Sunday, November 25, 2007

On Prediction

In the nineties I wrote something like, 'Twenty years ago nobody predicted the internet'. I know I wrote this because, a few years later, I kept finding it on the internet. It usually appeared in a derisive context, implying that I was an idiot because, in the seventies, the author had confidently predicted Google, Blogger and Amanda Marcotte. This is nonsense. Of course, you could argue that somebody predicted the internet, but everything might have been predicted by somebody somewhere. The reality is that the internet we now have came, in effect, out of nowhere (note, please, my phrasing before you explode with indignation). At the end of The McLaughlin Group, the only TV current affairs show I can bear to watch, Crazy John asks for predictions from his panel. Each prediction is routinely greeted with hoots of derision from an opposing panellist, but, in reality, none is ever particularly startling. This is understandable. Startling predictions are difficult to make and usually irrational, even when they fall within the generally agreed spectrum of the possible. I might say, for example, that, within the next five years, America will attack China with nuclear weapons after a conflict over Taiwan. With good reason, most people would say this was highly unlikely to which my only reply would be, 'I just feel it's going to happen'. In fact, even the most non-startling prediction has an element of this irrationality or, if you prefer, subjectivity. But I'm only really interested in the startling predictions because what struck me about the last set of fairly safe predictions I saw made by Crazy John's panel was that I didn't think any of them could possibly be accurate.  It doesn't matter what they were, it just struck me that they were all adopting a rigidly linear view of the future, that there was an excess of barely concealed determinism in their thinking. Much of the time such a view is more likely to be right than wrong. But I was overcome with the feeling that, now, it must be wrong, just as it would have been wrong in 1913 or on September 10th, 2001. Those moments immediately preceded phase transitions, both of which might previously have been seen as possible but neither of which would have been generally expected. Why did I feel the approach of such a transition? Well, I could say it was the environment, the price of oil, the improbable state of the world financial system, my own disposition or an excess of the lovely 2001 Laroche Pipeau I picked up on my booze cruise. But, in the end, it was just a feeling. And that, I'm afraid, is all this post is really saying, but that's what blogs are for, isn't it?


  1. I've got a feeling you're right, Bryan - and I haven't been on the Laroche Pipeau, tant pis. 2001, you say - those grapes would have lived in the pre- and post-9/11 world...

  2. Of course, you could argue that somebody predicted the internet, but everything might have been predicted by somebody somewhere


    In fact, you could argue that Arthur C Clark did so in his 1953 sci-fi novel Childhood’s End. Here humans developed enormous, bulbous heads and began displaying telepathic and telekinetic abilities. What A.C. seemed to be alluding to here, was the conceptual power inherent in the human mind to grasp the invisible or virtual universe - thus fostering humanity's transition to a higher plane of existence. The internet, by way of analogy, may be said to present such a phase transition, stuck as we are at home, where the PC is amplifying the cerebellum, and each of us a participant in creating the future. Albeit that even in its most extreme form as a medium that virtualises reality, it is still adopting a rigidly linear view of the future - finite, if unbounded (follow Bryan’s links, and you always end up going in circles).

    I remember a joint paper I wrote on this subject, because it was conceptually the most demanding I ever participated in. Predictably, we have a tendency to see mankind's evolutionary transformation only in terms of the dominant technology of the day and the speed of light as a conceptual absolute. But the modification of spacetime in a mutating universe is not the mutation of matter but of the perception of matter. The great conceptualists of science, notably Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Dirac, discovered new concepts in the association, nature and inherent constitution of intelligent matter - concepts framed from an awareness of being which is inherently anthropic, and which may ultimately uncover an evolutionary paradigm: the modification of spacetime itself.

    One could admire and appreciate its merits. In fact, the contingency of new cosmological hypotheses rests, notably among others, on the idea of physical uncertainty. And nothing that has been said so far about the conceptual function of knowledge as a materializing force specifically maintains that as a result of such a function, it may not also create not only conceptually, but telekinetically, as would happen, for instance, in the transition from forces at a distance to fields as fundamental variables. Although, if you do not wish to refer to this particular prediction in terms of cosmology, perhaps we can agree on the term ontology. I am happy if you are.


  3. I predict Britain and other oil dependent countries are going to face a shit storm in the years ahead.
    The son of the manse will go down as the most authoritarian prime minister in British history and
    America will desend into apocalyptic mass hysteria.

  4. America will desend into apocalyptic mass hysteria.

    Oh, not again!