Friday, September 11, 2015

Predicting the future

Why futurism has a cultural blindspot
In his book Predicting the Future, Nicholas Rescher writes that “we incline to view the future through a telescope, as it were, thereby magnifying and bringing nearer what we can manage to see.” So too do we view the past through the other end of the telescope, making things look farther away than they actually were, or losing sight of some things altogether.

These observations apply neatly to technology. We don’t have the personal flying cars we predicted we would. Coal, notes the historian David Edgerton in his book The Shock of the Old, was a bigger source of power at the dawn of the 21st century than in sooty 1900; steam was more significant in 1900 than 1800.


But when it comes to culture we tend to believe not that the future will be very different than the present day, but that it will be roughly the same. Try to imagine yourself at some future date. Where do you imagine you will be living? What will you be wearing? What music will you love?

Chances are, that person resembles you now. As the psychologist George Lowenstein and colleagues have argued, in a phenomenon they termed “projection bias,”1 people “tend to exaggerate the degree to which their future tastes will resemble their current tastes.”

In one experimental example, people were asked how much they would pay to see their favorite band now perform in 10 years; others were asked how much they would pay now to see their favorite band from 10 years ago. “Participants,” the authors reported, “substantially overpaid for a future opportunity to indulge a current preference.” They called it the “end of history illusion”; people believed they had reached some “watershed moment” in which they had become their authentic self.

I generally like science fiction that traces how technology changes behaviors, but not when it loses touch with the fundamentals. The Forever War's military fads lost me, though I must admit that our current politically driven changes are about that stupid.

When the writer gets too disconnected from "the fundamental things" they seem to be writing about aliens instead of humans--and fortunately they're in a genre where that's OK. Still, a stories about worlds where production is so cheap that everyone is idle just don't ring right. We're trying something like that now, and discovering that the devil finds work for idle hands to do. One of those fundamental things is that people need to be needed.

I never thought flying cars would be in every garage--when the subject came up for the first time my father pointed out that drunk driving was fairly common and asked what drunk pilots would do. When I got a little older I started to understand about insurance and liability and the relative fuel costs of flying and driving. Oh well. (Just as well--I like getting a little extra shuteye riding the bus...)

“The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called "Keep to-morrow dark," and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) "Cheat the Prophet." The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.”
― G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

When I looked up that quote, I found another from the same book that suits the topic just as well:

“... just as when we see a pig in a litter larger than the other pigs, we know that by an unalterable law of the Inscrutable it will some day be larger than an elephant,—just as we know, when we see weeds and dandelions growing more and more thickly in a garden, that they must, in spite of all our efforts, grow taller than the chimney-pots and swallow the house from sight, so we know and reverently acknowledge, that when any power in human politics has shown for any period of time any considerable activity, it will go on until it reaches to the sky.”

Now that I think of it, for some years now I haven't been reading a lot of science fiction--by a large factor not nearly so much as I did in my teens and twenties. Some of that is lack of time, and some is uninteresting fashions, but perhaps I'm more demanding. The most recent SF/fantasy I read (Somewhither) had a brief reference to an imaginary incident at the LHC that had me rolling my eyes--the alleged mysterious event was one of the things they are always looking for (minus the mysterious writing, of course).

I can't find the quote, but I think it was cited in Stand on Zanzibar: reality is what has the capability of surprising you. Setting aside "eye has not seen nor ear heard", even in this world we can't quite imagine everything.

1 comment:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

CS Lewis makes similar observations, that reality is often surprising and unexpected, which is how we recognise it by its taste. At least one of the times he wrote it, it was specifically in relation to Jesus of the gospels never being quite what we expected.