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Life 3.0

All Your Futures Are Known

Our correspondent forecasts the week ahead for five volunteers and discovers an eerie rate of success. Secrets, tips, and truths revealed about how to predict the future.

Allen Vandever, Cosmic Poodle, 2011. Courtesy the artist.

I can see into the future. I know this, because it happened. Not only have I seen the future—as you will read below, this claim is absolutely true—but I have crafted it, designed it, bent it to my will.

At a whim, I desired a future involving owls, and there they were, fluttering their beautiful owly wings. Let me explain.

Last month, I conducted a simple experiment to determine the nature and scope of my future-predicting powers. I asked Twitter for five volunteers, for whom I would predict the week to come. I sent each of them a brief summary of the seven days ahead. At the close of the week, I checked back with them to see if my predictions came true.

I am not a clairvoyant. It turns out that there’s no big secret—you can see the future too. You just have to know where to look.

 

Technologist Leigh Dodds turned 40 during the week of our experiment. He is a professional geek in England, based in the city of Bath.

My Predictions for Leigh

  • You will enjoy yourself this week. Settling into your forties is like buying a new car: you know where all the controls are, but everything feels weird nonetheless.
  • Wednesday will see you flying in some manner. On Thursday I’m getting the letter W—you will be whimsical, or woozy. Or wobbly, or wondering.
  • During the week you will taste something new for the first time ever, and decide you like it. You’ll have to have something explained to you twice. You’ll trip up but not hurt yourself too badly.
  • Something will go wrong, and you’ll be amazed at the scale of the wrongness—it will be so much bigger, so much wronger, than you could ever have expected it to be.
  • There will be some mention of Switzerland. You will be cold, then hot.
  • You will meet someone who is likely to become a good friend for years to come, although neither of you will know that when you meet.
  • You will struggle with some aspect of mathematics that used to be easy when you were a student, but those days seem so far away now.

One Week Later

Leigh and I engage in friendly small talk during our phone chat a week later. We have known each other on the internet for years, but never in all that time have we managed to meet in person, even though we have mutual friends and live less than an hour’s drive apart.

I begin by asking him: How did I do? Was I even anywhere close?

“You were,” he replies. “I did enjoy myself that week.”

Well that’s a good start.

“Work has been up and down recently, but that week everything felt like it hit an even keel. So yeah, it felt good. There was no flying on Wednesday. Not even the metaphorical kind. Sorry.”

Not to worry.

“You did well on Thursday, though. At work, we won some new work. On two different projects. I’d been keenly anticipating that all week long, waiting for something beginning with W to happen on that day. And it did!”

Not quite the “W-words” I was expecting, but close enough.

“I didn’t experience a new taste, I’m afraid. But I did have to have something explained to me twice, though. It was a thing at work about purchase order processing. Something extremely dull, to be honest, but that’s why I didn’t listen properly the first time.”

In fact, this is a turning-40 thing, one I have experienced myself. When you turn 40, you have a midlife crisis because you start noticing all the getting-old symptoms that have been happening since your mid-thirties. Before, you paid little attention to them. The day after you turn 40, they become life-changing medical conditions. You forget things, then you forget that you forgot them. You remember them again, but they have to be explained to you all over again. You forget them once more. This is an almost weekly occurrence for me. Poor Leigh seems to be showing early symptoms.

When you turn 40, you have a midlife crisis because you start noticing all the getting-old symptoms that have been happening since your mid-thirties.

Leigh, did you trip up at all?

“Yes, I did trip. Well, I sort of stumbled off the curb. I was on the phone at the time.

“Nothing disastrous went wrong, I’m relieved to say. I was quite worried about that one when I read it. I’m not superstitious, but I thought to myself: I need to be careful this week. I was really pleased to get through the week without something that wrong happening.”

You’re not the only person to have felt that way, I tell him.

“There was something fun about the whole experience. Horoscopes tend to be so blandly vague, but your predictions were incredibly precise. That made me more interested from the start. I think you’ve got a new career ahead of you.”

Thank you. Anything that pays more than freelance writing would be welcome. Most things do.

