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The Queen’s an anachronism: another problem with predicting the future

The Queen serve many roles, it seems. She provides stability to the British government, fosters links with the ex-colonies, promotes tourism, serves a safe focus for nationalist sentiment, gives the nation a centralised way of taking care of various palaces, provides nationalised opportunities for neighbours to come together, warms that deep part of the human heart that admires leaders but disdains those that make hard choices, is a focal point for unity, tradition and precedent, a link to history… The list is long, and to some extent genuine: she does provide these services to the nation.

But say we’d sat down, without any knowledge of the monarchy, and looked at that long list of desires, included in a list of a million other things we’d want. Nobody would have said: “You know, thinking about it, for issues 137, 2220 and 3558b… Well, the most efficient way we could deal with these is to institute an unelected hereditary figurehead, passing down by primogeniture. Come to think about it, that would also help with issue 344c…” The monarchy is certainly not the best way of accomplishing all the tasks we want it to accomplish, is likely very far from the best way. But it is the way we currently do so, changing it would require a lot of effort, and it has adapted itself to work in practice, within our current society.

Which brings us to the problem of prediction. Any consequentialist philosophy needs ways of estimating the outcomes of actions, as do most practical fields. Traditionally, the unexpected is seen as the problem: “Yes, these are the trends, but have you considered the risk of another 9/11, Pearl Harbor, Black Monday, Oil Crisis…?” The list of potential black swans is endless. But the monarchy example shows another problem with predictions: the future just may not be as different as we thought.

If we revived a frozen kid from the 1950s, we’d have to start by explaining that while we do have flying cars and space stations (and we had supersonic passenger airplanes), these are not generally used or considered very important. Though we could get all our energy from solar power (and global warming implies that we should), coal and oil remain the backbone of our economies.

Those futurists that predicted the fading of nation states and religion were correct in the trends – nationalism and religious observance have diminished – but they failed to realise how slow this would be, and how high a base these started from. We still cook. We use huge amounts of paper. People still work in office blocks. Crime is down, but it’s still pretty much the same type of stuff as it always was. We cured smallpox… and that was about it.

So even a clear necessity and the technical ability to implement a solution does not end up with that solution implemented. When predicting, we need to consider that “getting by with what we already have” is often a likely outcome. And when advocating for change, we need to remember that a “partial, interim, temporary solution” may end up lasting forever, once it’s embedded in the system.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Even if we have a ‘solution’ and the political and popular will to do it, even then many technologies do not scale up. Some technologies are good enough at a small scale but cannot be upgraded to service millions. We see that a lot in the energy industry (like in the shale oil extraction).

    “Though we could get all our energy from solar power”

    Unless the world population/consumption drops sharply, we cannot get all our energy from the Sun. Already too late for that, I’m afraid. Even if solar scale up (and that will not happen with today tech) we are getting already out of the necessary fuel for that transition. We just consume too much…


  2. I think the Queen was a hopeless example of the truism you stated at the end “a “partial, interim, temporary solution” may end up lasting forever”. Try the Barnett Formula.

    Secondly, “only” *eradicating* smallpox!?

  3. Anthony Drinkwater

    “We cured smallpox… and that was about it.”
    “And reduced perinatal and infant mortality.”
    “Yes but apart from curing smallpox and reducing perinatal and infant mortality, that’s about it.”
    “and in Europe, nearly everyone has a fridge and a washing machine and a hoover, which reduces unnecessary effort and means that we eat safer food.”
    “Yes but apart from curing smallpox and reducing perinatal and infant mortality, and having washing machines and fridges and hoovers, that’s about it.”
    “and paid holidays, and hospitals, and CDs, and Wikipedia…..”
    Etc, etc, etc, etc

    Seriously, I’m not sure that I understand your point, Stuart. The fact that the future is usually impossible to predict is surely one of the joys of life : to take a trivial example, if we knew already who would win Euro-2012, would we bother watching?

    1. Stuart Armstrong

      >if we knew already who would win Euro-2012, would we bother watching?

      If we knew that there was going to be a nuclear war or an asteroid impact, would we bother to stop it? 🙂

      It’s not the flavourful stuff we need to try and predict, but the utterly deadly stuff.

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