The fallacy of prediction

Prediction was not a major theme at RSWebSci this year, mainly because scientists are less in the business of predicting things and more in the business of making them happen (or at least commenting on them after they have happened…). However, a couple of offline discussions raised the idea that spec-fi writers* had “predicted” a technology, trend or behaviour, which I think is complete rubbish. Let me explain:

Firstly, this is not what authors of speculative fiction do. Good writers in this genre imagine a set of technological and sociological circumstances and instead ask how people would behave. Good writers are judged on whether they say anything illuminating about human beings and not the technology they posit.

Secondly, speculative writers speculate. For every idea that turned out to be “true”, there are a thousand that will never be, and it would be logical in lauding those who had predicted “correctly”, to criticise an author for not having correctly predicted the future! The fact that we don’t have sentient androids or the ability to grow spaceships in our vegetable patch does not detract from the merit of Isaac Asimov’s or Phillip K Dick’s short stories. Also, hindsight enables us to charitably massage their creations into things we see in the present day, even if their predictions are different or suitably vague.

Thirdly, having an idea is not the same thing as doing it, or even working out how it might be done. Here are some ideas for future technologies: a way of using the salinity gradients in river estuaries to produce power; GM of staple crops to introduce the RDA of essential vitamins and minerals; decent trains in the uk. I have no idea how to achieve these, they’re not terribly original, but if any ever come to pass, I claim my futurist badge.

It’s oft-said but poorly remembered: speculative fiction authors are often writing about their time as much as the future. HG Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi were problems besetting Victorian society; Orwell didn’t have to invent Big Brother as much as look to Uncle Joe Stalin’s atrocities at the time. If there is anything to learn from speculative fiction, it is the way these technologies and societies affect people and groups of people; and when these fictional worlds resemble our own in any great degree, it is a happy accident.

* the usual suspects being Arthur C Clarke, Brian Aldiss, arguably George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, HG Wells…

2 thoughts on “The fallacy of prediction

  1. As one of the perpetrators of said conversation, I must take issue in the case of Brian Aldiss’s book The Primal Urge (1961) in the context of the LoveGety mobile app that alerts horny people to others in the area, allowing them to meet (or is it hook) up. The book is “A satire on sexual reserve, it explores the effects on society of a forehead-mounted Emotion Register that glows when the wearer experiences sexual attraction.” The ER works a lot like the LoveGety device. Given that this is the total focus of the book I think he deserves some kudos 🙂

    As to other predictions I’d agree, as they are usually asides to a different story (For example Alldiss predicts reality TV in Heliconia Winter etc but its an aside to the main story)

    As to Morlocks, you have clearly never been don the Tube late at night 🙂

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