Using humorists to predict the future because they can push beyond plausibility

Predictions made by experts are often not very good so why not let humorists try their hand at looking at the future?

This is not because “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and his teams of writers through the decades are sinister geniuses. They are, of course, but the phenomenon of jokes coming uncannily true is not at all unique to “The Simpsons.” So at this time of year, when lots of people are making forecasts or looking back at how last year’s predictions went, I’d like to make the case that humorists may make the best futurists of all.

The writers of “The 80s” would not have won one of Philip Tetlock’s forecasting competitions: The great majority of their “predictions” were wildly wrong. Congress didn’t ban the consumption of meat, Muhammad Ali didn’t become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Disney didn’t buy the United Kingdom, a musical version of “1984” starring Leif Garrett, Tracy Austin and Marlon Brando (as “Big Brother”) did not become the movie of the decade, cancer was not cured with “a substance secreted in the cranium of the baby harp seal when its head was struck repeatedly.” But given that the aim of the book was not to make predictions but to entertain, that was OK. It’s like with “The Simpsons”: You’re not watching it to get a rundown on the world to come; the fact that you sometimes do is a happy bonus…

The humorist’s approach to looking into the future bears some resemblance to scenario planning, a practice developed in the 1950s and 1960s at the Rand Corp. and Hudson Institute. Scenario planning involves coming up with alternative story lines of how things might plausibly develop in the future, and thinking about how a business or other organization can adapt to them. It’s not about picking the right scenario, but about opening your mind to different possibilities.

To make stories about the future funny, they usually have to be pushed beyond the bounds of plausibility. If they’re not pushed too far beyond, though, they can sometimes come true — with the advantage that few “serious” forecasters will have predicted them. The Trump presidency is a classic case of this. He had been talking about running since the late 1980s, but those in the media and political circles had learned over the years not to take him seriously. So it was left to the jokers.

Looking into the future is a difficult task since the future is a complex system with many variable at play. Even with all the data we have at our disposal these days, future trends do not necessarily have to follow in line with past results. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s writings from The Black Swan and onward: there are certain parts of reality that are fairly predictable, other areas that complex but more knowable, and other areas that we do not even know what we do not know. See this chart adapted from Taleb by Garry Peterson for an overview:

Taleb's quadrants

This also gets at an important aspect of creativity: being able to think beyond existing realities.

Another bonus of looking to humorists to think about the future: you might get some extra laughs along the way.

Count sociologists among the most liberal Americans – at least for one humorist

Imagining the exodus of Americans for Canada, here is who one humorist depicted as most distraught over the recent presidential election results:

Canadian border farmers say it’s not uncommon to see dozens of sociology professors, global warming activists, and “green” energy proponents crossing their fields at night.

“I went out to milk the cows the other day, and there was a Hollywood producer huddled in the barn,” said Southern Manitoba farmer Red Greenfield, whose acreage borders North Dakota . “The producer was cold, exhausted and hungry.  He asked me if I could spare a latte and some free-range chicken. When I said I didn’t have any, he left before I even got a chance to show him my screenplay, eh?”

Given all the academic content the 2016 election is likely to generate in the years to come, someone has to examine which groups had the strongest negative emotions about the results as well as which groups felt this pain the longest. Would sociologists rank up there?

Tool to help urban strangers converse, make eye contact

Several researchers are working on the Jokebox, an invention intended to promote social interaction in cities:

Mara Balestrini, an expert in human-computer interaction and director of research at Ideas for Change, has been investigating ways to bring shared experiences back into public spaces. She’s been working with researchers from the UK and Mexico on the Jokebox project – an installation that involves separate wooden boxes, each equipped with speakers, sensors and arcade-style buttons, that tell a joke when two people activate them simultaneously.

The key, Balestrini tells me, is that it’s impossible for one person to push both buttons. “The Jokebox is an ice-breaker, an excuse to get strangers to talk to each other or to share a laugh in public spaces,” she explains. “It is also a technology prototype that can help us understand how to design novel interfaces to foster social connectedness in urban settings by encouraging eye contact and co-operation between strangers.”

