Cultural anticipations as an algorithm for divining the future

17.27, Thursday 8 Jul 2021

I am struck by the concept of cultural anticipations, here mentioned in High Frontiers 4 (1988) by shaman and psychonaut Terrance McKenna, as related by Thomas Rid:

The early internet was evolving fast. Yet McKenna was ahead of his time. To him, a new form of planetary connection was emerging: “Through electronic circuitry and the building of a global information system, we are essentially exteriorizing our nervous system, so that it is becoming a patina or skin around the planet,” he told High Frontiers. “And phenomena like group drug-taking and rock-and-roll concerts and this sort of thing,” he said, “these are simply cultural anticipations of this coming age of electronic-pooling-of-identity.”

Cultural anticipations! The existence of which implies the following algorithm for divining the future:

  1. Look for new behaviours.
  2. View those behaviours not as a phenomena in their own right, but as symptoms resultant of something else underlying and not yet in the present – either a psychological reaction against, or a pre-appropriation coping strategy toward, or some other kind of response.
  3. Guess at what the impending something underlying is – and in this way, you discover the truth about the future.

What this method proposes is the future already exists, in some sense. Future events and future configurations of society are immanent in the world’s collective unconscious – we can’t name the future, we can’t talk about it, we can barely consciously feel it approaching, but the future is there and as real as the sluggish yet titanically unstoppable currents in the magma layer deep below the Earth’s surface.

Some people are sensitive to cultural tachyons - these particles that travel backwards through time - artists and poets and those with a certain madness - but what I like about this method is that it doesn’t rely on the individual: it’s a method of divination from dowsing the collective unconscious.

Society itself is a vast, gossamer scientific instrument to detect faint ripples from the future.

This is what has previously excited me about GPT-3. As a Large Language Model, GPT-3 was trained on a snapshot of the world’s text made in late 2019. For example, it is knowledgeless re Covid-19.


What if there were a new GPT-3 made every 3 months? And then we looked for diffs between the models, plotting them like global weather maps? Would that reveal the telluric currents of the collective psyche? Could we use that to forecast the future?

The possibility of automating the augury algorithm!

Perhaps they are easier to recognise in retrospect.

For example: Stewart Brand’s 1966 campaign Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet? (here’s Brand’s personal recollection of the campaign). Or really, the whole drive towards computing machinery and networks to think and act more powerfully and collectively, since the 1950s, and the development of the “global village”…

I read all of these as cultural anticipations of the Anthropocene, the realisation that humanity can and is acting on a planetary scale, for good and ill – but only popularly named in the year 2000, despite the fact that the whole 20th century was this slow lift of history to a rolling boil.

We’ve got the cultural tools and the perspectives we need to deal with today’s challenges (if only we use them). But somehow they were created just in time… in anticipation?

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