predicting the future

I have been debating with two of my brothers for over a decade about the longevity and importance of 20th century popular music and musical artists. In 100, 200 or 300 years, assuming basic continuity of our civilization, which artists from the last century will be household names, will be known at all outside of music historians, will be considered important in any way?

Our positions have changed a bit over the years, but I tend to argue like this: How many artists can you name from the 19th century? The 18th? The 17th? My music history education is probably better than average, but my lists quickly narrow. I can think of ten or so 19th century composers (and zero musicians) off the top of my head and have put in significant listening time with only Brahms, Chopin, and Beethoven. I can think of about five 18th century composers and have spent significant time with two–Mozart and Bach. I can only think of one composer from the 17th century and have spent no time with his music. By the 16th century, I don’t even recognize any musicians‘ or composers‘ names.

And none of the above wrote in English. If I had needed to understand the words to enjoy the music I would have no use for any of them.

So, I argue, why should we expect more than ten or so musical artists of our era to be generally known and considered important in 100 years, or more than five in 200 years, or two in 300 years? To do so seems to inflate the importance of our music, and to deflate the probable importance of future generations’ music to the generations that produce it and the probability of major shifts in the dominant culture. It’s an easy mistake to make, I think, for the Gen Xers and Millenials in the cultural shadow of the Boomers. After all, who have our generations produced to eclipse The Beatles or James Brown?

And there’s the way language changes. Even assuming English remains dominant, our modern English is quite likely to sound stilted in 100 years and pretty hard to understand in 300. How many people will listen to Bob Dylan purely for the sonic experience, especially once the historical context of 20th century folk music and Dylan’s “going electric” is long gone?

My brothers, on the other hand, tend to argue that digital storage of music and globalization have changed everything and my looking at history to predict the future is not clear thinking. First, there is unprecedented access to fame in modern times: The composers I cite could write down their pieces and try to get others to play them, but couldn’t put them on YouTube with a video to go viral. As far as I know it’s true that even the best known of my list of composers had nowhere near the fame of Michael Jackson. Maybe popes or emperors had a shot at that kind of fame, but not Bach. Second, my composers wrote on paper that can decompose or get thrown away with grandpa’s old junk after he dies. This is way, way less likely to happen with the way we store information now. A recording of music can theoretically live forever in easy access. Third,  the trend seems to be nichification, not extinction. The memory of and enthusiasm for Carl Perkins, for example, lives on in young people who are into neo-rockabilly, psychobilly, gothabilly and who knows what other sub-genres to come.  Finally, my wife, Reanna, points out that language may not drift the way it used to because of globalization and the internet. It seems like standardization (to Californian English) is the trend these days, not drift. Dylan may be only a little harder to understand in a couple centuries than he is today.

For all these reasons, they argue, why should we expect any really great music from the 20th century to lose its place in the popular culture of the future?

We will never know the answer. Still, it makes for an interesting exercise to predict. When or if general knowledge of 20th century music narrows to 10 artists, who will it be? Five artists? Two?

Here are my best guesses. This was very difficult, though a very interesting process to go through. Compelling, even. How can I keep my aesthetics and hopes out of it? How long can a dead musical artist remain in memory based on the force of their charisma or persona or being a major voice of their generation?  I am actually less sure about my guesses now that I’ve thought them through. Perhaps I’ll write another post about the process. 

I’d love to know, what are your versions of these lists?

100 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2100:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Billy Holiday
  • Bob Dylan
  • Duke Ellington
  • Elvis Presley
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Michael Jackson
  • Ray Charles
  • The Beatles

200 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2200:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong
  • The Beatles

[Note: I gave myself five slots to fill on this list but decided not to.]

300 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2300:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong

Jim Berkland seemed to predict a large earthquake in mid- to late- March 2011 somewhere in North America. Watch the footage here. (The Fox commentator is pretty funny. At one point he says to pay attention because “he is a pretty good geologist.”)

