February 19, 2007
Riffing on an Arthur C. Clarke idea about the unpredictability of science, Kevin Kelly is musing about expected and unexpected inventions (via Infocult). Clarke actually created a chart of inventions or discoveries most scientists could have foreseen before they came about (e.g. automobiles, flying machines, telephones), and ones they couldn’t have predicted (e.g. sound recording, relativity, atomic clocks). Kelly does the same thing, putting organ transplants, the cell phone, and the test tube baby in the realm of the expected, and DNA fingerprinting, radar, and artificial sweeteners in the unexpected camp.
The criterion, Kelly explains, is the “perplex the ancient” test. If Da Vinci were brought back to life, would he be utterly mystified by the technology, or would he grasp the concepts behind it?
For instance, genetically modified crops would surprise no one, because the technique is simply breeding by another means. On the other hand, the underlying concepts of DNA fingerprinting would be mysterious, magical, problematic, and take great lengths to explain. The World Wide Web is the long sought after universal library and answer machine. But virtual reality doesn’t have a good analogy.This got me wondering — what if you tried a perplex-the-ancient test with things outside of technology? Say cultural developments, for example. What in contemporary culture that might astound the savviest anthropologists of old? Would the end of privacy (great article, btw) shock Mr. de Tocqueville? Would Oscar Wilde have foreseen Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?