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Issue 02 – Assumption 2020


Prediction Versus Prophecy

On modern prophets.

Like every other idiot out there, I failed to see the new world coming. Some time in January, on a bright cold sunny day in New York, I distracted myself with news from distant places. Emptied streets in a Chinese city I’d never heard of. An unimaginable crisis very far away. “Are you worried about this coronavirus thing?” I asked my girlfriend. “It’s weird, I can’t really bring myself to freak out about it.” I couldn’t imagine that the world would actually change. She wasn’t too worried either. I flew back across the Atlantic at the end of the month, and we decided to meet again in London, maybe some time in March. We decided what the future would look like. We predicted that there would be international flights, and restaurants, and pubs, and maybe something interesting on at the Tate Modern, and all the mild miseries of the twenty-first century. We were wrong. Now, I spend my days counting the dead. Glued to the data, neurotic and mesmerised. The numbers are read out in daily press conferences from Downing Street. Sometimes there are names, but mostly it’s a sequence: three-hundred forty-six corpses yesterday, six-hundred twenty-six the day before, five-hundred thirty-nine the day before that. We’re looking for a pattern; something in the numbers that can tell us what the world will look like next week, next month, or next year. According to the government, these numbers should be falling, and sometimes they do fall. Sometimes they rise sharply again. Lines on charts coil around the projections, the mathematical curves, the inferences—and then uncouple again. Some of my friends think this will be over soon, and it’ll be followed by joy. We’ll return to each other in the streets, without digital mediation, without fear, in a new Summer of Love. Others predict that the state of exception will become permanent. We’ll simply never get out of lockdown: the world will stop being something you physically live in, and start being something you access through your computer. Both predictions seem equally possible. None of our predictive apparatuses seem to be working. Common sense fails. Statistics are shaky. Hope is out of the question. There’s only one thing left. There’s one power that seems to have predicted everything that happened. It saw the future where I couldn’t, because its powers were greater than mine, and not human. For those of us lost in time, this is a comforting thought. There’s a vaster plan, a higher symmetry, behind the chaos of the world. Everything we’re suffering was set down in a half-remembered past, in half-remembered texts. I’m talking, of course, about The Simpsons. Once, The Simpsons was an excellent cartoon for balding millennials. Over the last decade, it’s turned into something else: the yellow and ageless creatures of Springfield have become an oracle, probably the most powerful of our time. In “Bart to the Future,” an episode from 2000, a newly elected President Lisa is shown meeting with her advisors. “As you know,” she says, “we’ve inherited quite a budget crunch from President Trump.” For about a decade and a half, this was a joke. Then, very suddenly, it wasn’t. There’s more. From 1992 to 1994, the show correctly predicted the Super Bowl winners three years running. In a sight gag from 1998, it predicted the eventual Disney-Fox merger. In 1997, it even hinted darkly at the attacks of September 11, 2001. (There’s a brief shot of a brochure advertising bus tickets to New York for nine dollars. The Twin Towers themselves, silhouetted to the right, form the eleven. Even the showrunner Al Jean, who dismisses most of the show’s oracular powers as coincidence or good guesswork, was baffled. “That one,” he told the New York Times, “is a completely bizarre, strange thing.”) And when Covid-19 started to spread, it turned out that this too had been prefigured. The season four episode “Marge in Chains” depicts an outbreak of Osaka flu in Springfield. A mob masses outside the medical centre, furiously failing to observe social distancing, and demands a cure. Then there’s the following exchange:
MOB: We need a cure! We need a cure! DR HIBBERT: Why, the only cure is bed rest. Anything I’d give you would only be a placebo. WOMAN: Where do we get these placebos? MAN: Maybe there’s some in this truck!
The mob knock over the truck, and a crate full of killer bees bursts open in their stupid faces. The first recorded coronavirus outbreak in America was in Washington state around the beginning of 2020. At exactly the same time, in exactly the same place, Asian “murder hornets” were discovered to have spread to the United States. It was written. It was foretold. This strange vatic power is often commented on—if you search Google for the phrase “predicted the future,” almost every result will be about The Simpsons—but as far as I can tell, nobody’s made any serious attempt to explain it. Two broad theories suggest themselves. Hypothesis one: the show’s floating timeline has caused it to come unstuck within history. Bart Simpson is ten years old; in the show’s golden age in the Nineties, his birth was depicted in the early Eighties. Thirty years on, and Bart—like the Sibyl at Cumae—diminishes but does not die. His form and movements are cheap and plasticky now, but he’s still ten years old. He was born in 2010—several decades after he’d already become a major global pop-culture icon, and then faded away. He lived before his birth. He is always within his own future. Bart Simpson floats, anguished and unborn, into the swelling catastrophe of time. Hypothesis two: The Simpsons predicted the future because it’s not a piece of entertainment, it’s a Llull machine. It’s an analogue computer from the thirteenth century. The Llull machine is made of three concentric paper circles, each with a series of nine letters written around the outer edge. Spin the circles, and you can quickly arrive at any possible combination of