“There was no mention of Switzerland, not one I noticed. I was cold, then hot. But, you know, in the usual sort of way, because people are always hot and cold at different times. I did meet some new people, a few of them that week. I can’t really tell yet if any of them are likely to become good friends. Time will tell.”

It will. Better than my powers of prediction can.

“The mathematics thing—that happened too. Again, it was at work. I got my percentages mixed up when we were talking about sales projections.”

Out of a total of 12 predictions for Leigh, I got six and a half correct, seven if I’m feeling generous. Success rate: 58 percent. A good start.

 

Paul Mutton is a thirtysomething web security tester and first-aid volunteer from Trowbridge in the west of England.

My Predictions for Paul

  • Something on the internet will surprise you, which is unusual because these days, nothing on the internet surprises you anymore. On Tuesday you will sit down somewhere, only to find an unexpected object on the chair beneath you.
  • A phone call midweek will cause some problems. It might even be quite distressing.
  • Someone you’ve never met will mistake you for someone else, and for a brief moment you’ll toy with the idea of playing along and pretending to be that person. Then you’ll realize that you’ll never pull off the right accent for long enough. A song you hear will remind you of the 1980s, and you won’t be sure if that’s a good or bad thing.
  • Friday morning will piss you off—something to do with databases. You’ll be invited to a party, but unsure about accepting. You just don’t know those people very well.

One Week Later

I’ve known Paul quite well for a few years, first as a fellow geeky type, then as a fellow photographer. He is one of life’s very clever people, his sharp mind only matched by his sharp wit. I say “fellow” geeky type as if that means we are similarly geeky, but let me make it clear now: Paul is a gazillion times geekier than me. He could out-geek everyone else I know. What he doesn’t know about computer security isn’t worth knowing. Literally, because one of Paul’s jobs is testing the security (or lack thereof) of big corporate networks. He has strong views about online banking.

All of which goes some way to explaining my first prediction for Paul. What amazes me more than anything is that this one turned out to be true. I phone him one evening, and discover that his week was eventful, but not in the way I planned.

“The internet did surprise me, which was unexpected, because when I read your prediction I thought, ‘No, he’s right, nothing surprises me any more,’” he says, in a tone which suggests he was surprised enough to fall off his browser in shock.

What was this astonishing network revelation?

“It was all about Anonymous, and a guy calling himself The Jester, and it looked like his Twitter account had been deleted. It probably doesn’t sound terribly exciting to you, but there was definitely drama unfolding.”

Right. So, you had to be there. In an internet sort of way. But it surprised you.

“Yeah.”

Well that counts as far as I’m concerned. Next!

“On Tuesday I sat on the floor and there was some broken glass next to me. It was plastic, actually, but it was supposed to represent broken glass. I was taking a first aid examination, so it’s there to represent the real-world conditions first aiders sometimes have to work in. You know what I mean.”

I score another point when Paul tells me he did get a phone call that caused problems or distress. Sort of.

“I got a call from the hospital saying could I come in the next morning for surgery that’s been planned for months, but I didn’t expect it to happen then. I’ve been in hospital since, recovering, and just went back to work today.”

Thankfully, the spell in hospital didn’t completely destroy all my remaining predictions.

“Being pissed off by databases is pretty normal for me,” he says. So that counts.

“None of the other things happened, except perhaps the ‘80s music. But then I listen to those songs all the time. “

That counts, too. Which means that out of seven predictions, I got five correct. Success rate: 71 percent. Nice.

 

Gavin Bell is a strategy consultant in his early forties. With a job like that, you might expect him to have a good understanding of predicting the future. He lives in London with his wife, two sons, and a cat.

My Predictions for Gavin

  • Your. Thoughts. Will. Be. Disjointed. At. Times.
  • A cat will surprise you (not your cat). A moment of frustration will be broken by someone saying a particularly amusing joke, and you’ll be so busy wiping the tears of laughter from your eyes that you’ll forget all about the frustrating thing.
  • Something unique to London will remind you of your childhood, and you’ll think with fondness back to those days. A man driving a car will make you angry. You will cut a finger on your left hand. Tuesday will leave you tired and feeling overburdened, but Wednesday will make up for it.
  • Something moving just beyond your vision will make you turn your head sharply to one side, whereupon you will make a new discovery. You will replace a light bulb. You will go to bed early. You will spend some time waiting for other people.