As part of their study, the researchers conducted a series of tests in the north-western Mexican city of Ensenada. Boxes were set up in a park, a shopping centre and a bus stop. According to the project’s findings, people in those settings reacted in different ways – kids and parents would be more likely to play with the boxes in the park, for example, whereas teenagers were more likely to engage in the shopping centre. Even when people avoided using the Jokebox directly, which was frequently the case at the bus stop, it still provided an excuse for interaction – as is the case in this moment of gentle warmth….

Balestrini tells me future cities will combine different types of technologies, from those that support efficiency by replacing the humans to those that try to foster shared encounters among people. She says it is crucial to enable playfulness and curiosity, particularly in a moment where the discourse around cities revolves around ideas of data-driven automation and efficiency.

It is interesting to consider that it might be technology that could help bring people back into conversation. Is this the best we can do in societies thrilled with technological progress and private space (even when we are in public)? How successful might this be in drawing people out of their private realms or will it primarily appeal to those who are already more interested in social interaction? I’m not surprised that this device uses humor, a social phenomena that can cut across all sorts of social divides. At the same time, the humor has to be broad and affirming rather than the critique and sarcasm that is very common today.

Tracking American parenting through the New Yorker’s cartoons

Two sociologists examined over 6,000 New Yorker cartoons that involved parenting:

In their study, “The Parent Trap: What New Yorker Cartoons Reveal About Competing Trends in Childrearing,” Tabor and I.U. assistant professor Jessica Calarco looked at 70,439 cartoons to identify and index about 6,000 cartoons that related to children or parenting…

The most negative portrayals of children were found in the ’20s and ’30s, but also in the 1990s and first decade of the new millennium, the pair discovered. Some of the drawbacks focused on the financial burdens caused by children. Others noted how parents sacrificed much of their own lives to make things better for their children…

“You’ll see the least-critical cartoons in the ’40s and ’50s,” Tabor says. Those decades showed lots of cartoons featuring parents proud of children’s accomplishments, such as playing a musical instrument or getting good grades in school. The 1970s and ’80s also saw an uptick in cartoons that were more positive about child rearing. The 1960s featured cartoons showing the positives and negatives for parents…

“Our data suggest that when cultural standards increase child-rearing’s degree of difficulty, and especially when parents are judged harshly for failing to meet those cultural standards, the decision to become a parent becomes a much more difficult one,” the study concludes. “Faced with these mounting pressures, would-be parents feel compelled to either keep up or opt out. And as more parents opt out, society sees an increase in the number of individuals and families who decide to be ‘child-free.'”

I assume the academic article discusses this but I imagine there are at least a few intervening variables:

  1. The gatekeeping done by the editors at the New Yorker. Cartoons, like other magazine content, likely has to go through an approval processes. The cartoonist could want to present a particular narrative but that doesn’t necessarily mean the magazine would go for it. So, who were the editors making these decisions and what influenced their perspectives on parenting?
  2. The New Yorker appeals to a particular audience. According to 2012 Pew Research data on American’s news sources, 41% of their readers earned more than $75,000 and 64% had a college degree or more education, and 57% of readers are Democrats. (The magazine leads the pack in the most educated and is nearly the most Democratic. Do these cartoons then reflect an educated, monied, liberal perspective on parenting?

Still, going through 6,000 cartoons over time from a prominent source could lead to some interesting findings. And given the number of New Yorker cartoon books out there, why not have one dedicated to just parenting?

McMansion as a term went from “funny criticism” to “spiteful slur”

A Denver resident suggests the term McMansion has become too broad to be useful:

Regarding McMansions, this term originally meant very large tract houses that pretend to be grander than their vapid finishes should allow. They are mass-produced like hamburgers with no understanding of taste or style. Now McMansion has morphed into any big house no matter its utility or architectural worth. A funny criticism has turned into a spiteful slur.

An interesting observation. The term arose in the 1990s and its “Mc” prefix suggested a mass produced item. This was not necessarily a new critique of housing; the postwar housing boom also gave birth to large developers – like Levitt and Sons – and tract homes became a major part of suburban critiques (see the song “Little Boxes“). And the McDonaldization of the world was in full swing across a range of industries.