There was no large earthquake during that time, but we can’t really know if Berkland was technically wrong, because what he actually predicted was a “high probability” of a large earthquake in North America. If you want to know how accurate a predictor who uses language like this is, you have to track outcomes of a whole bunch of their predictions, not just one. This is what Philip Tetlock does in his research on prediction accuracy–track the outcomes of hundreds of predictions of political experts. He also had to force the experts make specific enough predictions that they would either be true or false, not ambiguous–not always an easy task. Berkland, while casting a wide net, was fairly precise with “large earthquake” and “North America,” though we must wonder whether he would have claimed success if there had been a large earthquake, say, in the northern Pacific.

I’m not sure how many earthquake predictions Berkland has made, but if there have been enough, we could judge his rough accuracy: When he predicts a high probability of an earthquake, does it happen most of the time? When he predicts a low probability of an earthquake does it usually not happen? How about a medium probability?

The point is, if your prediction is of a probability, rather than a certainty of an event, we need to do some statistics to figure out if you’re a good predictor. And this is the form that careful people make their predictions. If, on the other hand, you tend to make predictions about certainties–100% or 0% probability events, it’s quite a bit easier to check your accuracy–as long as you make sufficiently specific, falsifiable predictions. Most prediction by ideologues, for example, set up what Tetlock calls an “outcome-irrelevant learning situation,” a situation in which the predictor can claim they were right no matter what actually happens. Every ideologue, therefore, is in the position to explain what happened, using their own ideology.

An example of that may be the Mayan-calendar predictions. Here is Graham Hancock on Art Bell’s radio show, seeming to predict something happening on December 21, 2012. It is full of talk of cataclysms, the end of the world, tumult, a ball of fire hitting the earth, etc. (And lots of talk about how accurate the Mayan calendar was, as if having a really accurate way to measure time lends credence to your predictions. Better ask the guy who invented the atomic clock!) I bet these guys will be patting themselves on the back on 12/21/2012 if a ball of fire does hit the earth. But if nothing particularly tumultuous happens, will they be wrong about anything? No. They are not precise at all, and they attach no probability to their “prediction.” There are plenty of “just mights” and “maybes” and “a window of about 40 years.” They even say that if humanity gets their act together in some vague way, we might avert what may or may not have been coming. This is a perfect setup for an outcome-irrelevant learning situation.

Tetlock says that when predictors are wrong, they generally either claim to be right in some way, based on the fuzziness of their prediction, or they use one of several “belief system defenses.” The most common of these is “Just off on timing.” The other two major defenses are the upward counterfactual defense, or “you think this is bad?” and the downward counterfactual defense, or “you think this is good?”

If nothing particularly tumultuous happens on 12/21/2011, and we ask Bell and his guest about it, how will they respond? They might use “just off on timing,” and blame our modern, inaccurate calendars. More likely they would claim to have been right, something like, “All the war and bad stuff happening on the earth–this is what we were talking about. It’s just a lot more slow and drawn out than we thought.” There is some, small, chance that they might cop to being wrong. I haven’t listened to Bell in over a decade, and I can’t remember how he handles his predictors being wrong, or if he even addresses it.

Berkland could also claim to be right: “Well, there was a high probability of a large earthquake, but not everything with a high probability happens every time.” A “just off on timing” defense would be pretty weak for him, since timing is everything in earthquake prediction.

The third predictor I’ve been thinking about, though, has given himself very little wiggle room. It takes guts  to make a prediction like this. According to Harold Camping, next Saturday, May 21, 2011:

“A great earthquake will occur the Bible describes it as “such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.” This earthquake will be so powerful it will throw open all graves. The remains of the all the believers who have ever lived will be instantly transformed into glorified spiritual bodies to be forever with God.

“On the other hand the bodies of all unsaved people will be thrown out upon the ground to be shamed.

“The inhabitants who survive this terrible earthquake will exist in a world of horror and chaos beyond description. Each day people will die until October 21, 2011 when God will completely destroy this earth and its surviving inhabitants.”

