Ideas 2012 July/August 2012

Knowledge of the Future Is Messing With the Present

To know what will happen before it happens has been our species’ preeminent obsession ever since our hopes either failed to correspond with events (a volcanic eruption, say, or an outbreak of plague) or corresponded perfectly (in a bounteous harvest or an enemy’s death). This desire to divine, predict, and, if possible, influence has resulted in schemes and systems of varying accuracy—from the reading of tarot cards to the computer modeling of weather patterns—but few have ever truly satisfied (or fully and finally been discarded). Progress has been made in this effort, though, and recently a lot of progress. Statistical methods such as sabermetrics have proved astonishingly successful in reducing the uncertainty involved in baseball, while number crunchers have equally demystified aspects of our presidential elections (the master statistician Nate Silver made his name predicting the 2008 popular vote within 1 percentage point). Measuring the tips of our chromosomes has, reportedly, allowed us to ascertain our likely life spans. Even obscure matters of artistic taste have, thanks to acts of algorithmic wizardry occurring somewhere in hidden server farms devoted to recommending books and music, been shown to be less obscure than formerly thought.

We ought to be happy—we’ve gotten our age-old wish, it seems. But has making life more explicable actually made it any more pleasurable? As predictability increases, do drama and excitement somehow diminish? Knowing that your risk for heart disease is low may enhance peace of mind, but knowing that your team will never take the pennant promotes a certain fatalistic gloom. In politics, understanding that your candidate is either virtually unstoppable or all but doomed saves a lot of emotion on the front end while ruling out euphoria on the back end.

Uncertainty doesn’t make life worth living, quite, but it does make striving and gambling worth attempting. This is a vital matter to us humans because our conduct is governed by neurotransmitters attuned to gratification. As the future is clarified and the hidden is made visible, detachment will increase. But we will still have denial on our side—just go to Las Vegas and watch the blackjack players. In a world that’s smarter than it used to be and, in some ways, smarter than it ought to be, stupidity has a way of making us seem all the more human.

Next idea: End the Dunk Tank

Presented by

Walter Kirn, author of Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever and Up in the Air.

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