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…

Read blogs, scan Twitter, predict the future… profit?

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2010

So much for the nay-sayers, blog critics and Twitter h8rz: economic researchers reckon that keeping a weather eye on the internet Zeitgeist by scanning blogs and tweets for keywords could help predict stock price changes and other market behaviours!

Which is all very nice, so far as it goes. But given the events of the last few years, I think I’d rather hear stories about economists trying to discover how the global economy actually works as a system by analysing historical data, rather than trying to guess what it’ll do tomorrow by reading the internet’s tea leaves…

… yeah, I know, wishful thinking. Scratch a futurist, reveal an embittered utopian optimist. *shrug*

The near future is not amenable to fiction writers

Paul Raven @ 26-05-2010

That may seem like an odd thing for the editor of a near-future science fiction magazine to say, but if you won’t take it from me, here’s Charlie Stross explaining how real-world changes have twice scuppered a near-future fictional work-in-progress, the most recent problem being that unexpected election result here in the UK:

What sandbagged me was the fact that for the first time in a British general election, more people voted for minority parties than for any of the major players; a coalition or a (weak) minority government was inevitable. Then the libertarian arm of the Conservative party went and formed an alliance with the Liberal Democrats in an utterly unprecedented realignment, and according to the latest polls a majority of the population look set to vote “yes” to electoral reform in a year or so. (Link missing because I can’t find the URL I read last night …) So it’s back to the trenches on “Rule 34”, because I have to do a complete re-appraisal of the world-building scenario underlying it in order to figure out whether it’s still plausible; and if not, I have a lot of patching to do.

The unexpected hits you between the eyes, as Our Cilla once sang. Or in the words of Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

I’m tempted to say that the rise of steampunk and other alternate history modes may be a writerly response to the increasing difficulty of guessing ahead over a short temporal distance; if you immediately frame your story as being set in a reality/timeline different to that inhabited by the reader, you’re safe from those sandbags.

And then you’ve got the mode that William Gibson seems to be pioneering with his latest novels, a sort of “alternate yesterday”, a way of looking at the very near past in a way that throws light on the future that will (or rather should, or might) follow on from it. All well and good… but perhaps we’re reaching a point of extreme social and cultural flux where the notion of media products that can maintain their relevance over long stretches of time is an anachronism.

To put it another way: will the classic books/movies/TV of the twenty-teens be celebrated for their ability to capture something timeless about human nature, or for their amber-trapping of a moment in human time that can no longer be revisited in any other way?

Fascist transhumanists and 21st century politics

Tom James @ 04-09-2009

chain_crossCharlie Stross has written an interesting and engaging blog post on the future of politics in the 21st century, specifically he identifies the emergence of a new form of fascism that draws on transhumanism, the overhumanists:

To get to the money shot: transhumanism is going to influence the next century because, unless we are very unlucky indeed, the biotechnology, nanotechnology, and telecommunications industries are going to deliver goods that combine to fundamentally change the human condition. We’ve seen the tip of the iceberg so far

And what particularly exercises me is the possibility that if we can alter the parameters of the human condition, we can arbitrarily define some people as being better than others — and can make them so.

Not all transhumanists have good intentions. Earlier I went on for a while about Italy, home of the Modernist movement in art and birthplace of Fascism. Italy’s currently in the grip of a wave of racism and neofascist vigilantism, presided over by an allegedly racist media mogul with a near-monopoly on broadcast media in that country.

So it’s probably not surprising that Italy is the source of a new political meme that I hadn’t heard of before this week: overhumanism

It had to happen eventually. It is sad to see the largely noble ideals of transhumanism (particularly my personal favourite strand of democratic transhumanism) subverted in this way.

Is the spread of fascistic transhumanism as likely as Stross fears? If so, what can be done to prevent it?

[from Charlie’s Place][image from cosmo flash on flickr]

The slowing of technological progress

Tom James @ 02-09-2009

technology_plug_laptopAlref Nordmann writes in IEEE Spectrum of how technological progress is, contrary to the promises of singularitarians like Ray Kurzweil, actually slowing down:

Technological optimists maintain that the impact of innovation on our lives is increasing, but the evidence goes the other way. The author’s grand mother lived from the 1880s through the 1960s and witnessed the adoption of electricity, phonographs, telephones, radio, television, airplanes, antibiotics, vacuum tubes, transistors, and the automobile. In 1924 she became one of the first in her neighborhood to own a car. The author contends that the inventions unveiled in his own lifetime have made a far smaller difference.

Even if we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that technological innovation has truly accelerated, the line ­leading to the singularity would still be nothing but the simple-minded ­extrapolation of an existing pattern. Moore’s Law has been remarkably successful at describing and predicting the development of semiconductors, in part because it has molded that development, ever since the semiconductor manufacturing industry adopted it as its road map and began spending vast sums on R&D to meet its requirements.

there is nothing wrong with the singular simplicity of the singularitarian myth—unless you have something against sloppy reasoning, wishful thinking, and an invitation to irresponsibility.

This is the same point made by Paul Krugman recently. Nordmann points out that most of the major life-changing technological changes of the past 100 years had all already happened by about the 1960s, with the IT revolution of the last fifty years being pretty much the only major source of technological change[1] to impact him over his lifetime.

This arguments suggests that the lifestyle of citizens industrialised countries will remain fairly stable for a lengthy period of time. It raises the serious point that the best we can hope for vis a vis technological change over the next few decades will just be incremental improvements to existing technologies, and greater adoption of technologies by people in poorer countries.

This would be no bad thing of course, but the suggestion that Ray Kurzweil’s revolutions in nanotechnology, genetics, biotechnology, and artifical intelligence may not arrive as early as Kurzweil predicts is pretty disappointing.

It could be that, to paraphrase William Gibson, the future is in fact here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

[1]: By “major source of technological change” I mean things like antibiotics, mass personal transport, and heavier-than-air flight. There certainly have been improvements in all these areas in the last 50 years, and much wider adoption, but these have not had as great an initial impact.

[from IEEE Spectrum, via Slashdot][image from Matthew Clark Photography & Design on flickr]

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