Thursday, October 22, 2015

Our obsession with predictions

Yesterday was Back to the Future Day. I know this because my teenaged kids both gleefully told me all about it and then convinced me to watch the first movie last night after dinner. Why was yesterday Back to the Future Day? Simple, because the first movie ends—and the second movie begins—with Doc, Marty, and Marty's girlfriend Jennifer going forward in time to October 21st, 2015. Yesterday. And their precise arrival time is (was? will be?) 4:29 pm, thus causing people all over the country to look around yesterday afternoon at that moment, just in case.

It is a funny thing, though, how Back to the Future continues to capture the imaginations of new generations. Some kids at my son's high school even came to school in costume yesterday. But aside from just enjoying the movie, my kids were also interested in how the movie portrayed a twenty-six-years-distant future (Back to the Future  II came out in 1989) as compared to the "now" that they know. And this is something many news sites have seen fit to explore (exploit), as well. Like Time Magazine, which has an article detailing the "10 Back to the Future Predictions That [supposedly] Came True."

I stuck that "supposedly" in there, because frankly this article and most all of the other similar ones are being way too generous with the soothsaying prowess of the movie. And of course they are completely ignoring the far more numerous things that Back to the Future II got completely wrong. But this isn't really about such things; the movie wasn't made to predict the future, it never claimed that it was doing so accurately, and so it's unfair to hold it to account in that regard (just as it's also pretty mindless to credit it for what it maybe/sorta/kinda did get right). I'm just using Back to the Future Day as a jumping off point to talk about predictions in general, why we seem—as a culture—so obsessed with them, and why that obsession might reflect a much deeper and more significant problem within that same culture.

I like making predictions. Hell, I just made some earlier today. And like many other people, I've filled out brackets for the NCAA basketball tournie, made a preseason wager on the Superbowl, and so forth. But that's just sports and really, mostly just an offshoot of the gambling side of the sports world. Of course, I've also done my share of Oscar-predicting (not so much, lately), too. But that's just entertainment.

Of course, many people make a living off of these kinds of predictions, some directly (gamblers and bookmakers) and some indirectly (people who build their reputation by getting things right). And I have to say that the one sports-related prediction-based avenue that most perplexes me is the NFL Draft stuff. People not in the business of actually deciding who to draft and who not draft (i.e. people who don't work for any of the NFL teams) spend the entire year leading up to each draft researching things in order to simply make predictions that have no impact on anything. And surprisingly, some actually make some serious jingle doing this. But who am I to judge.

There's also the very serious—in terms of real world consequences—realm of financial market predictions. Obviously, most stock, currency, and commodity purchases are in a sense predictive, but what I'm talking about are the professionals who tout stocks and the like, who claim that something will go up (or down) as a matter of fact based on their supposed knowledge of future events. Many such people are actually engaged more in prophecy than they are in prediction, especially those touting gold and the like, or warning of an impending crash. These are serious things, making such public prognostications in order to entice people into investing their own money in one place instead of another (or instead of not investing it at all).

Then there are the sciency kinds of predictions, ranging from day to day weather, to numbers and strengths of tropical storms, to future catastrophes based on things like global warming (climate change). Such predictions are generally rooted in science, use advanced modeling software, and are really not (usually) about personal gain, at all. But these can be serious things, as well, as they are often used as justification for specific and/or general policy that can have a serious impact on a given society/government and its allocation of resources, especially when such resources are needed for a recovery from a serious climate event.

So to be clear, there are all sorts of predictions that people engage in for all sorts of reasons. Some are about fun, some are about profit, some are about security and safety. But note that I haven't really touched on the doom and gloom crowd of soothsayers, the ones who really are prophesying, even more so than the above self-described financial wizards. And for good reason. These last ones, well they've been around forever and are the ones who claim special insights into the future because of supernatural ability, more often then not. Yet, I'd venture to say that they have been, are, and always will be on the fringe of society, as it were. Few take them seriously or credit then with any sort of special knowledge (granted, they can still be quite dangerous to that few, as has been proven time and time again).

But all the other kinds of predictions, we've settled into allowing, even expecting them—whether we rely on them or not, engage in them or not—in daily lives. Prediction is now a facet of existence in our modern, consumer-driven society. I say "now" because it's not always been this way. In my opinion, it is consumerism that has led to an explosion of predictions, an expectation of them, even a reliance on them. Seriously, who buys a stock without first looking at what the "experts" are saying the stick will do? What movie fan doesn't read up on the Oscar favorites when the time comes for the awards? Or doesn't choose which movie to buy or rent based on awards won? And who doesn't predict one thing or another, however important or unimportant, then later revel in glory if such a prediction turns out to have been correct?

The current level of permeation of such activities is a New Thing in our society, relative to the whole of the past. Gambling has been around forever, so has saying "I think it might rain tomorrow." But occupations built solely around predictions, tracking predictions on the mundane as if they were significant, these have not been around forever, at least not to the current degree or anywhere close to it.

Why? What is it that is so infatuating with this stuff?

I have a theory in this regard: boredom coupled with a relatively secure high standard of living. Because I'm guessing that some people in the current world who still need to worry about where their next meal will come from, who don't subscribe to Netflix and don't watch the NFL Draft because they don't have a television, aren't doing a whole lot of this kind of predicting, aren't consuming a whole lot of this kind predicting from others.

There's a fundamental detachment taking place in all of this from everyday reality. And while that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's also not necessarily a good thing. I worry that this can have a severely negative impact on some people who might be detached form society/community in other ways as well, that it can be sort of tipping point. Because let's face it, getting upset because the Jets didn't select Mel Kiper's number one rated player on the board with their second round pick is stupid. One could say that getting upset over sports in general doesn't make sense, but this isn't even sports. It's not even actual competition. It's just a glorified hiring process for a bunch of open positions. And being angry because an actor or film was snubbed by the Academy? Equally stupid. What does it matter in the grand scheme of things? One either enjoyed a film or one did not. Awards don't change this. Or at least they shouldn't.

This isn't even the bread and circuses so often cited as problematic for a free society, it's just talk about bread and circuses. Yet this stuff is treated as if it mattered, as if it were tangible. It doesn't and it isn't. But okay, that's enough navel-gazing for today...

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