Some time ago this book was exciting certain elements of the Dark Enlightenment. I don’t recall much popular discussion of the book, but dullards like Thomas Friedman were championing it in the NYTimes so the beautiful people may have been reading it. I skipped it because I remember the paperless office. When I was a boy, automation was going to make paper obsolete. I recall TV specials on our computerized future and they always started with the paperless office. Here we are half a century later and we’re buried in paper.
That’s the thing with futurists. They are almost always wrong. They throw so much crap against the wall, some of it is bound to stick. Alvin Toffler was correct to observe that the pace of technological change is quickening. At the time, it was not that hard to observe. The microprocessors were going to radically change all of our electronics, extending their applications beyond what was previously possible. Of course we were on the cusp of a period of rapid change.
The trouble is he was wrong about everything else.
This column in the New Statesman sums up my views on futurists nicely.
Futurologists are almost always wrong. Indeed, Clive James invented a word – “Hermie” – to denote an inaccurate prediction by a futurologist. This was an ironic tribute to the cold war strategist and, in later life, pop futurologist Herman Kahn. It was slightly unfair, because Kahn made so many fairly obvious predictions – mobile phones and the like – that it was inevitable quite a few would be right.
Even poppier was Alvin Toffler, with his 1970 book Future Shock, which suggested that the pace of technological change would cause psychological breakdown and social paralysis, not an obvious feature of the Facebook generation. Most inaccurate of all was Paul R Ehrlich who, in The Population Bomb, predicted that hundreds of millions would die of starvation in the 1970s. Hunger, in fact, has since declined quite rapidly.
I’ll just note that the people who tend to get some bits of the future right are science fiction writers. By right I mean some bits and pieces here and there. Star Trek, for example, got mobile communications and mobile computing right for the most part. Jules Verne got a bunch of stuff right and Aldous Huxley is looking to have nailed large chunks of cultural change. Still, most of what these people described never happened and will never happen.
Perhaps the most significant inaccuracy concerned artificial intelligence (AI). In 1956 the polymath Herbert Simon predicted that “machines will be capable, within 20 years, of doing any work a man can do” and in 1967 the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky announced that “within a generation . . . the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved”. Yet, in spite of all the hype and the dizzying increases in the power and speed of computers, we are nowhere near creating a thinking machine.
Such a machine is the basis of Kurzweil’s singularity, but futurologists seldom let the facts get in the way of a good prophecy. Or, if they must, they simply move on. The nightmarishly intractable problem of space travel has more or less killed that futurological category and the unexpected complexities of genetics have put that on the back burner for the moment, leaving neuroscientists to take on the prediction game. But futurology as a whole is in rude health despite all the setbacks.
This is where the predictions about our machine future fall apart. Yes, massive leaps have been made recently, but we are not close to building machines smarter than their creators. When one second of human thought requires a room full of servers, we are a long way from Terminator.
Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, has an astrophysicist friend who made a pitch to a potential donor of research funds. The pitch was excellent but he failed to get the money because, as the donor put it, “You know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired . . . you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.” Gladwellism – the hard sell of a big theme supported by dubious, incoherent but dramatically presented evidence – is the primary Ted style. Is this, wondered Bratton, the basis on which the future should be planned? To its credit, Ted had the good grace to let him give a virulently anti-Ted talk to make his case. “I submit,” he told the assembled geeks, “that astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilisational disaster.”
Bratton is not anti-futurology like me; rather, he is against simple-minded futurology. He thinks the Ted style evades awkward complexities and evokes a future in which, somehow, everything will be changed by technology and yet the same. The geeks will still be living their laid-back California lifestyle because that will not be affected by the radical social and political implications of the very technology they plan to impose on societies and states. This is a naive, very local vision of heaven in which everybody drinks beer and plays baseball and the sun always shines.
This really is the crux of it. There’s money in predicting the future. In every town there exists a tarot card reader or psychic. I’ve known women with advanced degrees, who go to these people to get their future. Religion is all about the future. Live your life a certain way and you gain ever lasting life or languish in hell. The animating philosophy of modern political elites is based on the belief that the right arrangements will result in heaven on earth, however that is currently imagined. The demand for these promises is unlimited.
The bits about Gladwell and Kurzweil in the article are interesting. It seems that the people who get rich from telling ruling class types about the future never know a lot about the science they promote. The two guys who authored The Second Machine Age have no science. One has a degree in math, but has never worked in technology. Instead he has remained in college teaching management. The other guy just writes books. It does not appear that either of them have ever written a line of code.
Thomas Friedman is a guy who appears to learn the jargon of science and technology, but knows nothing about science and technology. His skill is flattering rich people, especially his wife who is mega-rich. This allows Friedman to flit around the world telling rich people they are the best. The court jester has been a feature of human societies since the Bronze Age. Telling the boss he’s wonderful by predicting the current course will lead to times of plenty is never going to get you fed to the lions.