That’s from his website, which you can see here. I have also heard Camping say that millions of people are certain to die on May 21, 2011, and every day thereafter until the very end, October 21, 2011. I have heard him say “It is going to happen.” I have heard him say “It is absolutely certain.” I was disappointed when I heard him back down from that, recently, saying he can’t be absolutely certain, but he has stuck with “going to happen” and “there is no doubt.”

I wonder how Camping will react if his predictions are wrong. The counterfactual defenses won’t apply at all. It will be very difficult to argue that he was right in some way if there is not at least the largest earthquake ever recorded (that would be at least a 9.6), that all buried bodies are somehow exposed (ideally as the result of the earthquake), that millions of people will die on May 21, and that approximately 7 billion people will die by October 21.

So my prediction is that he will use “Just off on timing” and go back to calculating the real day of judgment. Based on social psychology research, I will also predict that in general, this event will increase believers conviction, rather than decrease it. And if I am wrong, I will do my best to just admit it.

I’m learning about child abuse and neglect in my Child and Family Assessment class. Today I read about the ACE study, by the US Center for Disease Control. It is a huge study, with over 17,000 participants, where they gathered information about childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, and then proceeded to see what health outcomes and behaviors they could predict with that information. It turns out they can predict a lot. They’ve published 50 articles on the study and the research is ongoing–they are continuing to collect health information as the participants in the study age. I’ll present a few of their findings below. For more, see the ACE Study.

Here are some of their findings. I’ll paste in the definitions of the categories of adverse childhood experiences below. Strong correlations were found with the following:

  • alcoholism and alcohol abuse (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (that is, lung disease)
  • depression (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • fetal death
  • health-related quality of life (way more inactivity, severe obesity, bone fractures)
  • illicit drug use
  • ischemic heart disease (IHD)
  • liver disease
  • risk for intimate partner violence
  • multiple sexual partners (4 or more categories of ACE correlated with 50 or more sexual partners)
  • sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • smoking
  • suicide attempts (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • unintended pregnancies

Here are the kinds of abuse, neglect, and dysfunction they asked about, quoted from the site:


Emotional Abuse:
Often or very often a parent or other adult in the household swore at you, insulted you, or put you down and/or sometimes, often or very often acted in a way that made you think that you might be physically hurt.

Physical Abuse:
Sometimes, often, or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at you and/or ever hit so hard that you had marks or were injured.

Sexual Abuse:
An adult or person at least 5 years older ever touched or fondled you in a sexual way, and/or had you touch their body in a sexual way, and/or attempted oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you and/or actually had oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you.


Emotional Neglect1

Respondents were asked whether their family made them feel special, loved, and if their family was a source of strength, support, and protection. Emotional neglect was defined using scale scores that represent moderate to extreme exposure on the Emotional Neglect subscale of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) short form.

Physical Neglect1

Respondents were asked whether there was enough to eat, if their parents drinking interfered with their care, if they ever wore dirty clothes, and if there was someone to take them to the doctor. Physical neglect was defined using scale scores that represent moderate to extreme exposure on the Physical Neglect subscale of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) short form constituted physical neglect.

Household Dysfunction

Mother Treated Violently:
Your mother or stepmother was sometimes, often, or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her and/or sometimes often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard, and/or ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes and/or ever threatened or hurt by a knife or gun.

Household Substance Abuse:
Lived with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic and/or lived with anyone who used street drugs.

Household Mental Illness:
A household member was depressed or mentally ill and/or a household member attempted suicide.

Parental Separation or Divorce:
Parents were ever separated or divorced.

Incarcerated Household Member:
A household member went to prison.

Tomorrow, March 27, 2010, hundreds of millions of people on all seven continents will use no electricity between 8:30 and 9:30 pm, their time. “Earth Hour,”  is an annual “action against global warming” event that started in Australia, four years ago.

At first I thought it was silly–a drop in the bucket–but I’ve decided I’m going to do it. This is why:

1) I think it will be nice to turn everything off for an hour. I always love it when the power goes out. It’s relaxing.

