Pattern recognition

I quoted William Gibson‘s book Pattern Recognition in a workshop on Expertise for the Future the other day.  Gibson wrote:

… we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.

In the novel the words are spoken by Hubertus Bigend a smart, but creepy public relations media entrepreneur,suggesting that while it is an insightful comment on some of the current problems of thinking about the future, maybe we shouldn’t take it as the last word.

5 thoughts on “Pattern recognition”

  1. I appreciate what you are pointing to, but I do not think it is an accurate portrayal of “our” grandparents’ lives. The world has always been disordered and, in fact, daily life is much more ordered now than it was in the past for those of us who are part of the educated elite. My grandparents barely escaped the holocaust. War, famine, poverty, revolution, displacement–these have always been features of human existence. There is nothing particularly exceptional about our situation in this sense. Most of the world has always lived on the brink of destruction of one form or another. Think of T’ang Dynasty China? The successive collapse of empires? There was never a predictable “now”, never a true prophylactic against the unknown.

  2. What Gibson’s character is saying is that the stories people told about the future were more stable – not that shocks and surprises didn’t occur.
    It would be interesting to try and look at it empirically to see if those stories were more stable or not.

  3. One of the uncertainties that I believe has grown since the mid-1800s is that of the definition of “resources.” I grew up in an Africa that valued thatching grass but not sand (in both cases refering to building homes). Now thatch is despised in many African settings as old-fashioned compared to metal (for roofing), while sand for cement and concrete is much more valuable than mud. As I seek to practice the trans-generational aspect of sustainability I find myself wondering “how do I determine what my grandchildren will view as valuable resources – will any of today’s highly valued resources be displaced in favour of substances that I today do not regard as valuable and therefore worth conserving?” Am I trying to conserve and preserve the wrong things? In this sense the “grandfathers’ future” was much the same as their present. This has changed fundamentally.

  4. Your example is good–the bewilderment over what may be of future value. But I am still not sure. Didn’t what we call tribal groups face similar problems due to migration, war and climactic shifts, ecological degradation on smaller scales than what we are confronting? Perhaps what we are talking about then is the global scale and rapidity of change? I’m still not sure that people did not fundamentally face the same kinds of problems. Think of Native Americans and the extinction of buffalos not so long ago. I realize that this is not a parallel to what you are describing, but it still goes to the question of the kinds of resources we teach our children to value in the face of uncertain futures.

  5. Gibson is talking not about what people experience but the narratives that they use to organize what happens.

    Some further comments on narratives (which are not super organized)

    Many people have argued the WWI broke the shared narrative of progress from 19th century (e.g. Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory) and lead to a cultural reorganization in the West of new narratives.

    Re: Local people/colonialism and narrative – Tim Allen & co discuses multiple narratives and the end of narrative in his of colonialism in paper:

    Allen, T.F.H., Tainter, J.A., Pires, J.C., Hoekstra, T.W., 2001.
    Dragnet ecology, ‘‘Just the facts Ma’am’’: the privilege of
    science in a post-modern world. Bioscience 51, 475–485.

    they write:
    “An example of how a narrative perspective can shape science can be seen in Cronon’s comparison of two historical narratives. Cronon (1992) looks at accounts of the historical ecology of the Great Plains. He notes that Bonnifield (1979) and Worster (1979) appear to agree on most of the facts of the white settlement of that region and the events immediately following the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. And yet Bonnifield’s story is heroic, with the European Americans changing their technology to accommodate drought, while Worster’s narrative is a tragedy of ecological degradation. Tragedies have a certain structure. That is, an accidental death is not a tragedy; a tragedy would be more like what befell Oedipus, who married a woman who, unbeknownst to him, was his mother. Cronon quotes the heart-rending closing lines of the autobiography of Plenty-coups, chief of the Crows: “After the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. After that nothing happened” (Linderman 1962, p. 311). Cronon continues, “The story that Plenty-coups loved to tell ended when the buffalo went away. All subsequent happenings were part of another story and there was neither sense nor joy in telling it…. After this nothing happened: not frontier progress, not the challenge of adaptation to an arid land, not the Dust Bowl. Just the nothingness that follows the end of a story” (p. 1367). How can there be agreement on the facts, as some science would have it, but diametrically opposed narratives in the minds of Bonnifield and Worster, or no narrative beyond the end of Plenty-coup’s story?

    The critical point is that scientists always use narrative, and thus benefit from being self-conscious narrators. Science cannot make an infinite number of observations, and so se- lects, just like a narrator (Feyerabend 1962, Tainter and Lucas 1983). Narrative is always selective and gains significance from how events are signified, as does good science when it gives reasons for its interpretations. As Cronon (1992) shows, two historians (they could have been scientists) with the same “facts” in front of them can construct two entirely different scenarios simply by changing the narrative. The full chronicle helps not a bit, because not only is a full accounting of everything an impossibility, it is not a narrative, because no narrator has decided what mattered. Neither is attempting to make science account for everything a proper narrative, but is instead some version of laboratory stamp collecting. A narrative is not a chronicle of everything that happened, so there is no such thing as the ultimately true story. There- fore, in narrative, ultimate verity is beside the point.

    Narrative are really powerful and deeply human which is why people are interested in using scenarios – but the world doesn’t follow story arcs or have to be coherent – so there is also a risk of using narrative to understand the world. Nassim Taleb calls this problem the ‘narrative fallacy.’

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