[FoRK] Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The future will not be cool

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Sun Dec 2 23:32:02 PST 2012


Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The future will not be cool

Futurists always get it wrong. Despite the promise of technology, our world
looks an awful lot like the past

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Topics: Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Books, technology,
science-fiction, Life News

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The future will not be cool

Excerpted from "Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder"

Close your eyes and try to imagine your future surroundings in, say, five, 10
or 25 years. Odds are your imagination will produce new things in it, things
we call innovation, improvements, killer technologies and other inelegant and
hackneyed words from the business jargon. These common concepts concerning
innovation, we will see, are not just offensive aesthetically, but they are
nonsense both empirically and philosophically.

Why? Odds are that your imagination will be adding things to the present
world. I am sorry, but this approach is exactly backward: the way to do it
rigorously is to take away from the future, reduce from it, simply, things
that do not belong to the coming times.

I am not saying that new technologies will not emerge — something new will
rule its day, for a while. What is currently fragile will be replaced by
something else, of course. But this “something else” is unpredictable. In all
likelihood, the technologies you have in your mind are not the ones that will
make it, no matter your perception of their fitness and applicability — with
all due respect to your imagination.

*   *   *

Consider the futuristic projections made throughout the past century and a
half, as expressed in literary novels such as those by Jules Verne, H. G.
Wells or George Orwell, or in now forgotten narratives of the future produced
by scientists or futurists. It is remarkable that the tools that seem to
currently dominate the world, such as the Internet, or more mundane matters
such as the wheel on the suitcase of Book IV, were completely missing from
these forecasts. But it is not here that the major error lies. The problem is
that almost everything that was imagined never took place, except for a few
over-exploited anecdotes (such as the steam engine by Hero the Alexandrian or
the assault vehicle by Leonardo da Vinci). Our world looks too close to
theirs, much closer to theirs than they ever imagined or wanted to imagine.
And we tend to be blind to that fact — there seems to be no correcting
mechanism that can make us aware of the point as we go along forecasting a
highly technocratic future.

There may be a selection bias: those people who engage in producing these
accounts of the future will tend to have (incurable and untreatable)
neomania, the love of the modern for its own sake.

Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for
at least 25 centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly
different from those worn 5,300 years ago by the mummified man discovered in
a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using
silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer
application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear
it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a
liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be
poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come
from their Phoenician ancestors, and if you disagree about the source, we can
say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least
twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat
younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that
have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.

Had someone in 1950 predicted such a minor gathering, he would have imagined
something quite different. So, thank God, I will not be dressed in a shiny
synthetic space-style suit, consuming nutritionally optimized pills while
communicating with my dinner peers by means of screens. The dinner partners,
in turn, will be expelling airborne germs on my face, as they will not be
located in remote human colonies across the galaxy. The food will be prepared
using a very archaic technology (fire), with the aid of kitchen tools and
implements that have not changed since the Romans (except in the quality of
some of the metals used). I will be sitting on an (at least)
three-thousand-year-old device commonly known as the chair (which will be, if
anything, less ornate that its majestic Egyptian ancestor). And I will be not
be repairing to the restaurant with the aid of a flying motorcycle. I will be
walking or, if late, using a cab from a century-old technology, driven by an
immigrant—immigrants were driving cabs in Paris a century ago (Russian
aristocrats), same as in Berlin and Stockholm (Iraqis and Kurdish refugees),
Washington, D.C. (Ethiopian postdoc students), Los Angeles (musically
oriented Armenians), and New York (multinationals) today.

David Edgerton showed that in the early 2000s we produce two and a half times
as many bicycles as we do cars and invest most of our technological resources
in maintaining existing equipment or refining old technologies (note that
this is not just a Chinese phenomenon: Western cities are aggressively trying
to become bicycle-friendly). Also consider that one of the most consequential
technologies seems to be the one people talk about the least: the condom.
Ironically, it wants to look like less of a technology; it has been
undergoing meaningful improvements, with the precise aim of being less and
less noticeable.

So, the prime error is as follows. When asked to imagine the future, we have
the tendency to take the present as a baseline, then produce speculative
destiny by adding new technologies and products to it and what sort of makes
sense, given an interpolation of past developments. We also represent society
according to our utopia of the moment, largely driven by our wishes — except
for a few people called doomsayers, the future will be largely inhabited by
our desires. So we will tend to over-technologize it and underestimate the
might of the equivalent of these small wheels on suitcases that will be
staring at us for the next millennia.

