“According to what I call the commonsense view of things, some natural phenomena, such as weather, or the coming and going of clouds, are hard to predict: we speak of the ‘vagaries of the weather.’ On the other hand, we speak of ‘clock-work precision’ if we wish to describe a highly regular and predictable phenomenon.”
—Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge, An Evolutionary Approach
When the late philosopher of science, Karl Popper, typified natural phenomena under the two principle categories of clouds and clocks, he had in mind issues surrounding prediction. Traditional science, before the rise of computer science, had grappled with great difficulty with the irregular behavior of non-linear phenomena such as weather and politics.
But with the emergence of modern scientific theories such as quantum physics and game theory, the idea of probability—what Ian Hacking called “the taming of chance”—introduced the possibility of construing probabilistic behavior not simply as the manifestation of indeterminism, but rather as its quantifiable manifestation. The introduction of computer simulations into probabilistic theories converted indeterministic phenomena to “deterministic chaos.”
The forecasting of Hurricane Sandy was enabled by sophisticated simulations of the coming storm and resulted in turning cloud-works into clock-works. Similarly, if you listened to the computer geeks who gave us the simulated results of the last election, the news that Obama won merely proved a point: computational models of political results are more reliable than our commonsense view of political reality as unpredictable.
The storm and the president-elect emerged victorious, and like a Renaissance fresco, gave us the spectacle of stormy politics, or, political storm. Yet, the aftermath as always remains one of cleaning and re-building. Should we build new clocks to predict storms? Should we finally come to terms with the extent to which our technological, ecological, and political blindness turn into a passive forecast rather than an active engagement?
It seems that the clouds of climate change and politics are hanging over our heads in spite of our ability to predict them. What appears to be still nebulous, though, is our ability to predict our own behavior. How many more storms and how many more failed policies will it take to convince us to synchronize ourselves with the times we live in, as opposed to try and measure them with obsolete pendulous clocks that still oscillate between the future tamed as past, and the past as a forecast for the future?
Adam Berg is an artist and holds a PhD in philosophy. He teaches in the Liberal Arts and Sciences department at Otis College of Art and Design and at the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts. His work and writing focus on the intersection between art and science.