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Are things different? Taleb on the future

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan (a book about modeling that is unlikely to star Natalie Portman) has a new book out — Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder — that has been excerpted by Salon in an article titled “The future will not be cool.” I haven’t read the new book. so what follows is based purely on this 2,000-word excerpt.

Taleb makes a point that challenges some pretty deep assumptions. Life, he says, really hasn’t changed much in the past few thousand years:

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, why, Taleb wonders, do we keep predicting that technology will radically transform our future? His answer:

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.

The excerpt doesn’t explain what Taleb means by “fragile,” which is the theme of his book apparently, but, after a digression critiquing hip technologists who are too technocratic and uncultured for his taste, he gives some examples. Paperwork was fragile, which we know because the Internet has removed so much of it. Shoe manufacturers are moving from over-engineered shoes to “shoes that replicate being barefoot.” The iPad et al. return us to the “Babylonian and Phoenician roots of writing and take (sic) notes on a tablet. “My dream would be to someday write everything longhand…”

Oh dear.

I’m confused by his overall theme as expressed in this exceprt, since he uses Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and George Orwell as examples of futurists who got it wrong, but they would have gotten it far wronger if they had predicted the future by subtraction. The very things Taleb hopes will be subtracted — “deleterious, unnatural, alienating, and, most of all, inherently fragile preceding technology” — were by and large added during the past 150 years. Thus, predictions would have gone right if they had anticipated those additions. Presumably this is cleared up in the book itself.

But let’s go back to the passage I quoted at the beginning that argues that futurologists have tended to over-estimate the extent of change, and that life is pretty much as it always was.

Well, yes and no. At the highest levels of abstraction, Taleb is right: We still eat, shit, and fuck. We still talk with one another. Many of us still live in climates that shove our unclothed bodies out of homeostasis. We still have a system of specialization and economic exchange that lets you cook for me if I provide you with some compensation. So, yes, we eat together, wear clothes, and go to restaurants. We have not transcended our biology, our basic sociality, or our need for a culture and economy. Therefore we have not progressed?

Perhaps the problem is with using eating dinner in a nice restaurant as our example. Perhaps we might look at the systems by which Taleb is served his wine and artisanal cheese. If you can’t tell the difference between a basket and a truck, between a scythe and a thresher, between a root cellar and a refrigerated container vessel, between vassals and unionized farm workers, between planting last year’s seeds and genetically altering crops, between slavery and social mobility, then, yes, you’ll see no progress on your plate.

Ok, I admit that I’m not getting it. I look forward to reading his book.

2 Responses to “Are things different? Taleb on the future”

  1. I think that Taleb is probably barking up the wrong tree this time.

    In the restaurant example given Taleb is missing that while all that stuff is ancient…the aggregation and economics are new. I doubt anyone even 200 years ago could have had it all at once and at such a bargain price relative to average yearly income (at least in the Western economies).?

  2. His point is that technology has not changed What It Means To Be Human, and is unlikely to do so. Sort of anti-”Singularity”.

    He does talk about the add/subtract point. He says it’s subtracting now what has been added a little earlier, so “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”.

    This is best read as a rebuttal to the Ray Kurzweil types who think we’re about to upload ourselves into silicon.

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