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The Illustrated Men and Women

by on December 5, 2011

When Ray Bradbury created William Philippus Phelps (the Illustrated Man) he must have had in mind the terrible price one would have to pay for being able to foresee the future. In order to stay with the circus William had an old woman tattoo artist cover him with illustrations. To his horror each of the tattoos would come alive and predict the future. Ironically in Bradbury’s story the old artist had her eyes sewn shut thus was blind but still had predictive powers.  To his continual dismay William had to live with the isolation that comes from being able to see peoples’ fates.

In Mary Shelly’s short story the Mortal Immortal the protagonist drinks an elixir that appears to extend his life forever but he can never be sure that he is indeed immortal.  He seems to live in the same kind of twilight zone in which William has to exist. In both stories what appears to be a gift is in reality a curse. In a great episode of the X-Files the only thing that Peter Boyle could predict for people was how they would die. Imagine his reception.

To some degree it seems to me that Vannevar Bush, J. C. R Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Ted Nelson, Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, Marshall McLuhan, Bill Viola and all the others, each in articulating their vision of the future, had to pay quite a price for their gifts. They unhinged society as it was known. What isolation did they suffer?  Were they run out of town regularly like William? BTW the tattoo on his back predicted his own death from which he had to continually run. I think visionaries experience a substantial opportunity cost for their ability to see the adjacent possible. The advantage for our friends in the NMR was that their predictions played out slowly and systematically. They could self correct. We have no such advantage. If somebody doesn’t like this post I will know immediately. Things are moving fast indeed.

I think these visionaries were daunted by a Polish proverb

Wszystjie sare czasy sa dobre; All old times are good

Chuck Dziuban (Papuga)

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