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The painful art of prognostication

They say science fiction is rarely actually about the future; it’s really an exploration of present-day fears and anxieties, interrogated through a metaphor of the future. William Gibson himself – the father of cyberpunk – has given up the future in favor of exploring our technological present in compelling novels such as Pattern Recognition and the brand-new Spook Country.

I couldn’t help but think about science fiction when I read this "strategy letter" by Joel Spolsky of "Joel on Software" fame. Spolsky looks at a number of current trends in the Ajax world, draws parallels between them and the original emergence of desktop computing, and concludes that the future looks a lot like Windows. In Spolsky’s vision, one or two powerful Ajax toolkits will become the de facto new platform/operating system for the next era of application development.

I cry bullshit not because Spolsky’s discussion is illogical or ill-informed, but because it’s presented with such certitude. If my time in the blog echo chamber has taught me anything, it’s that the guy who seems most sure of himself is probably the one blowing the most hot air. Folks have an insatiable appetite for strong opinions, repeated loudly. Everybody wants to know what the future will bring. But the best most commentators can hope for is to surf the currents of the present and catch of peek at what’s beyond the next wave. Extrapolating a bunch of disparate trends 5 or 10 years into the future is just an exercise in rhetorical prowess. Joel’s a great storyteller, but like most storytellers he’s primarily interested in spinning a great yarn. By all means give his theories a whirl, but don’t expect capital-T Truth. Nobody can tell the future. To believe otherwise is science fiction.

1984 is a powerful book precisely because Orwell didn’t have to make a lot of shit up. He had Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin as models for what he was doing. He only had to dress it up a little bit, sort of pile it up in a certain way to say, "this is the future." But the reason it’s powerful is that it resonates of history. It doesn’t resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history. And the power with which it resonates is directly contingent on the sort of point-for-point mimesis, like sort of point-for-point realism, in terms of what we know happened.

William Gibson, via Boing Boing

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