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I’m mulling this morning about the various natures of future knowledge, and how they influence human behavior. Hurricane Ike started this train of thought, which is not surprising, as forecasts and predictions and planning (and dread) are part and parcel of our experience with hurricanes.

some things are foreseeable

Hurricane Ike, Friday Sept. 12, 10 am PDT: some things are foreseeable

After ravaging Haiti and Cuba, Hurricane Ike is plotted to come ashore again at Galveston, Texas, pushing a storm surge that threatens to overwhelm the sea wall there. So once again the little hairs stand up on the back of my neck: the World Without Oil alternate reality also had a hurricane (Felix)  come ashore at Galveston, inundating parts of that city and also causing flooding in Houston.

WWO predicted this hurricane, but like many predictions, this is not remarkable. Given how hurricanes operate in the geography of the Gulf, it’s a safe prediction to make (it’ll come true eventually). Right now, the forecast calls for Ike to hit Galveston, and this is also not remarkable. Forecasts are like a chain of well-educated predictions, and if any of these predictions goes awry, the forecast suffers.

Which brings us to foreknowledge – which I’ll define here as the ability to recognize what is actually going to occur. Foreknowledge depends on two things coming together: accurate perception of the world as it is and accurate understanding of the way the world works. Unlike an event chain, foreknowledge can bypass the tactical sequence in favor of the strategic outcome. At its highest levels, foreknowledge involves a “eureka moment” when the opaque transforms into the inevitable. And foreknowledge informs and motivates more strategic human behavior: a hurricane forecast leads to boarded-up windows and evacuations; foreknowledge about the effect of global warming on hurricanes and sea level, in contrast, leads people to rebuild or relocate.

The goal of World Without Oil was to create a platform for foreknowledge about oil dependency in its players and observers. It is generating two outcomes: (1) people able to perceive more accurately the world as it is and how it works in regards to oil, and (2) people having a foreknowledge “eureka moment” and changing their situation and behavior accordingly. Both these outcomes help to lessen the impact of the inevitable transition we face as oil becomes more difficult to find, extract, procure, and burn with a clear conscience.

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For Sale - To Let signsThe Petro Razor: one of the useful precepts to come out of World Without Oil. In the game, once the global oil shock began, the Petro Razor went to work slicing away the things that depend on oil. And then the things that depended on the things that depend on oil. And then the things that depend on the things that depend on the things, etc. And it cuts away with an inexorable logic all its own. As Inky_Jewel put it: “The Petro Razor is trying to shave us clean. But nobody knows how to use it right, so it keeps cutting us instead.”

Here in the real world, the Petro Razor is also busy. I think a lot of its work has been masked by the subprime mortgage crisis, and certainly the two are working together to cruel effect. But hearing about the rise in abandoned pets and children’s activities being cut and people hiring hoods to torch their gas guzzlers and people setting fire to gas stations in protest and so on, sounds to me like the keen snick-snick-snick of the Petro Razor. Photo by I See Modern Britain via Flickr.

Character icons from the WWO game.The World Without Oil game centered on a website (www.worldwithoutoil.org, now archived here) which gathered all the in-game ideas and expressions of the players. In the fiction of the game, the website had been put together by eight (eventually, 14) ordinary citizens who had reason to believe the oil crisis was coming. They called themselves the 8TSOC (8 To Save Our Country).

Like the game itself, the 8TSOC characters were fiction but just barely. WWO’s gamemasters (“puppetmasters”) played them, but for the most part they were alternate realities of who we are (or might have been). Like the game itself, they come across as pretty real.

So it’s fascinating, a year later, to read these characters’ Manifestos – the characters’ thoughts as the reality of the oil crisis loomed larger and larger. Take a moment and check them out.

(To learn who in real life played each character, go here and scroll down to Puppetmasters.)

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.