I have often thought that futurists had a great racket going. They sit around and make up a bunch of random nonsense about what they think the future will be like, and apparently some of them even managed to get paid for it. It usually looks to me like their predictions are based on no more expertise or research than you or I might be able to come up with over a beer at the corner bar, and years later they are of course never held accountable when their predictions are wildly wrong.
In the July (2008) issue of Discover magazine in “Why Laughing Matters” Jim Holt offers a very interesting hypothesis on what they do wrong, “the repeated sins of futurologists is that they often extrapolate from what is new rather than from what is old”.
He goes on to opine that very recent innovations like computers and nanotechnology are unlikely to be around for a very long time for the simple reason that they are of such recent origin. He says that to find the things that will most like be around in the distant future (like a million years from now), you have to look in the distant past. He claims that concept that old things tend to last and new things tend to fade is a natural outcome of the Copernican Principle which states, in brief, that “you are not special.” This idea original comes from the discovery that the planets do not revolve around the Earth, and that the Earth is not so unique in the Galaxy, but Holt explains that the concept can apply to time as well as space. He says, “If there is nothing special about our perspective, we are unlikely to be observing any given thing at the very beginning or the very end of its existence.” Holt cites a paper by Richard Gott III published in Nature on May 27, 1993, “Implications of the Copernican Principle for Our Future Prospects” as the pioneer of this reasoning. Applying math to this concept we get that it is 95% certain that we are in the middle 95% of a phenomenon’s existence (and not in the first or last 2.5% or one fortieth.) Considering the example of the internet, which has existed for about 25 years now, we can be 95% certain that that it will continue to be around for another 7 plus months (1/39 * 25) but that it will disappear within 975 years (39 * 25). Using this logic almost everything that we take for granted in our modern society that is a product of the industrial revolution (200 years old or less) will be superseded by something completely new and different within 10,000 years.
I find this fascinating way to look at the distant future, which is always a challenging thought exercise for me to begin with, and even though the hypothesis makes sense it is hard not to cling to the vain possibility that just maybe we could witness the beginning of something really big that will be around a very long time, however unlikely that may be. After all, at some point in history people did witness the creation of written language, or the printed word, and those look to be around in some form or another for quite a long time more. Or even more likely, that we are witnessing the end of longer lasting technology in the near future. I decided to calculate a few examples for myself to get a better handle on this idea. First, the incandescent light bulb. If we consider the first commercially available light bulbs were being sold about 125 years ago, we calculate that they will continue to be available at least another 3 plus years, and not more than 4875 years. Assuming we are near the end of its life rather than the beginning, the 3 plus years looks pretty realistic right now with the surging growth in fluorescent and LED lights. Next, let’s look at the Cathode Ray Display Tube, first commercially available about 85 years ago. Doing the math we come up with a continued life of at least 2 plus years, and not more than 3315 years. Again assuming we are near the end of its life the 2 plus years sounds about right with flat screens taking over. An interesting analysis without a doubt, but the problem I have is that if we were doing this in 1923 when the first CRTs had been available for just 1 year, we would get a life of not more than 39 years, which of course is not in line with the reality we have witnessed. So applying this principle to new inventions is a much riskier proposition, as some new inventions may last longer than 39 years (although not necessarily close to 1 million) and the tricky part is of course figuring out which ones have a future ahead of them, and which don’t. I guess that could be the “95% certain” part of the formula. It would also seem that the algorithm may gain accuracy over time. Or maybe I should be looking at slightly broader categories like “electric lighting” instead of the incandescent bulb.
So back to Holt, if we are adhering to this Copernican principle of the future, what will be around a million years from now? The two, perhaps unexpected, examples Holt offers are numbers and laughter. His main argument for this is that we share both laughter and a sense of numbers with other species, and therefore with common ancestors that have been around for millions of years. He offers a number of bits of data (that I won’t repeat here) as evidence of laughter and an understanding of numbers in a variety of species. What is interesting is how he supposes even these things may change (or not) in our perception over time. Pointing out the current popular view that numbers seem to be timeless, while humor is an ever moving target, he gives the example of Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel Contact where aliens beam a series of prime numbers to earth to establish contact, he offers that if the aliens beamed their jokes at us we would not be able to distinguish them from the background noise, “indeed sometimes we can barely distinguish the jokes in a Shakespeare play form the background noise.” But he goes on to offer a very different view on these two phenomena.
“We are confident that a civilization a million years more advanced than our own would find our concept of numbers intelligible (and we, theirs), but our jokes would have them scratching their heads in puzzlement. That is how we see matters at the moment. In the Year Million, though, I think the perspective will be precisely the reverse. Humor will be esteemed as the most universal aspect of culture. And the number will have lost its transcendental reputation and be looked upon as a local artifact.”
His reasoning is that although the content and specifics of humor change over time, the underlying principles of what makes something funny, like incongruity (seeing something used outside of its expected context) remain the same over the ages. Indeed, with some analysis I have more than once seen it demonstrated that most plot lines from modern sit-coms can be found in some form in Shakespeare or in even older stories from the oral tradition or Sagas. I would guess that watching a “formal” or “uptight” character (however that is defined by the times) slip on a banana peel and fall will be as funny to my great great grandchildren as it was to my great grandfather in silent movies. On the other hand we have prime numbers. He adheres to the opinion that they are not the “inexplicable secrets of creation” as mathematician Don Zagier declared in 1975, but instead obey a law that we have just not found yet, as put forward in the Riemann hypothesis in 1859. And while some (like Paul Erdos) have claimed that it will be “another million years” till anyone can cracks the pattern, Holt offers that the Copernican principle yields a much shorter esitmate. The Riemann conjecture was posed 149 years ago, so we can be 95% certain it will survive at least another 4 years, but that it will be solved within the next 6000 years, well short of 1 million years. Assuming this holds true, when the mystery is solved will they seem as trivial as a game of tic-tac-toe?
So Holt puts forth eventually the transcendence of numbers and the temporary nature of humor will trade places, with humor becoming one of the most universal categories of all. Even if the details change, we will still laugh when an incongruity is solved in a clever way – “perhaps even when a proof of the Riemann hypothesis changes what is today regarded as the hardest problem ever conceived by the human mind becomes a somewhat broad joke, fit for schoolchildren.”
While I find the humor and numbers theory intriguing, I am personally more drawn toward trying apply the Copernican principle to different technologies, both broad and narrow, and in my own way repeatedly attempting to test its validity against the limited real world data available to me. Admittedly a possibly fruitless exercise, but still certainly better than spouting off about the personal jet packs and flying cars we will all be using by the year 2000….