If you're sitting somewhere peacefully in Vancouver reading this column, at least one of the predictions of the infamous Web Bot Project has turned out to be wrong. That would be the one calling for a massive Pacific Northwest/Vancouver area earthquake on Dec. 12, 2008.
For those readers blissfully unaware of the Web Bot Project, it's a "spider" program that has been trolling the Internet since 1997. Made public by George Ure of Urban Survival, the bot compiles billions of bytes worth of Internet postings and other public information online. Then it crunches all the data using something called "asymmetric language trend analysis" to make predictions about the future.
You can think of the Web Bot Project as a high-geek application of the idea behind James Surowiecki's seminal 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds. In this case, the bot aggregates online chatter and uses it to guess at future events. And if its creators and enthusiasts are to be believed, it even works on occasion. They insist the bot predicted the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and, more recently, the decline of the U.S. dollar and general financial mayhem worldwide.
What interests me more than the bot's accuracy (of which I'm skeptical), is the relentless negativity of its projections. According to the bot, the future is always bleak and steadily worsening.
Consider the bot's predictions for the world in 2009. A brutally cold winter. Some kind of natural disaster in the spring, location and specifics undetermined. And most troubling for Vancouverites (having been so far spared the massive earthquake), a "global coastal event" that will put low-lying territory around the world underwater.
Still, I'm not worried.
Of course, it may be tempting to dismiss all this doomsday talk as the ravings of the online lunatic classes. (Take the assertions that the bot also sees the end of world coming on Dec. 21, 2012. Feel free to Google that date if you have a week to read the resulting hits.) But my rationale for trying to remain optimistic isn't the belief that these people are crazy.
Instead, I think people should take some heart registering other reasons why crowd wisdom can fail, according to Mr. Surowiecki's analysis. Crowds prone to poor decision making and weak forecasting ability include those that are highly emotional and/or highly imitative. Emotional crowds easily become hysterical. Imitative crowds tend to uncritically adopt and relay, and thereby duplicate, the information and opinions given to them by others
And as we've all experienced in our own e-mail inboxes or surfing the blogosphere, the Internet is a deep ocean of rashly emotional material that has been mindlessly copied and redistributed.
So no need to run to the hills just yet. A "global coastal event" may or may not put Davie Street underwater in 2009. But the idea of such an event is definitely the kind of thing online chattering classes will pick up and repeat, making galaxies of words through which the asymmetric language trend analysis engines will trace their ghostly and quite possibly meaningless lines.
Of course, another way of looking at all this is that the truly optimistic among us - those least likely to believe or repeat these endlessly bleak speculations - are far too busy living and enjoying life in the real world to devote much time to chattering about their disbelief online, thereby balancing out the picture.
On that note, I wish you all a prosperous and optimistic 2009. I won't be commenting in these pages on the year as it passes, as this column will be my last one. This year holds new projects for me, including editing a novel whose first draft is just complete. It's called The Blue Light Project, and it concerns itself with a massive street art project that brightens a city during difficult and pessimistic times.
A last bit of business before I sign off. Of all the columns I've written here, I left only one story incomplete. That was about sculptor Robert Chaplin, whose Lego travelling chess sets caught my eye at about Canada Day this past year. It had been Mr. Chaplin's long-standing dream to meet chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. And since I'd met Mr. Kasparov before, I put them in touch. They met in Toronto this past fall and played chess on a Lego chess board that Mr. Chaplin had brought to give Mr. Kasparov. I never did hear exactly how the game unfolded, although perhaps we can get a sense of it from the one piece of advice Mr. Kasparov gave Mr. Chaplin during the game. The grandmaster said: "Sorry, but you can't castle out of check."
Timothy Taylor is a novelist
and journalist based in Vancouver. His latest book is the novel Story House.