2) I like that it is a global event. I like things that encourage people to think globally. Yes, this event could be a bit of an ego-stoker or guilt-assuager, but overall I imagine it stands to reduce ego-centrism in participants, a little less focused on ourselves, a little more focused on everything else.

3) There is good evidence in social psychology that token acts like this can be a gateway to real political action. People who participate may come to think of themselves as someone who takes action about global warming, like voting or spending money differently.

4) I think that global climate change may well be the biggest challenge humans face in the next several generations. The people I know who think the most about it are divided into two camps. One group prioritizes amelioration: If we act quickly and dramatically, we can keep things from getting out of control. The second prioritizes adaptation. These folks say that we’re just now experiencing the effects of the beginning of the industrial revolution, over a hundred years ago, and anything we do now may help our ancestors, should they come to exist, but not us. They say it’s time to start figuring out how at least some of us can survive the coming incredibly harsh conditions. There is a third group, of course, who are ideologically immune to the idea of catastrophic climate change. If they are right, hooray! I’ve yet to come across one who seemed knowledgeable about complex-system behavior, though. (Can anyone point me to one?)

While I’m on the topic of climate change, my favorite lectures on the subject are two of the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking: John Baez’ “Zooming Out In Time” and Saul Griffith’s “Climate Change Recalculated.” They are worth checking out.

I have spent my entire adult life worried about overpopulation. What is the carrying capacity of Earth? At what point will we have a massive die-off? Will there be anything like wilderness left by the time that happens? Enough biodiversity left to adapt to climate change in a way that will be tolerable for humans? Etc etc. Just look at a chart of human population growth and it’s clear that we are in the upswing of a human version of the algae bloom/die-off.

And maybe we are, but I just listened to two Seminars for Long-Term Thinking focused on population, Stewart Brand’s “Cities and Time” and Philip Longman’s “The Depopulation Problem” and I’m thinking differently about it now. It’s looking very likely that our population has doubled for the last time, and most of the rest of our population growth is going to be in old people, not babies. People are living longer and having way fewer kids.

There are a few reasons for the radical shift in population-growth rate. First is urbanization. People are flocking to cities in massive numbers, and in the city, kids are no longer an economic asset like they are on the farm. In economic terms, if you are in the city, you are probably better off without them. Second is feminism, or at least it is a phenomenon feminists are in favor of. Women are getting educated, working, and more in control of their reproduction, so they are having fewer babies. (This is arguably another result of urbanization–if you’re on the farm, women are most economically valuable for making babies. If you are in the city and kids don’t matter so much, why not have that second income?) Third is television. Philip Longman called this phenomenon “TV taking the bandwidth out of the bedroom.” Birth rates are inversely proportional to hours of TV watched. This may be because it is urban, small families that are idealized in TV shows.

Stewart Brand’s version of the story is the more optimistic: Perhaps this means we humans have a shot at long-term survival after all. City living is greener than country living–way smaller ecological footprint per person. We still have to weather the population peak without ruining the planet as a habitat for ourselves, which will be no small feat, but at least there might be light at the end of the tunnel!

Philip Longman’s version is pretty depressing: The only population group able to withstand this small family trend are those who are highly principled, anti-materialistic, and dogmatically in favor of big families: religious fundamentalists. Liberals are a dying breed. Fundamentalist populations are burgeoning. The future looks very conservative and patriarchal. And, since we can now tell the sex of our kids before they are born, it means we will have fewer and fewer women–that is to say, more and more females will be aborted. This is already happening in China, where the sex ratio has reached 6 men for every 5 women. With women a scarce resource plus a highly patriarchal society, and the outlook for women’s freedom does not look good. On top of that are the economic problems that come along with an aging population with fewer and fewer workers to sustain it. We are about to get a small taste of that with the retirement of the Baby Boomers. Over the next 100 years that situation will be global and on a much bigger scale. The poverty and desperation that will produce will put ecological concerns on the sidelines, making Stewart’s version of the story unlikely. He advocates governments giving incentives to have kids, but says that it hasn’t worked at all in countries that have tried it.