One Week Later

Rather like Leigh Dodds, Gavin is someone whose presence I’ve been aware of on the internet for a long time. He sounds tired over the phone, but I’d expect anyone working as a strategy consultant in London with two kids to sound tired.

“Yes, my thoughts were disjointed. All the usual stuff—chasing clients, organizing childcare, the same stuff that crops up all the time,” he says.

I am pleased. The stuff of life turns out to be the stuff of predictions.

“A cat did surprise me. It was my cat. It’s got kidney disease, unfortunately. Poor old thing. There was something that was very funny, in a tears-of-laughter sort of way. My eldest son wanted to entertain the youngest by putting inappropriate clothes on his head. Then I joined in. It was great. You had to be there, but really, it was.”

As regards the cutting of a finger, it turns out my prediction skills were awry. But Gavin consoles me with this Twilight Zone moment of serendipity:

“Last November, I put my hand through a glass panel at home and severed several tendons. Very nasty. I ended up damaging the nerves and lost the feeling in part of my hand.

“Anyway, just before you called me this evening I was using the mouse on my computer, and noticed some feeling coming back to my fingertips. There’s been no sensation from there for months, and suddenly it’s back, which is great news. You’re the first person I’ve told about that, because it’s only just happened before you called. Not even my wife knows yet. It’s great news, a really good feeling.”

This, I decide, is a message from the cosmos. I didn’t predict Gavin’s hand feeling better, but if I’d predicted his future months before, I would have predicted the severed tendons.

Did I get anything else right?

“I did catch sight of some birds in my peripheral vision. There were no new light bulbs. I did go to bed early, but that was because I went for a 60-mile bike ride, which is enough to make anyone tired. There was lots of waiting for other people. But then, there always is.”

So true.

That’s six out of 11. Success rate: 54 percent.

Is it just me, or am I doing amazingly well so far?

 

Nozlee Samadzadeh is a 24-year-old writer, editor, and information architect whose name will be familiar to regular TMN readers. She lives in New York.

My Predictions for Nozlee

  • You will spend some of this week sleeping at unexpected times of day. You will feel great on Wednesday morning and celebrate by taking up a sport you’ve not done since you were a child.
  • A stranger’s dog will leap up at you and lick you. You will be narrowly missed by a flying object. Before Thursday, someone at work will compliment you and you’ll spend the rest of that day smiling.
  • A bird, or some other winged creature, will spoil your mood on Friday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. A sudden sound in the night will wake you up. You will miss breakfast and be grumpy. The coffee you buy at the weekend will have something funny floating in it, but you won’t get a chance to complain.
  • You will find yourself thinking about owls. You will kneel on something soft.
  • By chance, the number 11 will cause you to double-check your facts, and you’ll discover something you thought you had straight in your mind was incorrect all along, like when people mishear song lyrics as a child and repeat the incorrect versions for decades to come.
  • You will break a cup, but not your favorite cup.

One Week Later

After several failed attempts to connect via Skype, Nozlee and I were forced to communicate via text message. She kicked things off in the way I like best:

“Creepily, you were fairly accurate!”

YES.

“Your predictions came at 4 a.m. my time, so I read them half-asleep on my normal 6 a.m. email check. After that I tried to avoid re-reading lest I influence myself. But immediately I was seeing owls EVERYWHERE.”

HELL YES.

“At the end of the week I went back through and realized that many of the things had come true, even if they were in unconventional ways. So, I did feel great on Wednesday. We had a TMN party on Tuesday, and it was a huge success and I felt great about it. Very late on Tuesday—technically Wednesday morning—I had a conversation with my friend Pitchaya about martial arts (my childhood sport that I abandoned at 18) and performed some taekwondo stances. Does that count as taking up a sport?”

You’ll forgive us if we both have a bit of a squee here.

