On Predictions, Prognosticators, and Fortune Tellers

The future is not to be trifled with.

There was a time in my life when I thought Nostradamus’s predictions were pretty cool. How many people could get so many events right, even down to names and dates? I believed in psychic powers, ghosts, and other unusual phenomenon…

But thankfully I’ve come to my senses since then… Fortune telling is like the old adage about monkeys and typewriters and Shakespeare. Given enough predictions and enough time for people to make them, one person’s predictions are bound to be close enough to correct to be interpreted as such.

The 60th anniversary just passed for Vannevar Bush’s essential contribution to information science — “As We May Think” — which described his electro-mechanical machine, the memex, which would allow people to instantly call up a microfilm projection of any information they seek. Many people today interpret the modern Web as the fulfillment of Bush’s dream.

But for every Vannevar Bush, Marshall McLuhan, or Nostradamus, there are tens of thousands of “World of Tomorrows” and Epcot centers, homes of the future, sci-fi novels, and MST3K shorts which depict a future that never happened… Psychics quoted in Weekly World News who can tell us what’s going to happen to our favorite celebrities in the coming year or who killed Jon Benet Ramsey… Someone telling me I should stop writing this drivel and carry on with my former career as a barber shop quartet singer…

And this is the same Vannevar Bush who was supposedly involved in UFO conspiracies at Roswell, who spent years working on his electro-mechanical computer, who predicted computers the size of the Empire State Building… Fitting his outlandish and wrong predictions, he leaves us with the term “vannevar” referring to incorrect predictions of future advances because of technological advances. I can only hope that the word “schlossberg” never receives such an ugly distinction.

People are rewarded for their contributions to a field, not for predictions unrealized during their lifetime. History has an amazing way of forgetting the bad parts of these people’s lives… Details like Newton’s obsession with alchemy (as in turning lead to gold) or Einstein’s insanity late in his life, that Copernicus believed the sun was God, that Turing was convicted of taking part in homosexual acts and then killed himself with cyanide, Freud and the Anna O. mess, Bill Clinton getting head in the Oval Office…

But there’s a reason history forgets those details. Most likely, its because those people had other accomplishments that outweighed those faults. Maybe it’s just that we don’t want to remember the bad parts so we don’t blemish their images. Does that mean Bush’s only real accomplishment was his one article in the Atlantic Monthly and all the other parts of his life are irrelevant to how we remember him? No, because he was also important in establishing the National Science Foundation and ARPA, which became DARPA, which eventually spawned that thing called the Internet, which brings us back to that thing called the memex. Or that Newton, Freud, Einstein, Copernicus, and Turing all transformed their respective sciences in ways that we take for granted today. People who make great contributions leave appropriate legacies.

There’s plenty of other good rewards that come from predictors, prognosticators, and the like. They spawn our imagination, making us think of futures that we might have, inventions that we could build, life on other planets, and eventually someone will fulfill those visions and spawn someone else’s creations. Or at the very least they give us a laugh, like guessing how much weight Oprah is going to gain next year.

Predicting the future is a luck filled task, and I guess Vannevar read the tea leaves correctly. However, predictions alone don’t make the man; people are not remembered for lucky guesses and predictions. What else can you tell me about Nostradamus’ life other than he made those crazy guesses? And how many of you read your horoscope every day? Can you even tell me the name of the person who writes your hororscopes? You’ll be remembered longer if you make your own path, not if you guess the future.

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