Building and playing with models has always been a popular hobby.
Model trains, cars, boats, airplanes, helicopters and rockets
enable us to experience vicariously some of the thrills and excitement
of vehicles that we might never have the opportunity to operate
in real life. Models of famous buildings, people, and events help
deepen our understanding by providing concrete representations
that engage our senses. Model-building is one way of coming to
grips (sometimes literally) with aspects of our world that would
otherwise be beyond our grasp. For this reason museums are filled
with models, and models are widely used in education. But models
and model-building are so enjoyable that many people do it on
their own, for fun, as a quick tour of any good hobby shop or
toy store will indicate. Different people enjoy different kinds
of models, ranging from everyday objects like cars and houses
to things that never were like starships and werewolves.
I believe that one consequence of the performance/price revolution
still underway in computing will be the rise of computer-based
modeling as a popular hobby. Like modeling today, computer modeling
activities will range from the creation of static models which
depict the structure and appearance of things (i.e., VRML models
of famous buildings) to dynamic simulations that let the player
experience the consequences of things that are uneconomical or
impossible to do in real life (i.e., twiddle the parameters of
a planet's ecology). Physical models can provide cutaway views
that let you see aspects of something that would be invisible
in the real artifact, but computer models can also provide visualization
tools and explanation facilities that support multiple perspectives,
ranging from the microscopic to the cosmic, and integrated access
to enough background materials to slake anyone's thirst for knowledge.
Physical models that reproduce behavior are limited by the physics
of the world, while computer models have much looser bounds. It
takes large fields to fly model airplanes and model rockets, but
only a large CPU and memory to fly computer models of them. Physical
models require space and materials to build and operate, computer
models require disk space. For most people with computers, it
is already easier to find disk space for a VRML model of the Süleyman
Mosque than it is to find shelf space for an equivalently detailed
physical model. As the price of computing continues to plummet,
and the price of housing doesn't, this difference will be felt
even more strongly. The VRML model is also a lot easier to dust,
and when one is tired of it, much easier to recycle. Physical
models of living things can reproduce very few behaviors, compared
to simulation models, and physical models simply cannot capture
the sorts of species-level and conceptual-level phenomena that
artificial life and artificial intelligence models do. Computer
models enable you to run companies and civilizations, fight battles,
and evolve new species, activities which simply aren't possible
with physical models, with the major cost being loss of sleep.
No doubt you may be reminded of existing commercial products,
such as the "Sim" games from Maxis and the various QuickTime
VR models that are now available. Indeed, these ideas grew from
contemplating such products. However, I believe that there are
several advances, some technological and some social, needed before
computer modeling will become as popular as it might be. The rest
of this essay examines why promoting computer modeling as a hobby
could be a wise thing for society to do, and how it might be done.
Outside of those who might do it, why should anyone care about
computer modeling as a hobby? The failure of our educational system
to prepare people for today's technological world is well-known.
Democratic ideals are threatened when citizens do not understand
science and mathematics well enough to understand their impact
on public policy. Crash courses in "computer literacy"
or generating lists of facts that every well educated person might
want to know are not solutions. Having memorized a list of key
facts won't, for example, help someone understand how to evaluate
statistical evidence or the possible long-term effects of a small
but steady change in a system with complex dynamics. Instead,
I believe that a significant part of the answer lies in viewing
simulations and computer models as a new expressive medium.
Imagine the impact on human culture if the skills of running,
interpreting, and creating computer models were as widespread
as the skills of reading, interpreting, and writing text are today.
The person on the street would have new intellectual tools for
making sense of the world around them. Decision-making might improve
as the public understanding of issues moves beyond sound-bites.
The fog surrounding economic projections, and the other uses and
abuses of statistical evidence in politics, might lift at least
a little. Unlike many hermeneutic activities spawned by the Information
Age, modeling urges one to look outward at that which is being
modeled, which could lead to more involvement and less passivity.
The widespread establishment of computer modeling as a hobby seems
to me one clearly necessary aspect of broadening cultural participation,
just as reading for pleasure and writing for personal purposes
were necessary driving factors for widespread use of text.
Conservatives might view the idea of computer modeling as a hobby
similar to other forms of modeling as heresy. Indeed, I believe
it would be a tragedy if computer modeling completely replaced
more traditional modeling activities. No one should miss the experience
of crafting a tangible object representing something that they
find really intriguing. However, in today's world, many people
already do miss that experience. The joys of computer modeling
overlap the joys of physical modeling: Less tangible, but wider
variety. The skills computer modeling requires overlap those required
for physical modeling: Less manual dexterity, more numerical and
logical dexterity. Ideally, computer modeling will complement
physical modeling where they overlap. Indeed, there are already
programs for designing model aircraft, and flight simulators that
mimic the experience of flying a remote control aircraft, so that
first fifty mistakes one makes while learning to fly don't each
cost dozens of hours of repair work. On the other hand, the plasticity
of the medium vastly increases the range of phenomena that can
be modeled by computer as opposed to by physical models. This
increased range makes it more likely that someone will find some
activity that interests them: If one doesn't find race cars exciting,
maybe one will find creating animals that can thrive in a desert
environment, policies that prevent the extinction of tigers, or
agents that can hold their own in an on-line discussion of presidential
politics, more to taste.
What will it take for computer modeling to become more popular as a hobby? We can take the widespread availability of powerful computers for granted, thanks to the strong market desire for multimedia computing. The limiting factors right now are software. Much can be done with the imaginative use of existing tools, as the computer gaming industry has shown. However, I believe it is important to create new tools and technologies that expand people's abilities, and make simulation even more accessible. Here are some examples:
A variety of opportunities will appear as computer modeling becomes more popular as a hobby. Schools will use the creation and interpretation of simulations with a frequency approaching that of reading and writing. Companies will sell models, simulation construction kits, and data sets. Organizations will sponsor modeling contests, with prizes in categories such as highest accuracy, most elegant, and most computationally efficient simulations. Part of the fun of a hobby is communication with like-minded folks. The Web is the obvious medium for publishing papers, code, and data. Digital libraries can play a valuable role, as a clearinghouse for data and models. Ultimately, the most important opportunity is for all of us to be able to explore our world better than we ever could before.