by Julius WiedemannFeb 23, 2021
Predictability is something crucial for human stability. Think about the classic experiment of a false positive. A million years ago our ancestors in the Savannahs would hear a sound of the grass moving. They thought it was a lion, a predator, and searched for the first tree to climb and protect themselves. If they later realised that the sound was just from the wind reaching the grass, they made a false positive. Fundamental to their survival. The ones who haven’t committed that “mistake”, the false positive, haven't survived. Not trusting this instinct, and in case of a lion showing up, the death of that creature would have been declared. We have evolved exactly from this type-one mistake. Anticipating the future has been certainly one of our biggest strengths to survive and prosper. Some say it is the seed of consciousness.
Futurism, trying to predict even further, has been part of the human mystic, so to speak. As an art movement, Futurism was emblematic, specifically in Italy, led by the poet Filippo Marinetti. Initially strong between 1909 and 1914, the movement was re-started by Marinetti after the end of the First World War, sparkling the second-generation Futurism. Marinetti said in his Le Premier Manifeste du Futurisme', in 1909, that “While an artist is labouring at his work of art, nothing prevents it from surpassing dream". It was probably the tsunami of inventions in the 19th century that created an excitement about the future in the beginning of the 20th century, with renowned professionals projecting a future that at that point sounded like a delusion. Many of these predictions still sound so, but others are now so normal that we take them completely for granted.
In 1900, Smithsonian curator John Elfreth Watkins published a piece titled, "What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”. Even though Watkins was pretty far off about some things, like the extinction of the letters 'C,' 'X' and 'Q', and that streets would be relocated underground, some others were spot on, such as wireless phone networks on which a person in New York could talk to another in China, live TV images being transmitted around the globe, trains travelling at 150 miles an hour, MRI machines, and others.
Fast forward to the end of the 20th century, Peter Drucker, the marketing guru, said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent one”. We are relentlessly challenging the status quo in order to create new realities, with a little difference. Today, our capacity to simulate those realities is unprecedented. Before landing on Mars we are able to employ resources to map many parameters to make that expedition as safe as possible, something unheard of just a couple of decades ago. We can also simulate surgeries, marketing ventures, safe escapes from a stadium yet to be built, etc. But more and more, human behaviour.
Whereas in the construction industry, simulating something before it happens has become the normative for understanding what is to come, such as the effects of an earthquake; earthquake themselves are still hard to predict. The same thing occurs with ships, whereas we can simulate their behaviour in waves in the ocean, but we cannot predict the movement of the oceans. It is still rocket science. But rest assured, in both earthquakes and sea movements, we have evolved dramatically over the last decades.
The difference between a simulation and a prediction of the future is enormous. But the technological apparatus should be considered when we think about trying to grasp what the future holds. Predicting that we are going to live on Mars in 2100 with all the tools we have now to reach out to the Red Planet and to be able to simulate millions of difficulties to our survival is a different ball game. Digital technologies open many windows for exploration that didn't exist before.
Neuroscience has become the wild West of medicine because of its complexity. Simulating if we have consciousness or not and how that operates on the brain level, or maybe outside of it, is the new gold. Our new obsession is now to survive death, a quest already in full force by people such as Ray Kurzweil. And that all without including God in the equation. We are now constantly simulating our lives in digital realities such as in games and in virtual worlds. In that sense, technology is going to set us free, to think about our future, to imagine it, and to dream, in an exercise that becomes almost indistinguishable from predictions.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.