On a rainy day when I was twelve, I picked up a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and was instantly hooked. At that time, I was baffled by the chaotic world of middle school, and was intrigued by Asimov’s psychohistory, the idea that we can compare people to molecules and use mathematical models to predict their behavior. Though psychohistory is a fictional science, I decided then and there that I would devote my life to finding these models and using them to improve the world.
By studying economics, history, and politics, I began to catch glimpses of psychohistory. For example, some economists believe that even the poorest countries can become developed if they gain access to economic resources. However, my history teacher challenged my overly simplistic view. He pointed out that Bijie, a third-tier city in Southern China, has failed to thrive despite its abundance of natural resources and the considerable government funding it has received. Unable to account for this discrepancy, I decided to gather firsthand data to refine my model of development.
Last May, I went on a five-day trip with classmates to conduct my investigation. After ten hours of travel by train, we arrived at Bijie station at night. I was immediately shocked by the modernity of the fancy plaza and shopping malls. But the plaza was deserted, and there were no hotels nearby. Suddenly, I heard heavy footsteps behind me, and I thought of all the sinister tales I had heard about the place: stories of drug-dealing, kidnapping, and even murder. Cautiously, we turned around, and saw not a thug, but an old lady.
“You must be tired,” she said, smiling. “I have a place for you to stay.”
I hesitated. Would it be wise to take her at her word, without any evidence that she was trustworthy? However, with the harsh mountain wind growing colder by the minute, we had no choice but to follow her.
“I know you must be confused,” she said, gesturing at the grandeur all around us. We learned that the Bijie government used a development model that had worked in other major cities and concluded that a large train station with high-end malls would bolster the economy. However, people could not afford the prices at the malls, and the government didn’t even consider the need for hotels. The project was an utter failure.
After twenty minutes on a motorcycle, we arrived at the lady’s house, which had been turned into a cozy hotel. She offered dinner consisting of local delicacies, but refused to charge us. The room fee was only ten dollars, which was surprisingly cheap, considering she could charge us a higher price based on the principle of supply and demand. I felt more at home in that shabby house than I did in the glitzy plaza.
At five o’clock the next morning, the owner woke us up in time to catch the first bus leaving for the city. Though I had yet to begin my investigation, many of my questions had already been answered. For the remainder of our trip, instead of interviewing officials, we spent our days with local villagers, students, and peddlers, learning about their day-to-day lives. I realized that just like the government, I used to try to force the world to be compatible with the models I had studied. Now, I know that all my previous judgments had been flawed, since nothing should be defined from a predetermined perspective.
This trip will always remind me that it is impossible to fully understand the world through one simple model. Asimov’s psychohistory might help us obtain a general understanding of social structures, but it will always fail to reveal the complexities of each individual. Although I am no longer seduced by the elusive search for psychohistory, my desire to learn about the world and change it for the better will stay with me forever.