the letters. It was the invention of Ramon Llull, a Catalan mystic and philosopher, alternately a candidate for canonisation or proscribed as a heretic. The letters on his discs stand for the attributes of God. B for BONITAS, goodness; C for MAGNITUDO, greatness; D for AETERNAS, eternity, and so on. A certain configuration might give the statement that “goodness is great” or “glory is eternal.” Llull described different rules for using the machine, to yield, for instance, questions. Is goodness so great that it is eternal? Might the truth of virtue bring glory? He believed that through this machine, the form of all possible human knowledge could be laid out. In 1314, he took his contraption to Tunis, where he hoped to use it to convert the people to Christianity. Instead, an angry crowd pelted him with stones. He died the following year. The Franciscans record him as a martyr. Llull thought that his machine could use logical rules to make accurate and useful statements about reality. He was right. What he’d invented was the computer, along with almost all its present-day features. Hardware in paper and pins; a programming language of nine characters; software systems laid out in vast illuminated tables. The machine only needed a little refinement. Four centuries after Llull, Leibniz combined his innovations with a binary system poached from the I Ching—an ancient computer-text used (of course) to predict the future. After that, it was just a question of fine-tuning the machinery. Present-day capitalism is a system of computerised forecasting. Most exchanges on the market are now made by high-frequency trading algorithms, which predict minuscule fluctuations in share prices and frantically buy and sell accordingly. Tiny fragments of the future— a second, a millisecond— nibbled away and swallowed by the present. Vast market algorithms keep production of basic commodities tied precisely to expected demand. Social media systems sift through the vast quantities of data we shed like dead skin cells. They can accurately predict when a person will become pregnant, when she’ll move home, when she might be interested in a new line of ultra-indulgent pet food products, and when she’ll die. All possibilities fester in the belly of the machine. Dull fates pour from its bowels. And this monstrous synthetic god still works on the principles outlined by Ramon Llull: take all the available data, combine it in all possible permutations, and compute. It should be said that this system isn’t entirely novel. Two and a half millennia ago, Thales of Miletus got sick of life as a penniless philosopher, and decided to make some scratch. Aristotle: “From his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus and Chios.” He had invented the futures contract. Of course, for Aristotle, this was something unusual and worth remarking on, a power particular to philosophy. Nobody in ancient Greece could imagine, like Miguel de Unamuno in the nineteenth century, time as a “nocturnal” river flowing from “its source, the eternal tomorrow.” You need a bond market, a stock index, a complex and well-established traffic in predicted profits. But even so, Thales’ system still depended on the outputs delivered by a computing machine. This one just happened to be vast, and made of stars. The Simpsons does exactly the same thing. As one of its successors has pointed out, “Simpsons already did it.” For every possible thought, or situation, or decision, there’s a moment from the cartoon that pre-empted it; you could build a plausible universal language from Simpsons references. This is because the show belongs to a very particular genre, which is the American epic. It stands in the same tradition as Moby Dick or Gravity’s Rainbow. As Hegel points out, what distinguishes an epic is its “totality of objects”: it brings “together the whole sphere of the earth and human life.” And it’s worth noting that epic texts have been used directly as rudimentary divinatory computers. Before a battle, Brutus used the Sortes Homericæ, in which you augur the future by reading a random passage from the Iliad. He drew the line “by the cruel crown of Fate I was undone,” and knew who would win. But The Simpsons is an epic without horizon. There’s no whale to fight, no Imipolex G or Rocket 00000 to seek out, no Ithaca to return to. It only churns endlessly through the materials of the world. Springfield is a formless, plastic place. It has a seafront when it needs one, shipwreck-strewn and sleazy; the rest of the time it’s landlocked. Sometimes it’s an anonymous town; sometimes it’s a major centre (“Eh, New York, Springfield, and if we have time, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles”). Homer Simpson has been an astronaut, a clown, a barbershop singer, a car designer, a snow-shoveller, and a sideshow freak. For Hegel, the epic’s disclosure of a total world must form a concrete unity with individual action from the heroes, their “self-disclosure as whole men in the greatest variety of scenes and situations.” Homer gets partway there. Homer Simpson completes the system, by letting it run until it fully exhausted itself with world some time around season twelve. Imagine Llull’s machine, but with faces drawn around the edges of its wheels. Homer, and Marge, and Principal Skinner, and Mr. Burns. The true esoteric language of creation. Plausibly, this is why The Simpsons has been so good at prefiguring future events: it contains everything, and that includes the future. But this vastness actually makes it singularly unhelpful as an oracle. Its predictions only work retroactively; after something happens, you can go back to the text and see that in fact it was there all along. What you can’t do is consult the text in all its bewildering totality to find out what’s coming next. This is the problem with most predictive systems. They work by gathering information about the present, and then projecting trends forwards in time. The most simple of these models, the so-called naïve approach, looks like this:

ŷT + h | T = yT

Here yT stands for the state of the data at any given time T, and h denotes the forecast horizon. In other words, this formula assumes that the future will be exactly as the same as the past. If today is Monday, then it stands to reason that tomorrow will also be Monday. Despite its obvious limitations, the naïve method is often strikingly accurate. But prediction can’t calculate rupture: the moment where every rule suddenly stops working and the world becomes a very different place. Trading software is very good at forecasting whether a stock will go up or down, but there’s no system available that can accurately predict a coming financial crash. (If we could predict them, they wouldn’t exist, and neither would the market.) Predictive systems can model the exponential curve of a viral pandemic, but they can’t see it coming before it arrives. No algorithm can know the hour or the day. But there are two ways of knowing about future events. Walter Benjamin observed that the Jews were forbidden from consulting oracles and soothsayers. This didn’t close off the future; instead, it meant that “every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.” There’s prediction— and then there’s prophecy. Prediction looks at the data, tots up the figures, and tells you: there will be a good crop of olives next year in Miletus. Prophecy is different. It roars: Awake, ye drunkards, and weep, and howl, all ye drinkers of wine, for it is cut off from your mouth. Hath this ever been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? In this age of uncertainty, what we need is a prophet. And we have one. He lived in Shepperton, a scrap of medieval motorway purlieu on the fringes of London. He lived in a semi-detached house with flaking paint and he wrote things down. His name was Jim. Did J.G. Ballard warn us about the coronavirus? Don’t insult me with these questions. Of course he did. A short story from 1977 depicts a world in which everyone lives in a state of permanent social distancing. Children are conceived by artificial insemination, and brought up by parents who have never met through cooing video screens. Couples make pornography of themselves for each other. “Affection and compassion demanded distance. Only at a distance could one find that true closeness to another human being which, with grace, might transform itself into love.” The world is poison: houses are fitted with gas-tight doors, and nobody goes outside. But the real danger isn’t in the air; it’s other people. Come too close to your elderly mother, and she might die. The characters even communicate through a “zoom.” The story itself is even titled “The Intensive Care Unit.” It’s all there. For most readers, Ballard is still best known as the author of Empire of the Sun, a mostly autobiographical account of his childhood in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, which had the misfortune of being adapted into a Spielberg film. But over his career, Ballard wrote nineteen novels and countless short stories— and almost all of them are a piece of strange, crystalline, prefigurative genius. I won’t bore you with a full and exhaustive list of every single one of his fulfilled prophecies. The thing would be enormous, terrifying, but also vaguely actuarial. The best form for it might be a kind of index for an unpublished book (a form Ballard himself experimented with). Something like this:

A terrible accident occurs near the Pripat Marshes of Belarus, forcing the Soviet government to declare an exclusion zone

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About the author

Sam Kriss

Sam Kriss is a British writer and dilettante.