Overweening Generalist

Monday, May 30, 2011

Forecasting and Futurology on Memorial Day in the U.S.

Today Unistatians (i.e, the People of Unistat, more commonly known as "the United States," and where I happen to have been born and "raised," and within whose borders I currently reside) have a national holiday to drink, fight, watch sports, and air grievances with family and friends - among other things - in memory of people who died while fighting in one of Unistat's military services. For most Unistatians, the "reasons" why those people went to war and died in the first place are naive, embarrassingly wrong,  or opaque. But fuck it! Let's parTAY!

Certain thinkers since, oh, let's say Diderot's Encyclopedia, have been wondering if we can somehow figure out a way to use rational-empirical physicalist methods to forecast the future. This kind of thing really got going with the advent of science fiction and brilliant Generalists such as H.G.Wells and Jules Verne. And it became a sort of cottage industry circa 1950. Futurology!

There seem to be two broad approaches linking physical processes to the acceleration of history and technology: 1.) thermodynamic measurements,  and 2.) information theory and chaos mathematics

The second one interests me more, mostly because, as a non-specialist, I find the Information Theory/Chaos Math folk have more engaging (and therefore plausible) narratives. (In my current state of ignorance it seems that thermodynamics and information intersected around 1944-48, with the work of scientific Illuminati like John Von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Erwin Schrodinger, and Claude Shannon. More some other day. When I've read up more on it.)

For the nigh-curious, here is a list of some Futurologists.

Info-flow and acceleration of technology (and madness, anxiety and reactionary politics?):
Around 1990, for example, the mathematician Theodore Gordon (for some reason left off the Wiki List) published a paper which demonstrated that chaos increases as information flows throughout society increased, and the two are probably intertwined. What it seems to me now is that Gordon was saying that more and more Black Swan events would happen, but they might be almost impossible to predict. These events should be easier to predict, but because of the cognitive biases of "experts" and "specialists" they are not. The global financial meltdown of 2008 should be the Final Bell to start thinking about World Systems differently, building in more robustness and minimizing fragility, but there is no reason to believe this is happening or will happen, given events since August, 2008. (These "locked-in" cognitive biases of "experts" is a huge hurdle, seems to me.)

Moving along, ever-accelerating...

Sir Martin Rees has a sobering quasi-prediction for humanity's future, and if ya wanna, give yourself an intellectual thrill-chill and watch his 18 minute talk from July, 2005 on this here:

(Much) more sanguine futurologists such as Ray Kurzweil think we will reach a point of "singularity." And it seems rather soon. Different singularitarians forecast different dates for a whole new ballgame: our genomics, robotics, computer science, nanotechnology, etc, will increase in their acceleration and everything will change so radically they will look back on us at this moment and laugh at how "primitive"we were. This is too big to go into here, but I'll address my personal pixillation over their whole compelling narrative in a future blog-spew. Suffice: when I read the Extropians and Singularitarians, part of me is very excited and enthusiastic if they're right, and another part of me (intuition?) is horrified and tends to encourage a spiral toward the anxiety pole, damn my overweening imagination!

Anyway, something's coming, and pronto! Head's up!

Finally, I leave us with a quote/forecast from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness:

"The twentieth century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the twenty-first will be that of the technological one." - found on p.31 of Taleb's The Bed of Procrustes.

[Irony? Taleb had a NY Times best seller with The Black Swan, but now when you type those words into your search engine, you get the first three pages covered with information about a film about...ballet? (Just kidding: I saw it and thought it intense and psychedelic-Jungian. But poor Nassim! Was it a black swan event for him?)]

P.S: Have a great Memorial Day! And in memoriam, think about reading General Smedley Butler's short book War Is A Racket; it just may blow your mind while leaving everything else intact.

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