We’ve found a witch; may we fine her?

Paul Raven @ 14-02-2011

Via Freakonomics, an odd story out of Romania:

A month after Romanian authorities began taxing them for their trade, the country’s soothsayers and fortune tellers are cursing a new bill that threatens fines or even prison if their predictions don’t come true.

[…]

In January, the government changed labor laws to officially recognize the centuries-old practice of witchcraft as a taxable profession, prompting angry witches to dump poisonous mandrake into the Danube in an attempt to put a hex on them.

After reading that piece, I can’t say I’ve got much pity left for AP’s struggle to monetise their business for a new era; it’s full of dumb racist clichés and stereotypes, for a start (“the land of Dracula”… that’s really the best you could do?), and extraordinarily thin on actual story. But then so is almost every other write-up I can find on the web right now – anyone out there got a Romanian connection for the local viewpoint?

But the Freakonomics mention is my real reason for posting, because – flippant as it may seem – they make an interesting point:

… if I were Queen Witch (for a day), I might frame my argument a bit differently: As soon as the government starts to punish all fortune-tellers — including macroeconomists, financial analysts, government officials, sports pundits and the like — for their wayward predictions, I will gladly join the throng. Until then: no deal.

It’s a matter of accountability: if you make a living from predicting stuff, you should do less well if your predictions are regularly wrong. Personally I’d suggest that governments aren’t in the best place to enforce that sort of accountability – it’s not really in their best interests, as they’re arguably the most consistent sinners – and that this a job for reputation economics and radical transparency. Indeed, as foresight becomes an increasingly important part of pretty much every industry and ideology, increased scrutiny of accuracy is inevitable; there’s probably a really good business model or two lurking in that idea space.

I’m not sure why the witches are so upset, though; homeopathy is a taxable “profession” in the UK, for example, and shows no sign of dropping off the map as a result. No matter what technological leaps me make, I suspect Barnum’s adage – which, appropriately enough, wasn’t even his own adage – will hold true for a long time yet…


Writing sf is a race against reality

Paul Raven @ 04-02-2011

Walter Jon Williams accrues his second mention here in a week, thanks to him popping up at Chez Scalzi to talk about his new novel Deep State. In a serendipitous and Zeitgeisty kind of way, Deep State is largely concerned with… yup, you guessed it, internet-fomented revolutions in Middle Eastern nation-states:

I started working on Deep State. I had Dagmar employ both existing and ad hoc networks to foment her people-power insurrection, to send her rebels to their targets, conduct their demonstrations or other actions, and then disperse before the government could react.

I figured that sooner or later the authorities would work out what was going on, and shut down the Internet. Dagmar’s method of keeping in touch with the troops once the Internet was down was, I thought, fairly ingenious (it involves, for a start, land lines and a frantic search for dial-up modems).

I was writing my book.  I was having a good time.  And then the 2009 Green Revolution began in Iran.

Day after day, I watched jerky online videos of demonstrators battling police.  When the police fled, I felt a surge of blazing hope; I felt rage when Neda Agha-Soltan was gunned down on camera; I was devastated when the authorities succeeded in suppressing the protestors.

But amid all this, I had a very personal reaction that was probably more than a little selfish.  I was thinking, You bastards, you stole my book!

I was seeing individual scenes from my novel played out onscreen.  A novel that I hadn’t even finished yet, a novel that I’d packed full of shiny new ideas to impress my readers. Ideas which, in the wake of Iran 2009, were getting less new and less shiny and less impressive by the day.

Williams’ solution was, to paraphrase his own words, to “pack the novel with even more shiny!” – a good way out of a writerly corner for almost any situation.

But the reason I bring this up is because the Williams novel that preceded Deep State, namely This Is Not A Game, also fell foul of the world’s irritating tendency to make a futuristic-seeming plot into – quite literally – yesterday’s news. If you’ll excuse me the vanity, I’ll quote my Strange Horizons review of This Is Not A Game from June 2009:

… This Is Not a Game might have scored much higher on science fictional sensawunda had it not been for the big news stories of the last twelve months—global covert networks and the economies of entire countries collapsing are quite literally last year’s stories, and make This Is Not a Game more of a book of its day than I imagine was ever planned. Knowing a little something about the length of the publishing cycle, I rather suspect Williams, as he watched the news over the last year and a half, has been torn between feeling satisfied at having spotted the possibilities and frustrated at seeing the novelty bleed out of his plot.

This is kind of what I was getting at with my contribution to the Locus Roundtable discussion about a trend in sf that sees the genre cringing away from grappling with the near future. Not only is the plausible near future looking like a grim and tight-belted remix of the present, but – as Williams’ travails demonstrate –  you run the risk of spending a year writing a novel only to have reality beat you to the bookstore shelves – two very valid reasons for the future-flinch.

It’d be great at this point to have some sort of brilliant solution to this situational dilemma, but I’m afraid I don’t. How about you lot – any ideas as to how sf can heal the rift with tomorrow?


