The new sci-fi thriller 2012 portrays a series of catastrophic events predicted by the Mayans, Nostradamus, and ancient scriptures from all corners of the world. Although the apocalyptic theme this isn’t the most original idea for a movie (Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact were pretty similar), I will probably throw down my $10.85 at some point this up-coming Thanksgiving weekend to digest the mayhem (besides, I rarely miss a Danny Glover flick). While the narratives feeding the movie’s plotline make for great blockbuster events, they also bring to mind the ways that civilizations have used technologies to predict the future. Many of these predictions, the ones in 2012, show a deterministic view when it comes to predicting future events. The extravagant events in the movie suggest that there is an inevitable outcome or progression in human history. Do the types of prognostication of the past parallel the way people today predict the future and interpret history?
As someone studying technology and culture, I’m interested in the ways that ancient civilizations used technology to predict the future compared to how we use modern technologies to predict future weather patterns, political outcomes and market fluctuations. The Mayans used astronomical instruments to anticipate future events (as explained in 2012). Similarly, the Egyptians used mathematics and calendric cycles to predict the flooding of the Nile- a use of technology to predict future economic outcomes. As a more recent comparison, W.B. Yeats’ book “A Vision” outlines a cyclical vision of human history transposed over a rotating gyre of time and space. Like the movie, Yeats’ book also predicts global events around the time of the millennium.
In contrast to the deterministic views of history, Cass Sunstein’s book “Infotopia” discusses the long-practiced art of using market patterns and the information economy to predict the future(s) based on past experiences and outcomes. Sunstein explains how internet technologies are being used as an aid to future prediction, and that many corporations like Consensus Point and Intrade are using algorithms and programs to find patterns in market changes over the net. In the research sector, groups like the University of Iowa’s Electronic Market are also using new computing technologies to generate future predicting programs. In a specific example, Sunstein mentions a computer program named “Polly” that correctly predicted the George W. Bush would eventually win the 2004 election over John Kerry when Kerry was far ahead in the polls. There is also increasing interest in genetic algorithms– statistical programs that generate probable outcomes to problems in any field or discipline. These algorithms are a specific type of evolutionary algorithm that considers the traditional aspects of the biological process: inheritance, mutation, selection and crossover. The populations and solutions (genotypes and phenotypes) of these studies are represented in binary coding with certain input-parameters assigned by the program’s creator to determine the fitness of the outcomes in the given scenarios.
Because of the way we use technology today to predict the future, does this mean our understanding of history is more evolutionary than determinist? Is this new perspective or a modified one? Of course this depends on who you ask, but more importantly, how does technology alter and inform the fundamental understandings we have of history and the future? Is it possible that the internet can allow for a more holistic understanding of historical events (explained and unexplained) and be willing to accept divergent explanations for events simultaneously?