Wednesday, July 21, 2004
Thinking About the Future: The Transformation in Isolation Fallacy
Just thought I'd take a quick second to point out another fallacy that people fall into when they think about the future: Transformation in Isolation.
I'm reminded of it as I listen to Ray Kurzweil's discussion on NPR, linked to from an article below, where he states it outright: "A common that mistake people make when they consider the future is to envision a major change...as if nothing else was going to change in the world."
Part of the thing that makes predicting the future so very difficult is that so many things are changing at once that it makes it very difficult to divine what will affect what. Radical technology, for example, doesn't spring upon us in a day or even a year to catch us unawares. Typically we've lived with the technology in various forms for many years before it's even functional at the level it was predicted to be at when it was first released.
To me this casts a bit of doubt when I hear doom-sayers talking about how we will be destroyed by technology. Not that I think that it can't happen, but just that it's unlikely to happen very quickly and, that being the case, we are likely to have some time to recognize and correct the problem.
Anyway, I was talking about Transformation in Isolation, which rears its head it the largest of breeding grounds for future-thinking fallacies: Hollywood. Very often the theme of a future-set movie is oriented around a particular technology and how it sweeps the world for good or ill, almost never considering all of the other things that would also be advancing at the same time.
The single greatest aspect left out of this kind of thinking is social change; and most importantly, negative social change. People are finiky, and get turned off by the darndest things. Just because something looks like it is the best thing since sliced bread, never underestimate the power of sliced bread.
I need to spend a bit more time refining this idea, but hopefully you get the idea.
On a different note, I want to point out that Kurzweil is likely suffering from something I mentioned a while back, which is the estimation that we are just on the verge of solving some world-changing problem. He believes we will be able to extend life dramatically, perhaps even indefinitely, in the next 20 years or so. While I'm firmly hopeful about this, I'm guessing that it won't be as easy as he thinks. As we get closer and closer to solving the various problems related to long life, I'm guessing they will become more and more complex. So, while he says 20 years, I'm guessing more like 50-75. (I'm thinking I'll call this the "Almost there" fallacy.)
Still, we've gained 40 years on to our lives since the 1800's if Kurzweil is to be believed, so it's not all that out of the question that we'll be able to keep pushing the age people can live to for a while longer, even if we may have to invest exponential energy in it for linear gains.
I wonder if the age of the oldest living person has improved over the last 200 years. I wonder if the number of people that live to be what was the oldest age 100 years ago is significantly greater than it was 100 years ago. I have a suspicion that curing cancer may just lead us up to the fact that there is a wall at about 100 years that is not related to any particular disease, but has to do with things that will only start being understood in the next 20-30 years. Of course I have no evidence of this, just a feeling like we're "Almost there".