Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Cheat the Prophet" revisited



I was having some fun on Twitter this morning with this piece of prophetic silliness — silly even for the a-scientist-predicts-the-future genre, which is saying a lot. Computers will disappear! — because they will be ubiquitous, and I’m sure there’s no need even to wonder if ubiquitous computing could be useful to ubiquitous governments, because we’re told later in the piece that technology is bad for dictators. Capitalism will be perfected! — which means that there will no longer be any possibility of sales resistance, of saying No to the capitalists. That silly “digital divide” people used to talk about never happened! — which I know is the object of constant gratitude for all those kids in Bangladesh and Mozambique with their iPads. And since there’s no mention of global warming in the piece, or the provision of electricity to places and people that don’t have it, or the availability of clean water to places and people who currently don’t even have that, I’m sure all those little glitches in the March of Progress will have been straightened out by 2050, probably with a few lines of elegant code.

You know the kind of thing. So here I just want to make one comment: that whenever I read this kind of thing I find myself recalling the first chapter of Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill, from 1904, which begins with these still-utterly-relevant words:

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called “Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.

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