Predicting is hard, especially the future
March 19, 2013 3:31 AM   Subscribe

"During a summer in the late 1960s I discovered an easy and certain method of predicting the future. Not my own future, the next turn of the card, or market conditions next month or next year, but the future of the world lying far ahead. It was quite simple. All that was needed was to take the reigning assumptions about what the future was likely to hold, and reverse them. Not modify, negate, or question, but reverse." -- science fiction critic and writer John Clute discusses the secret of predicting the future for Lapham's Quarterly's Future theme issue.
posted by MartinWisse (32 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
John Crowley, not Clute. But thank you for posting this. I particularly enjoyed this bit
The future will consist of a new kind of universal anarcho-totalitarian system which is, on the whole, pretty successful at fostering human happiness and diversity as well as ensuring social justice and welfare.

A command economy, of course: that idea failed in the past because of lack of timely information and a disregard of personal desires, but the Internet 4.0, born out of the primitive workings of Google and Amazon, will fix that, and what you want—within reason—you can get. It seems impossible to us that, absent the Invisible Hand, entrepreneurial innovation can flourish, wants be met, and well-being increase—so it’s clear that’s what is to come.
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:13 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


My rule is that you can evaluate a claim about the future by a simple rule:

If it assumes that advances in technology will be used to favor the many and not the wealthy/powerful, it is false.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:28 AM on March 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Sure, and I had to collect these bits of information, put them together and squeeze them down the intertubes by hand

And concerning the article - there are too many trends among the predictions to reverse them, except perhaps that the future is bleak (and even this is not nearly universal).
posted by hat_eater at 5:10 AM on March 19, 2013


If it assumes that advances in technology will be used to favor the many and not the wealthy/powerful, it is false.

It's fun to be super-cynical, but it made me chuckle to see this statement (particularly as such an absolute) written on the internet.
posted by aught at 5:33 AM on March 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


Everything you know is wrong.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:37 AM on March 19, 2013


John Crowley, not Clute

Oh, for fuck's sake, which kind of numbnut confuses Crowley with Clute?
posted by MartinWisse at 5:41 AM on March 19, 2013


> If it assumes that advances in technology will be used to favor the many and not the wealthy/powerful, it is false.

To approach this from a slightly different angle: If the assumption is that an advancement in technology will be exploited first and more thoroughly by the general public than aficionados or the powerful, it is a poor assumption.

Many advancements in technology have benefited the poor more than the wealthy. (Let's take central plumbing as an example: The wealthy could poop in their private chambers and have household staff take care of the refuse; these days one of the defining characteristics of the first world is private chambers with automatic cleansing as a right available to the majority.) The abilities and access of the powerful are always greater -- by definition -- but with the exception, maybe, of weaponry they don't necessarily increase their power without a change in dynamics somewhere else. (The Internet has facilitated the surveillance state, but also unprecedented access to information and content by everybody.)
posted by ardgedee at 5:46 AM on March 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Sure, and I had to collect these bits of information, put them together and squeeze them down the intertubes by hand

I liked the poem from 1919, On the Bright Side:

"Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,"

In the aftermath of the Great War, I think everyone was looking for a Bright Side, a second coming. No one expected the Austrian-born one that would show up two decades later, but this is a reasonably good prediction of it.

In other words, it's a bit early to assume the intertubes are the friend of the working man.
posted by three blind mice at 5:47 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


In other words, it's a bit early to assume the intertubes are the friend of the working man.

the internet is the true manifestation, the spiritus mundi of TV... the electric religion.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:27 AM on March 19, 2013


Some major SF writer (Isaac Asimov?) wrote about the future using the following assumption:

Humanity will not make any major decision on a difficult subject until the available options have been reduced down to one -- meaning, no choice, and the choice that involves the least effort and forethought.

See also "global warming".
posted by intermod at 6:29 AM on March 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


This vision was enthralling to me, convincing because so unforeseen: its roots in the present firm and deep yet so occult that they will only be able to be perceived after centuries.

The book Crowley is most likely describing here is his Engine Summer, a sort of post-technological hippie bildungsroman that is very much a product of its time, but an excellent and readable novel.
posted by Nomyte at 6:34 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you go to the back of your screen and start reading this essay, you will see the article Crowley writes thirty years from now, called 'Where are the milliners of yesteryear?'
posted by forgetful snow at 6:40 AM on March 19, 2013


I totally agree with the method of this article. Perhaps it's the same one Bertrand Russell used to perfectly describe 1930s Soviet Russia in 1918, or the last three decades in 1924.
posted by cthuljew at 7:03 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everything you know is wrong.

