Delphi pools: a futures blast from the past

Speaking of crowdsourcing futures, here’s an interesting prediction of prediction methods.  Delphi Pools, by John Brunner, in his amazing Shockwave Rider (1975):

John Brunner portrait

It works, approximately, like this.

First you corner a large – if possible, a very large – number of people who, while they’ve never formally studied the subject you’re going to ask them about and hence are unlikely to recall the correct answer, are nonetheless plugged into the culture to which the question relates.

Then you ask them, as it might be, to estimate how many people died in the great influenza epidemic which followed World War I…

Curiously, when you consolidate their replies they tend to cluster around the actual figure as recorded in almanacs, yearbooks and statical returns.

It’s rather as though this paradox has proved true: that while nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.

Well, if it works for the past, why can’t it work for the future? Three hundred million people with access to the integrated North American data-net is a nice big number of potential consultees.

1975, friends.  Pretty nicely done, down to the number of folks living in the US.

Subcategory: sf about futures methods.

(thanks to hippybear at MetaFilter); image via Abode of Chaos)

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1 Comment

  1. skjandrews

     /  December 12, 2011

    Very cool that he was onto it that long ago–SciFi is definitely a good place to look for predictions (though, note, in this case, it is not a group that predicted this could be useful, but a single, well-informed observer whom we can, after the fact, note was correct in his prognostication.) Cass Sunstein discusses a lot of these methods in /Infotopia/ and I’m sure he’s not alone in finding them stimulating. It seems very good at discovering “right” answers about the past, but, to play devil’s advocate, crowdsourcing would seem particularly faulty at predicting open-ended questions about the future. Even the World Futures Society method, where a variety of experts are asked and their ideas pooled, the questions are mostly centered around the trends of today: if the Singularity (or something of that magnitude) occurs all bets are off. Still, I guess that would be the exception, rather than the rule.

    Reply

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