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Quest for planning leads me to think

Alan Braunholtz

After all the work of listening to diverse groups, looking at the fine details, seeing the larger view and trying to balance the needs of all the people, the environment, you present your ideas and everyone throws a tantrum.

It becomes politically impossible to implement them and instead we stumble from crisis to crisis into the future, suffering the consequences of our indecision. Vail’s housing shortage for seasonal employees and local families is the result of these tantrums, not lack of planning.

Realizing that the hardest part of planning is selling the public on the idea of following a plan (and the sacrifices it asks for), a group up in Vancouver has developed a game anyone can play that helps people understand the consequences of their actions.



The game is called QUEST and it allows anyone with a fast enough computer to be a regional planner and see the results of their decisions. You get to choose a world future from “conventional” through “fortress economies of the rich” to “enlightened socially aware sharing” as a global backdrop for your local planning decisions.

One can also select optimistic or pessimistic modes regarding technological innovation, ecological resilience, society’s readiness to change. etc. After that you set variables for energy consumption, waste generated, health care dollars, land conservation, growth of GDP, zoning percentages. There are a ton of variables. Then you get to see what your choices have created in 2040.



Usually it’s a frightening mess, at least for the first few goes. It seems planning for the future is very difficult, requires an open mind with a wide perspective and significant changes to how we live now. At least in the Vancouver area, which is where the game is set. It’s sort of fun to make a mess of Canada for a change, and if you want to give it a go visit http://www.basinfutures.net.

We may be just fine here, but judging by our lack of foresight regarding this drought probably not. Will homeowner associations embrace native plants for our gardens and their drier look? Make fewer jokes about and resistance to low-flow toilets? Perhaps some high mountain storage reservoirs for maintaining minimum stream flows. Or should all water be used for our real estate lawns, winter snowmaking and golf courses, as this is our main economic base? Raise the price or ration?

Despite complaints from city planners that the game is too simple, which makes the mind boggle over how complex planning can get, QUEST is being adapted to other locales.



Bali QUEST gets rave reviews, as their problems all stem from an exploding tourism industry which reduces the complexity.

As QUEST’s programming improves, it could spread with everyone trying his or her hand at town planning. It’s fun to be an all-powerful mayor. In Vancouver it’s certainly raised people’s interest in decision making and looking at what they choose is a great way to gauge public opinion.

Speaking of computing power and created world scenarios, think of this: If civilization is capable of developing computers powerful enough to simulate consciousness, it’ll probably create simulated universes for them to live in. Maybe as planning tools, history projects or just for fun.

According to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Yale, if we expect to create these simulated worlds, then we probably are living in one.

The “Matrix” is sort of true. OK, I know this is delving into the X-Files, crop circles and other weird supermarket checkout journalism, but he’s got a great argument. It goes something like this.

On the premise that it will become technologically feasible to mimic consciousness, there are only three possible futures:

n Some disaster will destroy us before we develop this capacity. If this happens, then right now is the real thing. Phew!

n Future humans will have ethical problems or won’t be bothered with running-playing such consciousness games. Noble but unlikely, as most kids I see are addicted to PlayStation and we seem to have few ethics where our entertainment is concerned. “I created them. I can mess with them!”

n Future humans will simulate consciousness and little worlds for their creations to live in for a variety of reasons. Playing God probably being the main one. If this is true, then we’re probably living in a simulation.

True we could be part of a “pre-Sim” world. Bostrom refers to this as the “original history,” but there will only be one “original history” and millions of simulations (if video game popularity is anything to go by) so the chances are effectively zero. Hmmmm?

Obviously, a created universe would have to be convincing to us, but one could expect little inconsistencies in the arcane details of our world. These might be made up as needed only when we started looking at them and not knowing any better, we’d accept whatever we saw as the way things are. It’s as good an explanation as any for the bizarreness of quantum mechanics.

Now that we know we may be a simulation, what to do? I guess it depends on who is running the game and why. For entertainment? Best to start acting weird, whacky and exciting. But then why haven’t the English been deleted? Maybe it’s a fantasy world for wannabe rich celebrity types to participate in after a boring day at the office? We do a pretty good job here sucking up to rich and famous, so we’re safe there.

A social science experiment by a bored teen-ager who obviously wants it done as quickly as possible, judging by the way we’re going. “Let’s see if I set global warming on 10. That should liven it up.”

Perhaps someone introduced us as a joke into a friend’s natural history project. “Oh no! Now look what they’ve done. See all those cool sentient mammals I created that sang and cooed and jumped. Well first they turned them into lamp oil and now they’re blowing up their brains with sound waves for some paranoid security reasons. Way to go. Remind me to save the whales to memory before I close this down.”

Bostrom thinks any change in our behavior is mad, as we can’t know the “how” or “why” of our simulated world, so any change would be pointless. If you want to waste some time (simulated) on a very slick argument, check out http://www.simulation-argument.com.

Alan Braunholtz, raft guide and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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