Yet, today calling a home a McMansion is definitely not positive and tends to lead to animosity among neighbors (a recent example here). Big houses invite though own criticisms – waste of resources, unnecessary space, larger than nearby homes – though what exactly qualifies is unclear. You can’t find too many defenders of McMansions.

Does this suggest the term has outlived its usefulness?

Sociologist proposed moving Hong Kong’s population to Northern Ireland

Recently declassified documents show conversations about one sociologist’s plans to move residents out of Hong Kong:

Newly-declassified documents released at the National Archives in Kew, west London reveal how senior civil servants reacted enthusiastically to proposals in 1983 from a University of Reading academic that a chunk of Ulster – between Coleraine and Londonderry – be turned into a new home for Hong Kong’s 5.5m citizens.

The proponents of the plan, which one Northern Ireland office official declared should be “taken seriously”, suggested the mass transportation of Cantonese speakers would have the dual advantage of boosting the Ulster economy while solving Britain’s dilemma over what to do with the millions of Hong Kong residents concerned they would have no future under Chinese rule…

When details of the scheme, floated by sociology professor Christie Davies, appeared in a Belfast newspaper in October 1983, they caught the eye of George Fergusson, an official in the Northern Ireland office…

The academic, who has subsequently specialised in studying the nature of comedy, said: “I am glad my sensible idea was taken seriously. It was humorous but deliberately ambiguous. My test of a good humorous satire is if a significant minority take it seriously.”

Perhaps this is more revealing of those who were excited about this plan – we can simply move millions of people to solve two political issues at once! – than of the one who made the proposal. Deliberately relocating millions of people halfway around the world sounds like it could lead to all sorts of unintended consequences. How in the world would something like this even be carried off?

Another issue is whether a city could be swiftly moved and replicated elsewhere. Diasporas are not unheard of but the settlements in the new locations can’t completely mirror the original location or scene. Modern Hong Kong was formed out of a unique social and political context as was Northern Ireland. Building a Northern Ireland version of Hong Kong (or a Canadian Atlantic version or a West African version) could turn out to be very interesting…

Comic strip about development, architecture, and urban life

Check out this overview of Ben Katchor’s comic strips about urban design and life:

In a comic strip he’s authored for Metropolis magazine since the late 1990s and in several compilation books, Katchor looks at design and at the development of homes and neighborhoods. His strips are usually one page long and place characters at the helm of strange or unsettling experiences.

During a recent phone interview, Katchor, a winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant and professor at Parsons, described his work as a part of the “American, Yiddish, socialist” tradition and “a form of social activism. You could blow things up too,” he said, referring to the radical arms of environmental groups, “but I don’t really relish the thought of being in prison. I’d rather make comic strips.”…

Katchor leads his readers from simple to complex ideas in the space of one page. For example, in “A River View,” two contractors try to profit on a large set of glass windows that have been recently replaced in a high-rise: the removed windows have the imprint of the skyline that has been baked into the glass over time. By the time they find the recycling yard where the windows have been taken, they’re told that, “a European art dealer took the whole lot sight unseen.” The final frame of the strip shows a group of people overseas looking at one pane when it is displayed like a work of fine art. Everyone involved is looking to profit.

From Katchor’s perspective, profit motivates much of recent development. Though he doesn’t believe new design is worse compared to earlier periods, mentioning that there were dull buildings in the past, he thinks today’s wealth replicates itself, with a push to “maximize profits” in many fields. Like the panes in “A River View,” Katchor sees replication: “Rather than spinning off the money into other things, giving it to other people,” design suffers from the “failure of imagination of corporate interests.”

The sample strips here are pretty interesting. A few thoughts:

1. Providing commentary through comic strips has a good history. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it applied to urban development. Perhaps it is too abstract an idea (beyond the immediate experiences of characters) for most strips to address?

2. The argument that profits drive developments sounds like the political economy view in urban sociology which emphasizes the actions of powerful people, politicians or business leaders, to make money.

3. I wonder if such humor really has a market these days. These comic strips are relatively long, have lots of text, and address complex topics that go beyond one-liners.