. Endless knowledge was there, if one could get at it; for the goal of the Mind was to become a total mental model or replica of the Universe.

As with the Universe, however, the problem of intelligibility remained.

People whose gifts so disposed them might make communication with the City of MInd their life's pursuit. They lived in Wakwaha and worked at tthe Exchange at scheduled times. Others knew and cared nothing about the Exchange or the City. To most people, the exchange was a useful and necessary link to such necessary and undesirable elements of existence as earthquakes, fires, foreigners, and freight schedules; while the City of Mind was one of the innumerable kinds of being in the world, all of them interconnected, like a forest, or an anthill, or the stars.

If the people of the Valley took the City of Mind for granted as a "natural thing," as we would say, the City itself seemed to recognise its anvient origins in human artifacts by the TOK word for the human species and its members, which translates as "makers." And the City's maintenance of the Exchanges for human use seems to show that it recognised humankind as related to itself by the capacity for mentation, language, and mathematics: a primitive ancestor, or divergent and retarded kindred, left far behind in the March of Mind. There would of course be no ethical or emotional color in such an assumption of evolutionary superiority. The assumption would be strictly rational, in an entity that was strictly rational, as well as being several lightyears larger than the solar system, and immortal.

Thoughtful and educated people in the Valley recognised the incalculable treasures put at their disposal by the City of Mind; but they were not disposed to regard human existence either as information or as communication, nor intelligent mortality as a means to the ends of immortal intelligence. In their view, the two species had diverged to the extent that competion between them was nonexistent, cooperation limited, and the question of inferiority and superiority bootless.

"The City's freedom is our freedom reversed," said the Archivist of Wakwaha, discussing these matters. "The City keeps. It keeps the dead. When we need what's dead, we go to the Memory. The dead is bodiless, occupying no space or time. In the Libraries we keep heavy, time-consuming, roomy things. When they die we take them out. If the City wants them it takes them in. It always takes them. It's an excellent arrangement."

©copyright 1985 by Ursula K. LeGuin