17.581 oracular pronouncements

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Thu Jan 29 2004 - 03:50:32 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 581.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 29 Jan 2004 08:32:38 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: oracular pronouncements

In one tradition at least, oracles tell you something that requires much
pondering to understand, something enigmatic. Perhaps the medium is
difficult to read, e.g. the ancient Chinese oracle bone -- a suitable piece
of bone, such as the scapula of a sheep, inscribed with a question, held up
to a fire so that it would crack, the manner of which would be read as the
answer to the question (see e.g.
http://www.lib.cuhk.edu.hk/uclib/bones/ob01.htm for an example). In a
sense, however, such things are straightforward: they simply *are*
difficult to read; they do not deceive in this regard. Quite different,
however, are the oracular pronouncements of our own futurologists. Glancing
recently into the valuable collection of essays, Beyond Calculation: the
next 50 years of computing, ed. Peter J. Denning and Robert M. Metcalfe
(Springer, 1997), I read the following:

>Robert was awakened by the warbling of birds outside his
>fifty-fourth-story window in Taos, New Mexico. They weren't real birds, of
>course. They were programmed by the house computer and, at Robert's whim,
>could be drawn from the fauna of every habitat in the world. Today he was
>hearing kookaburras from Australia. The sun crept over the mountains and
>as its rays were detected by the sensors built into the windows, the
>window controllers depolarized to a glow a diffuse morning light to enter
>the room. The window controllers responded to commands from the central
>computer, which exchanged brief messages from thousands of built-in
>sensors, controllers, and appliances scattered throughout the house. The
>sound was generated by small piezoelectric speakers mounted on the

And so it goes, on the level of the film "Just Imagine", which in 1930
depicted the 1980s, "with a ludicrous Mars mission to a planet of dancing
girls ruled by a fat man who never leaves his throne. People have numbers
rather than names.... People gulp food pills and cross streets on overhead
(http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/timeline1940.html#30sFilms) -- and
behave in the style of silly folks of the 1930s, of course. It's not very
challenging to send up this sort of thing, though one does wonder if with
respect to computing we should not have learned better by now. At the same
time, as with "Just Imagine", the result does tell us a fair bit about the
world of the futurologist -- chiefly, perhaps, the limitations of his or
her imagination. Geoffrey Nunberg puts it well at the beginning of his
essay, "Farewell to the Information Age" (in print in The Future of the
Book, ed. Nunberg, Berkeley, 1996):

>Nothing betrays the spirit of an age so precisely as the way it
>represents the future. Take the picture that appeared in Popular
>Mechanics magazine in 1950 in an article on "The Home of the Future."
>It shows a woman in an apron in the middle of a living room full of
>furniture with the rounded "futuristic" forms of the period, which she
>is spraying with a garden hose. The caption reads, "Because all her
>furniture is waterproof, the housewife of the year 2000 can do her
>cleaning with a hose." Like most such representations, it gives itself
>away in two complementary misapprehensions. The first and most obvious
>comes of taking some recent innovation at the steepest point of its
>curve and projecting it linearly to a point where it has swept all its
>predecessors aside. No one makes provision for the inevitable
>banalization of the new, or for the reactions that it invokes -- what
>Régis Debray describes in his essay here as "neolithic backlash" (though
>"neolignic backlash" might be more appropriate here, if you'll excuse
>the etymological blend). And indeed, just twenty years later the hippies
>were using "plastic" as a general term of disdain for the artificiality
>of modern culture.
>The second misapprehension is the opposite of the first. It comes from a
>failure to appreciate, not how durable some features of the material
>setting will turn out to be, but rather how contingent and mutable are
>some of the categories of social life. What is most telling to us now
>about the Popular Mechanics picture is its presupposition is that in the
>year 2000 the household cleaning will still be woman's work -- and
>indeed the function of the picture, wittingly or unwittingly, is to
>naturalize that assumption. This is a much harder kind of misconception
>to avoid, because it rests on the unspoken presuppositions of a
>discourse, and as such is more difficult to bring to consciousness. Or
>to put it another way: the first sort of error is in seeing the future
>as being insufficiently like the present, and that is relatively easy to
>correct for; you just imagine the future furnished like the room you are
>in. Whereas the second sort of error involves seeing the future as
>insufficiently different from the present, and this we can correct for
>only by a determined act of imagination: forty-five years from now
>gender roles will be different -- how?
(See http://www-csli.stanford.edu/~nunberg/farewell.pdf)

Ah, "a determined act of imagination" -- territory we should feel at home
in. So, then, what sort of a world do we want humans to be living in?



Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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