Of course it does.

“I did sleep at an unexpected time of day. I was up really late on Monday night, and went to bed as the sun came up. There were no strange dogs or flying objects, sadly. And no sudden sounds in the night. I am the world’s soundest sleeper. I got lots of thank-yous for the TMN party. It was well-thrown, people said. That made me very happy.”

And now we come to the owls. Remember that Nozlee is a resident of New York. Not famous for owls. And yet:

“Your owl prediction started to make me really grumpy because at the same time they were EVERYWHERE but also I couldn’t remember any owl instances specifically. It was so weird. That was more like all week, instead of Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. But they were EVERYWHERE. I’d look at my Twitter and someone would make a random reference to an owl. I would walk past the vintage store in my neighborhood and there would be an owl figurine in a window. And there were owls in the book I was reading, I think. They were weirdly just never far from my mind, but for no good reason.”

Even via the medium of text message, I feel a sense of wonder. I predicted owls for Nozlee, and the owls appeared. Not just one, but owls in great numbers. An entire parliament of the things, hounding her across Manhattan. I feel elated. Another success.

Did anything else go right for me (and therefore, almost by default, wrong for Nozlee)?

“I did miss breakfast on Saturday. I didn’t eat anything until 3 p.m. for some reason. It was awful. Fortunately for everyone I was alone, so no witnesses to my hungriness. You get half a point for the alien objects in the coffee. I asked specifically for black coffee at a nice restaurant and they brought me a coffee cup with a spoon in it. Why would I need a spoon for black coffee?”

Yeah. Duh.

“And! I BROKE A CUP!”

You’ll forgive us if we both have a bit of a squee here.

“I handed a plastic cup out of a big stack of plastic cups to a friend at my boyfriend’s birthday party. He kept trying to pour punch into it, before realizing I cracked it on the bottom while giving it to him. SERIOUSLY. Two parties in one week. It was a tiring week. Unfortunately there was no number 11. But I knelt in the softest, greenest grass near the water in Chelsea. So that’s eight out of 13 predictions correct! How do you do it?”

Aha, I say. Aha.

Then I tell her my secret, in little typed whispers.

Eight out of 13 makes a success rate of 61 percent.

 

Thayer Prime is a 32-year-old technologist enabler and mother of two small children. She lives in London.

My Predictions for Thayer

  • People will ask how to spell your name on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. Some of them will still get it wrong. You’re used to it. You will sigh—not about the name thing, about something else.
  • There will be a chain of events that start with something inconsequential and end with something dramatic. None of the links in the chain will be things you could have done anything about; indeed, they won’t appear to be linked at all until they happen.
  • On Friday someone you’ve met will pass you in the street and ignore you, and you won’t be able to tell if it’s because they don’t want to talk to you or if they genuinely didn’t see you. It will be a bright, warm, sunny day, so maybe they’ll be squinting in the sunlight.
  • You will forget about something you’re cooking, resulting in a dish you’re not satisfied with, but everyone sharing it with you will assure you it still tastes great. They will be telling the truth.
  • You will bump your hip on the edge of a table.
  • You will have a small accident with a spoon.
  • Something made of plastic will change your outlook on life, at least for a short time.

One Week Later

My catch-up with Thayer is brief, and held in hushed tones as she snuggles a sleeping child on her lap. Everyone on the UK tech scene knows Thayer, and she knows everyone on the UK tech scene. Her job is to get the right people working in the right jobs at the right time, and it’s something she’s extremely good at. Because she knows them all.

How did I do, Thayer?

“I was laughing when I read your predictions. But I tried to take them seriously.”

“Name? No one got it wrong that week. I looked out for it, of course. But to be honest I’ve got into the habit of spelling my name before people ask—it just saves lots of hassle in the long run. You’re right, people get it wrong all the time.”

Perhaps I was subconsciously seeking easy points with that one. Let’s move on.

“I sigh a lot, so I certainly sighed.”

Now that’s something I couldn’t have known.

