Betting On The End Times

Lantern Reflection

An article from long-time tech writer Steven Levy tells the fascinating story of a bet from more than 25 years ago.

Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired Magazine, launched in 19931 to document the fast-moving changes in technology, was preparing to interview Kirkpatrick Sale, a writer whose work predicted the immanent collapse of civilization, in part due to an over-dependence on that same tech. They agreed on almost nothing and Kelly was planning an ambush, journalistically speaking.

Sale believed society was on the verge of collapse. That wasn’t entirely bad, he argued. He hoped the few surviving humans would band together in small, tribal-style clusters. They wouldn’t be just off the grid. There would be no grid. Which was dandy, as far as Sale was concerned.

“History is full of civilizations that have collapsed, followed by people who have had other ways of living,” Sale said. “My optimism is based on the certainty that civilization will collapse.”

Toward the end of their very contentious discussion, Kelly offered the bet: “I bet you $1,000 that in the year 2020, we’re not even close to the kind of disaster you describe.”

Sale was hesitant but “figured that if he lost, a thousand bucks would be worth much less in 2020 anyway”.

The two men agreed to let the man who had edited both their books keep the check and eventually name the winner. Spoiler alert: civilization had not collapsed on December 31, 2020, but that doesn’t mean the decision was easy.

I highly recommend reading the whole piece, especially the profiles of the two men and how they arrived at their very different ways of thinking.

Also just because this particular prediction didn’t arrive on schedule doesn’t mean we no longer have a high probability of near-term disaster.

After all, we still have rapidly advancing climate change, ever mutating viruses, increasingly unreliable technology, a large, loud, proudly ignorant minority of the population, along with their political and religious leaders whose only debate concerns whether society should be set back to the 19th or 14th century.

Since the date for this post falls around the Lunar New Year, this photo from a celebration two years ago seems appropriate. Back in those “normal” times.

1. I still have a copy of the first issue of the magazine, purchased from an airport newsstand to read on a flight to who-knows-where. I was so impressed with the writing and style I mailed the subscription card from the hotel before returning from the trip.

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