Especially that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:10 AM on March 19, 2013


So...if he persuades us he is right about the future, then his predictions become "the reigning assumptions" and, consequently he must assume that the opposite will, in fact occur. Seems strangely self-defeating.
posted by yoink at 7:18 AM on March 19, 2013


Each "thing" we consider a fact about our world can be considered a dimension. In topology, the number of reflections possible increase geometrically with the number of dimensions. The size of the consequences becomes untenable with relatively small numbers of dimensions. Does our world contain more than 100 "things" that could be reversed? More? Do you have any idea how huge the number of possible reversals is? Tell me, of the trillions of things we could call a "reversal", which one are you banking on?
posted by idiopath at 7:57 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


this is a reasonably good prediction of it

Wait a minute, weren't we supposed to reverse the meaning of predictions?

In other words, it's a bit early to assume the intertubes are the friend of the working man.

So far, so good. In other words, I'm not making any predictions.
posted by hat_eater at 8:05 AM on March 19, 2013


MartinWisse: "Oh, for fuck's sake, which kind of numbnut confuses Crowley with Clute?"

Yeah, Clute writing this would be at least four times more impenetrable.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:39 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Does our world contain more than 100 "things" that could be reversed? More? Do you have any idea how huge the number of possible reversals is?

I have an idea that the number of possible reversals for 100 things is 2^100. But then everything I know is wrong. Especially that.
posted by kadonoishi at 9:41 AM on March 19, 2013


Does our world contain more than 100 "things" that could be reversed?

And worse, what's the reversal? Is the opposite of one zero, or minus one, or infinity? Is the opposite of a spoon a fork, or a knife? I know his rule was just there as a framing for an overview, but it's not a good one - he's still picking and choosing in the same way as every futurist ever has.
posted by forgetful snow at 9:51 AM on March 19, 2013


Yeah. Interesting tactic, reversing the reigning assumptions. But it must take practice to get good at it. I started with jet packs and flying cars and came up with propellor augurs and running buggies.

Too there's the danger of success. If you reverse the reigning assumptions too eloquently, they become the reigning assumptions.
posted by Twang at 11:32 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


kadonoishi: "I have an idea that the number of possible reversals for 100 things is 2^100."

Therefore, in a very small world which contains 100 things, we have 1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376 possible definitions of what "things being opposite of what we expected" means.

I suspect we live in a world that has more than 100 significant entities.
posted by idiopath at 12:34 PM on March 19, 2013


So...if he persuades us he is right about the future, then his predictions become "the reigning assumptions" and, consequently he must assume that the opposite will, in fact occur. Seems strangely self-defeating.

Hegel's dead hand never releases its grip, does it?

I suspect we live in a world that has more than 100 significant entities.

Or maybe only 36.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:42 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think about Engine Summer all the time, and what a weird and cool future Crowley posits in that book. I wish he'd write more novels like that, although his more mainstream fiction is of course excellent.
posted by Malla at 12:45 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


John Crowley - Little, Big is my favorite book ever, and parts of the AEgypt cycle were excellent, but what have you done for me lately?

(And here's someone who's writing is good enough that it would be helpful to the cause if he just came clean and admitted he were writing genre fiction.)
posted by newdaddy at 2:23 PM on March 19, 2013


Or maybe only 36.

Ok, totally off-topic, but on my Win7+Firefox, Wikipedia has a totally kick-ass Hebrew font. (I think it's called "David".)
posted by benito.strauss at 2:58 PM on March 19, 2013


And here's someone who's writing is good enough that it would be helpful to the cause if he just came clean and admitted he were writing genre fiction.

You mean the way he does on his official Yale bio?

.... His first published novels were science fiction: The Deep (1975) and Beasts (1976). Engine Summer (1977) ... appears in David Pringle’s authoritative 100 Best Science Fiction Novels.... Little, Big (1980) won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel; Ursula LeGuin described as a book which “all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy.” .... He has won the Lifetime Achievement Award of the World Fantasy Convention..... Novelty (containing the World Fantasy Award-winning novella “Great Work of Time”).... UNDERGRADUATE COURSES: ... Fantasy Writing, Science Fiction, and Related Genres...
posted by doubtfulpalace at 5:33 PM on March 19, 2013


I think Engine Summer may be the best science fiction novel ever, by the way, and its main competition, Thomas M. Disch's 334, also shows up in this (wonderful) article.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 5:34 PM on March 19, 2013


but what have you done for me lately?

Four Freedoms! Go read it, it's awesome.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:55 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I liked Camp Concentration a good deal more than 334.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:19 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]




What a finely meditative piece.

Thanks for the recc, Daily Alice. I've been saving that one.
posted by doctornemo at 5:25 PM on March 24, 2013


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