“There was no chain of events. But wait—I was born two weeks late, so perhaps your astral powers have been skewed by that. It’s my birthday tomorrow; I’ll be 32. Perhaps that’s the end of a significant chain of events, the chain that brought me from being born two weeks late to being 32 years old. That’s a chain of events.”

Good heavens, she’s good. And 100 percent correct. I’d say.

“Nobody ignored me, not that I noticed. I probably ignored them. That’d be like me. I’m a bit blind; I wear glasses. I could easily do that.”

As a fellow myopic glasses-wearer, I can completely understand and agree with this feeling.

“I didn’t forget any cooking either. I like cooking. But hey, I bruised my hip!”

At last! I was beginning to think this would be a dud.

“I have no idea how I did it. My boyfriend just said to me ‘What’s that on your hip?’ And it was a huge bruise, so I must have bumped it against something. I have two kids under four years old, so it was probably something to do with looking after them. You get used to it.”

Predictions, it seems, are no such thing: They are commands, instructions, cheat sheets for the final examinations of life.

You do. So I’m told. Mine’s nine, and I’m still finding occasional mystery bruises.

“There was no spoon accident.”

Aw.

“Things made of plastic always change my outlook on life, but I can’t think of a specific one. I did get a plastic food cutter, to make teddy-bear-shaped sandwiches for my daughter. She’s three and a half. That changed her outlook on life, I can tell you.”

Yay! I am pleased. Some things turned out right, for Thayer as much as for everyone else.

I ask her what she made of it all.

“All through the week, I thought I had to pay attention a bit more. I wanted it to work out for you, so I was keeping my eyes peeled for things that you’d mentioned, and I took note of things I might not usually pay close attention to.”

So for Thayer, as for Nozlee, the simple existence of my predictions changed their outlook on events. Thayer paid more attention to her surroundings. Nozlee was alert for the owls of New York. Predictions, it seems, are no such thing: They are commands, instructions, cheat sheets for the final examinations of life.

To close, Thayer returns my predictions with one of her own:

“When we finally meet, I’ll do your tarot cards. They’re easy to do. I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but I love seeing people’s reactions when you do their cards for them. They take from it whatever they want to take. A bit like your predictions, I think.”

Out of 10 predictions for Thayer, I got two correct. Three, if we all agree about the chain of events and the two-week time shift. But that’s stretching things a bit too far, I think. Let’s stick at two. Success rate: 20 percent. Oh.

 

After a week of predictions, my success rate figures were 58 percent, 71 percent, 54 percent, 61 percent, and 20 percent. The mean comes to 58 percent, respectably more than half. A hell of a lot better than I expected.

What’s the secret? How did I get so many predictions right, despite no knowledge of (or belief in) the myth of clairvoyant powers?

Easy—I made shit up. I sat in a café, with a particularly good coffee and a fresh almond croissant, looked out of the window at the rain, and used my imagination. Sure, I cheated where I could. I knew how old my victims were, I knew where they lived, what their family circumstances were like. You don’t need to know much before you can start making some fairly broad assumptions, and from those, get some fairly broad positive results.

Thayer’s bruised hip, for example. She has two small kids. I’ve spent time with small kids, I know what it’s like. You get bruises in places you didn’t know you could bruise. Kids are hard work.

Other predictions were more of a gamble. Paul being surprised by the internet—that was a prediction I expected to regret. But it paid off.

Then again, there were the owls. Nozlee noticed owls because I told her mind to look out for them. The owls of New York were likely no more numerous that week than any other, but Nozlee was seeing them for the first time.

I can see your future, for the same reason that you can see mine. All you need is a strong cup of coffee and enough time to imagine something interesting. It will happen, or it won’t—either way, no one pays attention because no one told them to. Our predictions (58 percent of them, anyway) are merely echoes of luck bouncing off the interconnected cosmos; the rest is chaos. Want to see into the future? Just look in the right direction, beyond your coffee cup. The universe is chaotic enough for anything, and everything. Including the watchful eyes of owls.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Giles Turnbull finds it hard to write a meaningful bio, despite being a professional writer for some 15 years now. That’s horrifying. It’s frightening. You can visit him online at gilest.org. More by Giles Turnbull