First: why aren’t you reading more Squid and Owl? Last week we had assassination by siege engine and undersea regicide. Now we are off on a thrilling mock-Kipling romp. You are a fool not to click.
Next: even more of those psychedelic biology scans up. This one for example:
(Sorry if you’re not into it, man.)
The next thing our skull-bound friend posted was every bit as good. Scans from a 1936 children’s book about Japan. Like this:
That’s a lovely, lovely chicken.
But I don’t want to talk to you about chickens. I want to talk about the future. This is sort of a follow-up to my Taleb post. Here’s a passage from The Black Swan:
This point can be generalized to all forms of knowledge [you’ll get what the point is from what follows]. There is actually a law in statistics called the law of iterated expectations, which I outline here in its strong form: if I expect to expect something at some date in the future, then I already expect that something at present.
Consider the wheel again. If you are a Stone Age historical thinker called on to predict the future in a comprehensive report for your chief tribal planner, you must project the invention of the wheel or you will miss pretty much all of the action. Now, if you can prophesy the invention of the wheel, you already know what a wheel looks like, and thus you already know how to build a wheel, so you are already on your way. The Black Swan needs to be predicted!
But there is a weaker form of this law of iterated knowledge. It can be phrased as follows: to understand the future to the point of being able to predict it, you need to incorporate elements from this future itself. If you know about the discovery you are about to make in the future, then you have almost made it. (172)
I’m interested in this because I’m writing something about Plato’s Meno. You remember his silly argument? I’ll just quote the Stanford Encyclopedia version:
For anything, F, either one knows F or one does not know F.
If one knows F, then one cannot inquire about F.
If one does not know F, then one cannot inquire about F.
Therefore, for all F, one cannot inquire about F.
I’m interested in ways in which Taleb’s point, like Meno’s, is an exaggeration of a basically sound view. (Meno’s version is rather more exaggerated than Taleb’s, I appreciate.) Taleb emphasizes that scientific discoveries come when people are looking for something else entirely. But, although that’s right, I think the power of serendipity as the main engine of scientific discovery can be overstated. Does Taleb overstate his case? What do you think?
What about the history of future? Often, when people write about the future they are just allegorizing the present in some fairly transparent way. That’s what makes it so funny, looking back. But that’s often because they actually are commenting on the present, in some way. They aren’t really, seriously trying to predict the future. They’re just sort of spoofing what they see around them by pretending to project its development forward.
Historically, who are the serious, working futurists? The successful ones (I do appreciate that if you have thousands of people flipping coins, someone is going to get a whole string of heads.) It seems it should be more possible to predict the future piecemeal, as it were. It’s true that trying to predict it all exposes you to ‘black swans’. If you miss one big thing then you miss everything.
OK, that’s enough. Here’s some eye-candy to accompany this theme. I just finished reading a relatively neglected (I think) SF classic, The Twentieth Century, by Albert Robida [amazon].
Published in 1882, set in 1952, it’s not the greatest read but it has some truly inspired bits. I’ll show you some pictures – of which there are many, and which are certainly the best parts.
That’s a cover detail, obviously.
That’s another of the man’s books. Very Verne-y affair it promises to be. (Dames in diving suits on ostrich-back. That’s change we can all believe in.)
That’s Robida. It’s all about the electricity. The next may, despite appearances, need a bit of explanation.
Here’s an inadvertently humorous quote from a Robida descendant, in 1955. Robida foresaw: “aviation, television, gas masks, subways, underwater fishing, helicopters, women’s emancipation, in a word, all that constitutes our lives today.” Well, that’s not quite ALL there is to life today. Robida does get a surprising amount right, honestly, but you only need to miss a few big-ticket items to be fairly badly off the mark, prediction-wise. (Taleb’s point.)
One thing Robida does get surprisingly right is mass media and multimedia. Everyone talks on the telephone all the time, and the televisiphone (or whatever they call it). Robida predicts 24 hour news channels, RSS feeds and podcasting (more or less) and several other developments. He predicts that action movies will pretty much conquer media. Muscular women with big guns will squeeze out classical French culture, in various humorous ways. (He predicted Sigourney Weaver, roughly.)
Some fun details. Mormons take over England after China takes over the Western United States and the British government relocates to India. In 1920 Russia is destroyed. “Bombs set by the mysterious and fearsome Nihilist Party blew up chunks of land several square leagues at ta time, wiping hwole cities off the map in the process! The devices used by these terrorists combined electricity, compressed air, and a mysterious explosive substance eleven hundre times more powerful than dynamite.” Russia is now underwater, Europe is disconnected from Asia (except for Sweden and Finland, which are now on the Asian side of the divide.) In the final chapters of the book there is a bold project to raise a new continent by filling in between Indonesian islands.
French politics involves pre-scheduled revolutions, which helps everyone work out the psychic tensions of modern life. There are contests to construct the best barricades. Aerial barricades, for example. “Mr Barlincourt’s model consisted of a long armored platform one meter wide and eighteen meters long, held up by three small balloons plated with a bulletproof gutta-percha coating.”
Here’s the most BoingBoing of them all. The ‘picturesque barricade’, designed by ‘Mr. Narcisse Boulard, photo-painter.’
Constructed of short-fitted and bolted beams, dirt, and cobblestones, this barricade stands out by the picturesque quality of its design, making it resemble a scale mmodel of a German castle on the Rhine. The beams can be combined in a thousand different configurations to create barricades of all styles. Cost of material and bolts: 250 francs. The inventor generously offers his idea to public domain and shall not take out a patent on it.
That’s enough Robida.
One other link for the night. A few weeks back ASIFA had a great post on futurism and (mostly) mid-century illustration and animation. It includes a Quicktime version of Ward Kimball’s classic “Mars and Beyond”, from 1957, which I highly recommend for its fine cartoon modern qualities. Here are a few screencaps:
Those are the inhabitants of Mercury.
Can’t remember where he’s from, but he’s supposed to have a good memory.
Self-explanatory. I’ll leave it at that.