Futurism without predictions

12 December 2011

Monday


“From the relation of the planets among themselves and to the signs of the zodiac. future events and the course of whole lives were inferred, and the most weighty decisions were taken in consequence. In many cases the line of action thus adopted at the suggestion of the stars may not have been more immoral than that which would otherwise have been followed. But too often the decision must have been made at the cost of honour and conscience. It is profoundly instructive to observe how powerless culture and enlightenment were against this delusion; since the latter had its support in the ardent imagination of the people, in the passionate wish to penetrate and determine the future. Antiquity, too, was on the side of astrology.”

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878, Part Six, MORALITY AND RELIGION, “Influence of Ancient Superstition”


A few days ago Neil Houghton read my post The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought and made the following comment on Twitter:

Neil Houghton — I add prospective agency. RT @geopolicraticus The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought: human agency in time and history

I responded with a question, and a miniature dialogue developed (within the tightly constrained limits of Twitter):

Nick Nielsen — How would you define prospective agency? Is this agency understood in terms of possibility and potentiality?

Neil Houghton — Great question… in one word, foresight… in more a transdisciplinary practice between, across and beyond orders of time

Nick Nielsen — The whole problem is separating the wheat from the chaff: the wheat is the big picture; the chaff, trivial predictions.

Neil Houghton — Yes. seeing gradience is an aspect of the problem; the difference between the big picture and trivial prediction is one such gradience.

Nick Nielsen — Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.

Neil Houghton — Foresight as gradience between freedom and destiny (for example) … please say more of your different kind of foresight.

This brief exchange points to something that I consider to be important, so I will attempt to give an account of the distinction I proposed between seeing the big picture and attempting to make predictions.

The most familiar form of futurism consists in making a series of predictions. Like any prognosticator of the future, regardless of methodology, the futurist is caught in a bind. The more specific his predictions, the more likely he is to be caught out. Even if the general drift of a prediction is correct, supplying a lot of details means more ways of potentially being wrong. And the more vague a prediction, the less interesting they are likely to be.

Some futurists take pride in their detailed lists of predictions, and although detail is an opportunity to be wrong, it also provides a lot of fodder for utterly pointless debate. In The Law of Stalled Technologies I wrote the following about Ray Kurzweil’s specific predictions:

Kurweil’s futurism makes for some fun reading. Unfortunately, It will not age well, and will become merely humorous over time (this is not to be confused with his very real technological achievements, which may well develop into robust and durable technologies). I have a copy of Kurzweil’s book that preceded The Singularity is Near, namely The Age of Spiritual Machines (published ten years ago in 1999), which is already becoming humorous. Part III, Chapter Nine of The Age of Spiritual Machines, contains his prophecies for 2009, and now it seems that the future is upon us, because it is the year AD 2009 as I write this. Kurzweil predicted that “People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies.” It is true that many people do carry multiple gadgets with microprocessors, and some of these are linked together via Bluetooth, so this prophecy does not come off too badly. He also notes that “Cables are disappearing” and this is undeniably true.

Kurzweil goes a little off the rails, however, when it comes to matters that touch directly on human consciousness and its expressions such as language. He predicted that, “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition”, and I think it is safe to say that this is not the case. I don’t want to parse all his predictions, but I need to be specific about a few particularly damning failures. Among the damning failures is the prediction that, “Translating Telephone technology … is commonly used for many language pairs.” Here we step over the line of the competence of technology and the limitations of even the most imaginative engineers. While machine translation is common today for text, everyone knows that it is a joke — quite literally so, as the results can be very funny though not terribly helpful.

Kurzweil gives a decade-by-decade running commentary of predictions. I once had somebody scold me about ridiculing Kurzweil’s predictions, because, I was told, the dates given were intended to indicate the initial dates of a ten year period, which gives him a ten year window to be right, thus kicking all his predictions another ten years down the road. This is the kind of ridiculous debate over pointless predictions that is an utter waste of breath. Predictions can be parsed like this until the end of time; this is precisely why people are always trying to show that Nostradamus predicted something. Add vagueness to ambiguity and you create the deconstructionists’ dream: anything can mean anything.

Just to unearth one more prediction, for 2019 Kurzweil predicted:

“Paper books or documents are rarely used and most learning is conducted through intelligent, simulated software-based teachers.”

Even if we give Kurzweil another ten years, I can guarantee you that, if I am still alive in 2029, that I will still have my personal library, it will probably be bigger than it is now, and I will consult it every day, as I do now. This does not, for me, constitute rarity of use. However, I will readily acknowledge that there is, already today, no need whatever to print textbooks, since knowledge is changing so rapidly and students usually don’t retain their textbooks after they have been used for a class. In situations such as this, it makes much more sense to make the material available on the internet. But even if we don’t bother with textbooks anymore, there will be a continuing role for books. At least, for me there will be a continuing role for books.

