Saturday, 2 May 2015

Anticipation or Prediction

I've seen the film Blade Runner three times - not because I think it's the best film ever, but because I keep falling for the hype. After the original release came the Director's Cut and then the Final Cut, each promising an enhanced experience. Unfortunately, I couldn't say whether this is so, or even tell you what is different about each version - the years that separated my viewings have made comparison impossible. One thing I can tell you, however, is that the plot is a Hollywood classic lone-cop-on-a-mission-with-obligatory-love-interest which happens to be set in the future: and it's the imagined future that intrigues me.

The film was first released in 1982 and the time it depicts is actually around now. I'm therefore tempted to assess the accuracy of its predictions, some of which have turned out to be remarkably prescient. The setting is an overcrowded Los Angeles, its public services run on a shoestring, its public spaces and buildings degraded, its atmosphere severely polluted and its airspace full of hovering craft. Society is dominated by a hugely wealthy tech company which manufactures Replicants (humanoid robots). The only part of this scenario which smacks of sci-fi is that the Replicants are able to pass themselves off as humans.

I make allowances for details such as the fact that the computer screens all show rows of green code - it would be astonishing had the writer been able to predict how they look today - nor should I assume that he was attempting to. The story's the thing: its setting in the anticipated future is an impressive extrapolation of then current trends.

Anticipation is actually something we're all capable of; it comes naturally, as when we foresee the outcome of stepping into the path of oncoming traffic. Some people even make a living from predicting outcomes - gamblers, speculators, savants and civil servants. It becomes more difficult for them to succeed as time-spans extend and circumstances get more complicated, but you have to admire their audacity in having a go. For the gambler or speculator failure can lead to ruined personal circumstances. For the professional, salaried forecaster, however, there is no such risk. The financial crash of 2008 was not foretold by the regulators looking out for it, yet their pay was not docked when they failed in their duty. Could they have predicted the outcome? It's a moot point, but one which doesn't stop them trying again. When asked recently by a journalist how they were getting on, one eminent professor wryly commented "I think we've done a good job of putting in place an early-warning system for the last crisis."

On a more mundane level, I had to predict an outcome when I placed an order for an urgent home delivery last week. Because our intercom system is (still) out of order, I requested that the delivery man should phone me when he arrived. He didn't. He opted instead to leave the package at a travel agency next door and it was only by calling his office that I was able to retrieve it. So, when I subsequently ordered a widget from Amazon, I took this into account. I established that, despite rumours to the contrary, their drones were not currently operating in our area, but that they have a service whereby delivery can be made to the local post office for collection at your convenience. I ticked the box and waited for the confirmation email.

Sure enough, their system worked. The post office lady required an awful lot of proof of ID, but she eventually agreed to release the parcel into my custody. Before handing it over, however, she pitched heavily for my home insurance business: I hadn't seen that coming.

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