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Humorists make the best futurists

Finding out what's going to happen next could be as simple as tuning in to The Simpsons

Justin Fox | Bloomberg 

Photo: Shutterstock

A few weeks ago, when Co. announced its $52.4 billion acquisition of most of Inc., lots of people took to Twitter to point out that the merger had been foretold almost two decades earlier.

This was far from the first case of a joke from The Simpsons coming true. In the March 2000 episode, “Bart to the Future,” for example, newly inaugurated president complains that “we’ve inherited quite a budget crunch from President Trump,” thus anticipating not only the presidency of but the now-almost-certain increase in the federal deficit during his time in office (although in The Simpsons version, the budget problems were caused by overspending on school breakfasts and midnight basketball).

There are many more such examples: Listicles about the times The Simpsons has accurately predicted reality have become an online staple. There’s “Every time The Simpsons predicted the future — ranked in order of weirdness” from NME, which has 13 examples; “14 Times The Simpsons Accurately Predicted the Future” from Time; “15 times The Simpsons accurately predicted the future” from Business Insider; “21 Times Bizarrely Predicted The Future” from Can anybody give me 31?

This is not because The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and his teams of writers through the decades are sinister geniuses. They are, of course, but the phenomenon of jokes coming uncannily true is not at all unique to The Simpsons. So at this time of year, when lots of people are making forecasts or looking back at how last year’s predictions went, I’d like to make the case that humorists may make the best futurists of all.

I owe this belief mainly to a book that was one of my formative intellectual influences: The 80s: A Look Back at the Tumultuous Decade 1980-1989, a bestseller published in 1979 by a team of writers led by humorists Tony Hendra, Christopher Cerf and Peter Elbling. Somebody in my family got it for in 1979, and I remember reading it over and over again during the subsequent months. I also remember being astounded during subsequent years when many of its joking “reminiscences” of the 1980s seemed to more or less come true.

The writers of The 80s would not have won one of Philip Tetlock’s forecasting competitions: The great majority of their ‘predictions’ were wildly wrong. But given that the aim of the book was not to make predictions but to entertain, that was OK. It’s like with The Simpsons, you’re not watching it to get a rundown on the world to come; the fact that you sometimes do is a happy bonus.

Writer Matt Novak, whose Paleofuture blog chronicles past visions of what is to come, has a post on satirical visions of the future advertising landscape that illustrates this nicely. A series of cartoons from the late 1800s and early 1900s, most from the humor magazine Life, show roads with garish billboards every few feet, skies choked with flying advertisements, and a Statue of Liberty covered with advertising slogans. All the cartoons overpredicted how bad things would get. But they were amusing, and they did accurately foresee some of the directions in which advertising would develop.

The humorist’s approach to looking into the future bears some resemblance to scenario planning, a practice developed in the 1950s and 1960s at the Rand Corp. and Hudson Institute and adopted most famously by Royal Dutch Shell Plc in the years leading up to the 1973 oil crisis. Scenario planning involves coming up with alternative story lines of how things might plausibly develop in the future, and thinking about how a business or other organisation can adapt to them. It’s not about picking the right scenario, but about opening your mind to different possibilities.

To make stories about the future funny, they usually have to be pushed beyond the bounds of plausibility. If they’re not pushed too far beyond, though, they can sometimes come true — with the advantage that few ‘serious’ forecasters will have predicted them. The Trump presidency is a classic case of this. He had been talking about running since the late 1980s, but those in the media and political circles had learned over the years not to take him seriously. So it was left to the jokers.

Paleofuture’s Novak was one of them. In an April 2015 satirical post (set in 2020) on “the fifth anniversary of the single most important event in tech history — the release of the Apple Watch,” he mentioned in passing that “both President Trump and Labor Secretary Travis Kalanick were on hand to celebrate the joyous occasion in the newly created state of Silicon Valley.” A few weeks later, Trump actually announced his candidacy. Still, seeing Novak’s tweets most days did help prepare me for the eventuality. Which is what talking and thinking about the future is supposed to do. And when it’s done as a joke, it’s more fun.

© Bloomberg

First Published: Wed, January 03 2018. 22:39 IST