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  • The Future Does Not Compute

    This is Chapter 3 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    Computers are tools of the past. They are perfectly designed to aid our understanding precisely insofar as it is a past-understanding. For example, if we want to know when lunar eclipses will occur in the year 2053, there's no better tool for figuring it out than a computer.

    "But wait a minute. 2053 isn't in the past. That's a prediction of the future."

    Well, yes, in a trivial sense. More reasonably, you might say it's the past simply projected into the future. And the projection involves nothing new; it's nothing but the past. Everything in the "prediction" was already fully implicit in the celestial configuration of, say, 1857. All we're saying is, "Here's what the past looks like when projected onto the year 2053."

    What happens when we really turn our computers toward the future -- or try to? All too often, disaster. Disaster, for example, in the form of decision support systems wrongly applied. Human decisions clearly are (or ought to be) matters of the future. We make decisions in order to choose a future different from the one now approaching us. No analysis of what is, and no set of previously calculated questions or heuristics, can remove the burden of choice. When I choose a future, shall I reject 1% of the analysis -- which is to say, 1% of the past -- or 99%? What is to guide me -- more analysis of the past?

    How shall I choose my wife?

    Ask yourself about the critical decisions in your life. How did you choose your present vocation? There are, of course, very sober ways for doing this. Begin by taking a few psychological tests to inventory your skills and aptitudes, personality type, likes and dislikes, character, stability, financial requirements, geographic preferences, physical characteristics (strength, endurance, handicaps), and so on. Then align this inventory with a similar analysis of all the possible vocations (basic skills required, profiles of the most successful people in each vocation ... ). Finally, identify the closest fit and (presto!) there's your future -- presumably a well-adjusted, profitable, and happy one.

    But, no, something's not right here. Have you, or has anyone you know, ever made an important decision by weighing all related factors, adding them up, and then obeying the sum? This is not really your future we're talking about; it's your past. The real question is, what do you choose to become -- despite what you are now? What future not already embodied in the past will you embrace? Of the great figures of history, where would they be if they had merely hewed to a reasonable future? Joan of Arc. The first black in a white Mississippi college. The first woman doctor