What the Future Needs

Brenda Cooper @ 12-01-2011

I just finished doing my predictions for 2011 over on my website. I find them a little depressing because even though some of them are good, we are not giving the future the things it needs most from us. For example, I’m not predicting great strides in alternative energy or kindness to the climate in the next year. Nor am I predicting great strides forward in government, at least not here in the US. Maybe the shooting of Rep. Giffords will calm down our nasty rhetoric. I suspect that time will erase the horror and we will keep on talking entrenched sound bites instead of actually listening. I hope not; see Paul’s excellent post. If anything, the tragedy illustrates why I decided to devote this month’s columns to a few of the things the future needs us to focus on now:

Continue reading “What the Future Needs”


Today’s Tomorrows, 2011 edition

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2011

Apologies to Brenda for re-using the title of her column, but it’s the start of the year… and despite most of us knowing that dates (and indeed time itself) are relative, we tend to take that as an opportunity to step ourselves out of the temporal flow for a few days and take a look both backward and forward. Of course, looking backward and forward (with a side-serving of sideways) is our daily bread here at Futurismic, but it’s nice to feel like the rest of the world’s playing along, you know? 🙂

So why not pop over to The Guardian, where a collection of clever folk make twenty predictions about the next 25 years? Some are no-brainers (“Rivals will take greater risks against the US” – that’s more of a trend than a prediction, really), some seem a little naively optimistic (“The popular revolt against bankers will become impossible to resist” – I’d love to see it happen but doubt we will, at least here in the UK), and some are reheated versions of classic cyberpunk transhumanism, suddenly made mundane and plausible in the face of unprecedented technological advancement (“We’ll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex”).

They all mark what, to me, is one of the most interesting social shifts of the last year or two: namely the sudden widespread acceptance of speculative thinking in mainstream media. Sure, it’s always been there, but it seems more ubiquitous now. Strange how we had to wait until the future was all around us before we started thinking hard about what shape it would be, no?

Speaking of speculative thinking, the BBC got in on the game back in December, picking apart some old (and largely failed) predictions from the 70s and quizzing present-day “futurologists” (which I maintain is a horrible noun) about how they do their work. David Brin’s response suggests that I’ve at least got the basic methodology sussed out:

“The top method is simply to stay keenly attuned to trends in the laboratories and research centres around the world, taking note of even things that seem impractical or useless,” says Brin.

“You then ask yourself: ‘What if they found a way to do that thing ten thousand times as quickly/powerfully/well? What if someone weaponised it? Monopolised it? Or commercialised it, enabling millions of people to do this new thing, routinely? What would society look like, if everybody took this new thing for granted?'”

That’s pretty much the query-set that sits in my forebrain as I drink from the RSS firehose each morning… 🙂

And last but not least, it wouldn’t be early January without Chairman Bruce and Jon Lebkowsky taking the virtual podium at The WELL for their annual State Of The World discussion. Hell knows there’s plenty to talk about, right?

While Futurismic is no WELL (and I’m surely no Bruce Sterling, much to my own disappointment), I like the format they use there: like phone-in talk radio, but text based. So I’d like to take this opportunity to remind regular Futurismic heads that the contact page is always open – if you’ve seen something you think we should be talking about, or just have your own take on a story we’ve looked at already, then by all means drop me a line and let me know.


Neodicy: balancing technology’s promise against its pitfalls

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Over at his own blog, gruff comics-writing curmudgeon Warren Ellis turns the mic over to Jamais Cascio for a slice of bullshit-free futurism. Cascio’s thoughts on neodicy – your neologism for the week – chime nicely with my reasons-to-be-hopeful-if-you-can’t-be-cheerful from yesterday. Take it away, Jamais:

This deep fear that what we have built will both give us heretofore unimagined power and ultimately lay us to waste has been with us for centuries, from the story of Icarus to the story of Frankenstein to the story of the Singularity. But because of its mythical roots, few foresight professionals give this fear sufficient credence. Not in the particulars of each story (I don’t think we have much cause to worry about the risks associated with wax-and-feather personal flight), but in the recognition that for many people, a desire to embrace “the future” is entangled with a real, visceral fear of what the future holds for us.

[…]

… the real value of a neodicy is not in the utility it provides, but the understanding. For too many of us, “the future” is a bizarre and overwhelming concept, where danger looms large amidst a shimmering assortment of gadgets and temptations. We imagine that, at best, the shiny toys will give us solace while the dangers unfold, and thoughts of the enormous consequences about to fall upon us are themselves buried beneath the desire for immediate (personal, economic, political) gratification. Under such conditions, it’s easy to lose both caution and hope.

A world where futurology embraces the concept of neodicy won’t make those conditions go away, but it would give us a means of pushing back. Neodicies could provide the necessary support for caution and hope, together. Theodicy is often defined simply as an explanation of why the existence of evil in the world doesn’t rule out a just and omnipotent God; we can define neodicy, then, as an explanation of why a future that contains dangers and terrible risks can still be worth building — and worth fighting for.

Amen, brother.


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