In September I joined up with a dear old friend and we drove all the way around the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, a get-together we’d been talking about for some time. It turned out we both had some time and relative freedom, and the idea of a road trip seemed like a good one: it would give us both a tiny vacation, and it would be an terrific opportunity to catch up.
I began by riding the Blackball Ferry from Victoria BC down to Port Angeles WA, where my friend Jean Eric picked me up in his car. We headed west and, for the next three days, we drove and talked and talked and talked. There was some music listening too, and eating, but mostly we talked, about so many things. We were not, I am certain, as entertaining as Brydon and Coogan, except perhaps to ourselves.
I don’t have a lot of this in my life anymore: neither road trips nor three-day conversations. Back in the 90s, Jean Eric and I worked together building digital things for education, and we talked a lot every day. But I don’t live that kind of life now; my days are much more fragmented, my attention divided, my schedule more frantic, and there isn’t time to indulge in long conversations that go on and on. Until this three-day road trip around the wildest corner of the continental United States.
Our first destination was the Makah Tribe reservation, at the Hobuck resort, which is a string of cabins on west-facing Hobuck Beach, just south of Cape Flattery and kind of opposite to the little townsite at north-facing Neah Bay. The two bays are joined by a narrow wetland valley that separates the high ground of Cape Flattery the rest of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a pretty wild place. According to Wikipedia, the Makah “refer to themselves as the qʷidiččaʔa·tx̌, which translates to somewhere near to ‘the people who live by the rocks and seagulls.’” I can confirm the presence of both. The rocks at Cape Flattery are huge, imposing, and weatherbeaten by the north Pacific.
Juan Eric and I had a lot of catching up to do. Back in the day, we were young upstarts who thought we knew how to change the world, or at least our corner of it (which had to do with distance education and publishing technology). We probably weren’t as smart as we thought we were, but we did design and build some pretty cool things, and those experiences have been foundational to my career ever since. Twenty-five years later and four graduate degrees between the two of us, maybe we know a bit more now; we have definitely seen a lot more. But I was happy to reflect that much of the ideals and political underpinnings of our work and our friendship back then still animates us today, and so picking up the conversation was easy.
Spending time out at the end of the earth—at least this part of the earth—was a balm for our typically urban/digital lives, and we talked at length of our experiences of institutional and corporate jobs and our hit-and-miss attempts to carve creative and convivial space out of them. Jean Eric’s life in recent decades has been in the USA, and he regaled me with horror stories of the American health care system. In Canada, of course, our health care system is famously wonderful, (except for the fact I haven’t been able to find a family doctor these past five years); either way, the capitalist economy does not play well with providing care for people. The “grift,” as Jean Eric likes to put it, is all-pervasive in the modern world, the sea in which we swim our little fishy lives.
On our second day we made our way back inland and then south, down the west coast of the state. Our second night was at Tokeland—which is not a weed theme park; rather it was named after the 19th century Chief of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. Tokeland is a narrow peninsula on the northern shore of Wilapa Bay, home to a historic hotel built in the 1880s and almost certainly haunted. The Tokeland hotel has a fancy little restaurant, with lots of dark wood, big windows, and a collection of friendly four-legged creatures cruising around looking for attention (and handouts). Despite being on the west coast of Washington, Tokeland peninsula feels much balmier and calmer than it did farther north, as we were facing Wilapa Bay and protected by big sandbars from the surf and the wind. It was an utterly charming spot.
These days my friend is a computational linguist; he wasn’t when I first knew him, though this path isn’t at all outside the possibilities I would have imagined for him back in the 90s. So, as a computational linguist, he had a lot to say about large language models (LLMs): about how these things actually work, how they are built, and how much hype and bullshit there is in the discourse today. I learned there isn’t a lot of linguistics in them at all, being built rather on brute-force statistical models of word proximity. There’s no ‘intelligence’ here at all; it’s a flex of massive data poured into deep learning models in a gambit to both attract amounts of capital and keep the costs as low as possible. But who does the labeling? And now that these things exist and are put to work, is anyone doing labeling going forward? Will AI just eat itself?
From Tokeland we drove back up through Aberdeen and the post-industrial landscapes that once were resource-extraction boomtowns. We ate a colossal breakfast at a diner in Raymond WA, a town which Wikipedia describes has having been a “wild and woolly lumber mill town” in the early 1900s but which has apparently now embraced weed as its new industrial base. Cruising through the ‘greater Aberdeen area’ we noted the hollowed out core of the town and the real estate signs everywhere—for those who cannot afford the Seattle area, no doubt. And from there we drove back into the American superhighway system, from Olympia—where, armed with Google Maps, I got us good and truly lost—and back up through Tacoma, where I got us lost again. I’ve always liked to think of myself as a good navigator and good with maps; but US highways defeat me.
We may be poor cyborgs today (with or without maps), but one lengthy conversation we got into was about our neolithic heritage. Jean Eric was telling me about haplogroups and the neolithic archaeology that attempts to flesh out the story of who these ancestors were that signed our Y-DNA (on the paternal line) and mtDNA (on the maternal line) with an apparently indelible pen. If we have this amazingly stable marker of distant ancestry still identifiable in our genes, after tens of thousands of years (that is, both before and after huge intercontinental migrations that the archeological record points to), does that tell us anything about who we are today? Or is it utterly dwarfed by the accrued weight of natural/sexual selection and genetic drift over that period of time. The pictures painted by archaeological accounts are a wonderful inspiration for imagining these forebears, and the ease today of doing genetic testing makes for powerful daydreaming, at least.
I spent the final day on my own in Seattle, just walking—my first day on my own in a big American city in years. I took the underground tram up to the U District for a nice brunch, and then walked along the north side of Lake Union over to Fremont. After a couple of pleasant hours in Fremont (where Google has its Seattle HQ, evidently) I walked the west shore of the lake back toward downtown, by which time my feet were completely done in. I had a reservation on the 7pm Cascades train back to Vancouver, but arriving at the station a couple of hours early, I opted for an earlier bus: not as comfortable to be sure, but it would get me home well before midnight. On the bus, headed north in the evening sunlight through the Snohomish and Skagit valleys, it seemed like the most beautiful place on earth, and yet utterly different than the nearby landscapes that I’d seen over the previous three days.
In Canada, we don’t typically refer to Indigenous “tribes”—this is an American designation. The Makah refer to their community this way: see https://makah.com/makah-tribal-info/tribe/ ↩︎
This horrific story emerged fairly early on: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2023/1/23/sweatshops-are-making-our-digital-age-work ↩︎