Friday, June 7, 2013

Half-Visible Fate

Fate is a word that signifies the outcome of a life, of a society, and is the sort of thing altogether beyond the control of the individual or of a collective. Not surprisingly, in our democratic age, it is much less used in books today (three times less frequently in 2000, according to Google’s ngram program, than it was used in roughly 1805). We don’t believe in fate. If it doesn’t have an arbitrary quality—thus the idea that it is meted out by gods who have a mind of their own we cannot in the least influence—what is left of it is determinism. (Determinism, by the way, while still less used than fate, increased in usage by a factor of 1,842—also per Google—in the same period.) We believe in our power to observe and, by calculation, to project.

Now arguably a large component of fate is to some extent measurable—provided that the data are available for making calculations. If Europeans had had effective world wide news coverage and demographic statics in, say, 1205 AD, they should have been able to predict the Mongol Invasion certainly by 1234 (when the Mongols had already conquered Siberia, China, and parts of Persia) some 50 years before the Mongols reached the borders of Hungary.

My guess is that, in today’s Information Age, we are capable of predicting at least half of Fate quite accurately if we simply focus on two aspects of collective life: energy and demographics. Quite similarly, if we know something about an individual, we shall also be able to predict half of his or her fate based on such measures as intake of poisonous substances, physical activity and body-weight, genetic profile, and criminal record.

That still leaves the arbitrary element inviolable. The government might be able to record in a vast database what we do with a little Verizon phone. But, thank heaven, our data collection has not yet advanced to such an extent that funeral homes, for a fee, can get notification of my future passing years, say, in advance, guaranteed to happen within, say, a three-month period in such and such a year.

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