In one of my improv group’s signature games, three lined-up players — one sitting, one kneeling, one standing, all flailing arms — purport to be a single omniscient being called the Oracle. The Oracle can answer any question, past, present — or future — by speaking one word per head until it reaches a vaguely coherent answer. It’s hardly groundbreaking theater, but its gimmickry is enduringly popular. Requesting a second show, one of our employers specifically asked us to repeat “the part of the show where the performers look like an octopus.” Obscure by definition, the future fascinates even at its most clearly contrived.
The octopus reference recalls another many-limbed seer: Paul the Octopus, whose perfect record foretelling Germany’s record in the 2010 FIFA World Cup earned him accolades, death threats from rival teams, and even a bizarre condemnation from Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Paul’s vastly improbable feat — random selection has only a 0.39 percent chance of achieving the same result — led to a number of theories about horizontal lines and tentacle chemoreceptors. But ultimately, the mystery followed the creature to its grave. Even our language betrays our mystical bias when it comes to clairvoyance — everywhere, Paul was said to have “predicted” (i.e., “spoken before the event”) the winner, rather than “chosen the box with the winning flag on it” (which is what he actually did.) Paul’s celebrity status, persisting in memorials after his death, may seem disproportional to his societal contributions. But consider the pomp and circumstance surrounding Punxsutawney’s celebrated and pampered Phil the Groundhog, a rodent whose success rate since 1887 has been significantly worse than random: 39 percent. The groundhog, Oracle and octopus all claim a superhuman predictive ability, one whose lineage stretches back to Delphic sybils and Dodona oaks.
But this week, the most interesting forecasts are coming from an altogether less esoteric source: gamblers on the online prediction market Intrade. On the website, bets are placed on the chance that a given event will or will not occur within a set time frame. Over the past decade, Intrade has scored some notable successes, such as its correct prediction of every state’s electoral vote winner in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. It has also embroiled itself in some unsavory controversies, like an abortive Department of Defense attempt to trade in “terror futures” forecasting upcoming attacks.
But this month, Intrade has become a sort of geopolitical shooting gallery for a lineup of Muslim leaders. Topping the list is the contract “Muammar al-Gaddafi to no longer be leader of Libya before midnight ET 31 Dec 2011,” which is trading at 84.1 — that is, Gaddafi’s ouster has an 84.1 percent chance of occurring according to those participating in the contract. In Bahrain, Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa has an only slightly more reassuring 60.1 percent chance over the same timeframe, while Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh is hovering just over even, at 56 percent. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini is sitting pretty at 17 percent, beating out his mollusk-hating president, whose odds are at 24 and rising.
For all its clinical economic terminology, there is a grim voyeurism about this statistical deathwatch — an aura that does not attend the site’s Oscar buzz (“King’s Speech” all the way) or seasonal forecast for snow in Central Park (definitely not over 70 inches). I can just imagine President Saleh scanning the digital crystal ball every morning, dreading the green upward arrow that charts the market value of his fate.
Of course, there have always been markets to price risk: gold and oil futures fluctuate in response to political events and insurance rates rise for every ship shuttling past the pirate coast of Somalia. And the gamblers on Intrade presumably have less to lose than the harried-looking autocrats whose futures they barter. The accessibility and publicity of their predictions, however, seems to beg a question of observer effect: could these bets influence the outcomes at stake?
Knowing that a savvy selection of traders have given him at most ten more months in power, how does Al-Khalifa of Bahrain react? Does he succumb to the oracular tide or, Macbeth-like, seek to dodge the prophecies? Classical literature is replete with tragic figures who try to evade the harbingers of doom. Those oracles, reliant on ambiguity and allusion, are worlds away from the harsh calculations of online prediction markets. Yet they cater to the same yearning: to grasp the future.
Where the ancient and modern diviners differ is in accessibility. It is no longer the enclosed cavern of the Pythia, but the 24-hour Internet information highway; no longer a privileged priestess with her privileged interpreter, but a democratized prophetic landscape in which anyone — commentators, news outlets, dissidents and autocrats — can watch the future unfold in the dual time zones of real news and predictive forecasts.
The future remains inscrutable, no matter what our level of technology — ecstatic trance, animal interlocutor, digital market statistics, investigative journalists. It is our relationship to these communal horoscopes that changes, whether they foretell the fall of kings or the rise of springtime. Today, divining the future is accessible and interactive, in the media and the market. As we sift the array of global prophecies, and act, buy, vote or rebel with them in mind, we become the agents of prophetic fulfillment.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.