A word on the blindness to this over-technologizing. After I left finance, I
started attending some of the fashionable conferences attended by pre-rich
and post-rich technology people and the new category of technology
intellectuals. I was initially exhilarated to see them wearing no ties, as,
living among tie-wearing abhorrent bankers, I had developed the illusion that
anyone who doesn’t wear a tie was not an empty suit. But these conferences,
while colorful and slick with computerized images and fancy animations, felt
depressing. I knew I did not belong. It was not just their additive approach
to the future (failure to subtract the fragile rather than add to destiny).
It was not entirely their blindness by uncompromising neomania. It took a
while for me to realize the reason: a profound lack of elegance.
Technothinkers tend to have an “engineering mind” — to put it less politely,
they have autistic tendencies. While they don’t usually wear ties, these
types tend, of course, to exhibit all the textbook characteristics of
nerdiness — mostly lack of charm, interest in objects instead of persons,
causing them to neglect their looks. They love precision at the expense of
applicability. And they typically share an absence of literary culture.

This absence of literary culture is actually a marker of future blindness
because it is usually accompanied by a denigration of history, a byproduct of
unconditional neomania. Outside of the niche and isolated genre of science
fiction, literature is about the past. We do not learn physics or biology
from medieval textbooks, but we still read Homer, Plato, or the very modern
Shakespeare. We cannot talk about sculpture without knowledge of the works of
Phidias, Michelangelo, or the great Canova. These are in the past, not in the
future. Just by setting foot into a museum, the aesthetically-minded person
is connecting with the elders. Whether overtly or not, he will tend to
acquire and respect historical knowledge, even if it is to reject it. And the
past — properly handled — is a much better teacher about the properties of
the future than the present. To understand the future, you do not need
techno-autistic jargon, obsession with “killer apps,” these sort of things.
You just need the following: some respect for the past, some curiosity about
the historical record, a hunger for the wisdom of the elders, and a grasp of
the notion of “heuristics,” these often unwritten rules of thumb that are so
determining of survival. In other words, you will be forced to give weight to
things that have been around, things that have survived.

*   *   *

But technology can cancel the effect of bad technologies, by

Technology is at its best when it is invisible. I am convinced that
technology is of greatest benefit when it displaces the deleterious,
unnatural, alienating, and, most of all, inherently fragile preceding
technology. Many of the modern applications that have managed to survive
today came to disrupt the deleterious effect of the philistinism of
modernity, particularly the 20th century: the large multinational
bureaucratic corporation with “empty suits” at the top; the isolated family
(nuclear) in a one-way relationship with the television set, even more
isolated thanks to car-designed suburban society; the dominance of the state,
particularly the militaristic nation-state, with border controls; the
destructive dictatorship on thought and culture by the established media; the
tight control on publication and dissemination of economic ideas by the
charlatanic economics establishment; large corporations that tend to control
their markets now threatened by the Internet; pseudo-rigor that has been
busted by the Web; and many others. You no longer have to “press 1 for
English” or wait in line for a rude operator to make bookings for your
honeymoon in Cyprus. In many respects, as unnatural as it is, the Internet
removed some of the even more unnatural elements around us. For instance, the
absence of paperwork makes bureaucracy — something modernistic — more
palatable than it was in the days of paper files. With a little bit of luck a
computer virus will wipe out all records and free people from their past

Even now, we are using technology to reverse technology. Recall my walk to
the restaurant wearing shoes not too dissimilar to those worn by the ancient,
preclassical person found in the Alps. The shoe industry, after spending
decades “engineering” the perfect walking and running shoe, with all manner
of “support” mechanisms and material for cushioning, is now selling us shoes
that replicate being barefoot — they want to be so unobtrusive that their
only claimed function is to protect our feet from the elements, not to
dictate how we walk as the more modernistic mission was. In a way they are
selling us the calloused feet of a hunter-gatherer that we can put on, use,
and then remove upon returning to civilization. It is quite exhilarating to
wear these shoes when walking in nature as one wakes up to a new dimension
while feeling the three dimensions of the terrain. Regular shoes feel like
casts that separate us from the environment. And they don’t have to be
inelegant: the technology is in the sole, not the shoe, as the new soles can
be both robust and very thin, thus allowing the foot to hug the ground as if
one were barefoot — my best discovery is an Italian-looking moccasin made in
Brazil that allows me to both run on stones and go to dinner in restaurants.

Then again, perhaps they should just sell us reinforced waterproof socks (in
effect, what the Alpine fellow had), but it would not be very profitable for
these firms.

And the great use of the tablet computer (notably the iPad) is that it allows
us to return to Babylonian and Phoenician roots of writing and take notes on
a tablet (which is how it started). One can now jot down handwritten, or
rather fingerwritten, notes — it is much more soothing to write longhand,
instead of having to go through the agency of a keyboard. My dream would be
to someday write everything longhand, as almost every writer did before

So it may be a natural property of technology to only want to be displaced by

>From the book “ANTIFRAGILE” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Copyright © 2012 by
Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint
of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  All
rights reserved.

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