Whether you want to take pride in a list of specific predictions, having convinced yourself through a charitable hermeneutic that they have all come true, or whether you would rather it were all forgotten as a great embarrassment along with jetpacks, flying cars, and unisex jumpsuits, this model of futurism will always have a certain novelty value, so I will predict that “laundry list futurism” (like the poor) will always be with us.

There is, however, another kind of futurism, which we may not even want to call futurism, but which does incorporate a vision of the future. This other model of futurism is not about offering a laundry list of predictions, but rather about understanding the big picture, as I have said, both in space and time, i.e., geographically and historically. Here, “seeing the big picture” means having a theory of history that embraces the future as well as the past. This approach is about seeing patterns and understanding how the world works in general terms, and from an understanding of patterns and how the world works, having a general idea of what the future will be like, just as one may have a general idea of what they past was like, even if one cannot jump into a time machine and march with Alexander the Great or listen to Peter Abelard debate.

The big picture in space and time — and the biggest picture is what I have called metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history — is a theory, which if it is to be coherent, consistent, and universally applicable, must be applicable both to the past and the future. Ultimately, such a theory would be a science of time, although we aren’t quite there yet. I hope that, before I die, I can make a substantial contribution in this direction, but I recognize that this is a distant goal.

In the meantime, familiar sciences are engaged in precisely this enterprise, though on a less comprehensive scale. Let me try to explain how this is the case.

When we work in the historical sciences, the scale of time is so great that we must settle for retrodiction, because this is what can be done within one human lifespan, or within the lifespan of a community of researchers engaged in a common research program, but if we could afford to wait for thousands or millions or billions of years we could make predictions about the future. When, on the contrary, we work in the natural sciences as in physics, we must make predictions about the future, because we must create an elaborate apparatus to test our theories, and these did not exist in the past, so retrodiction is as closed to us as prediction is closed to the historical sciences. If we could go back in time with a superconducting supercollider, we could make retrodictions in physics, but at the present stage of technology this time travel would be more difficult than the experiment itself.

We accept the limitations of science that we are forced to accept, perhaps not gladly, but of necessity. What alternatives do we have? If we would have knowledge, we must have knowledge upon the conditions that the world will allow us knowledge, or refuse knowledge altogether. We are confident that our theories of physics apply equally well to the past, even if they cannot be tested in the past, and we are confident that our theories of paleontology would apply to the future if only we could wait long enough for the bones of the present to be fossilized.

In the fullness of time, if industrial-technological civilization continues in existence, the limits of science will be pushed back from the positions they presently occupy, but they will never be eliminated altogether. However, our strictly scientific knowledge can be extrapolated within a more comprehensive philosophical context, in which the resources of logical and linguistic analysis can be brought to bear upon the “problem” of history.

When I first began writing about what I began to call integral history, and which I now call metaphysical history, my aim at that time was to give an exposition of an extended conception of history that made use of the resources both of traditional humanistic narrative history and the emerging scientific historical disciplines, such as genomic resources which have taught us so much about the natural history of our species. I have subsequently continued to expand my expanded conception of history, and this is what I call metaphysical history, elaborated in the context of ecological temporality.

A further extension of the already extended conception of metaphysical history would be a conception of history that sees the big picture by seeing time whole, past, present, and future together as one structure that exhibits laws, regularities, patterns, and, of course, exceptions to all of the same.

This, then, was what I meant when I said that, “Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.” The kind of foresight I have in mind is an understanding of historical events, both past and future, in a larger theoretical context. It is “foresight” only because it is, as the same time, hindsight. Both the past and the future are comprehended in an adequate theory of history.

I have no desire to produce a laundry list of predictions; I have no desire to say what I think the world will look like in 2019 or 2029 or 2039. I think that most of these predictions are irresponsible, though it may land a prophet on the front page of the National Enquirer. Not all such attempts at prediction, however, are irresponsible from my point of view. I have several times discussed George Friedman’s book The Next 100 Years, which strikes me as a responsible exercise in laundry list futurism. I have also discussed Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.

Kaku’s book is particularly interesting to me in the present context, because Kaku has a very specific method for his futurism. He has interviewed scientists about the technologies that they are developing now, in the present, and which will become part of our lives in the foreseeable future. I realize now that Kaku’s methodology may be characterized as a constructive futurism: he is immersed in the details of technology, and extrapolating particular, incremental advances and applications. This is a bottom-up approach. What I am suggesting, on the contrary, is a profoundly non-constructive approach to the philosophy of history, a top-down understanding that looks for the largest structures of space and time and regards all details and particulars as fungible and incidental. That is my vision of a theory of history, and I think that such a theory would give a certain degree and kind of foresight into event in the future, but certainly not the same degree and kind of foresight that one might gain from the constructive methods of Kaku and Friedman.

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