There’s been much ado in recent days over DARPA’s notion of setting up a futures market where people could speculate on the likelihood of geopolitical events: terrorism, rebellion, death, and so on. The oscillating waves of opinion were kind of amusing: initial puzzlement, followed by reflexive horror and denunciation, with recently a few quiet voices saying “Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea.” This note is to point out that the idea goes back at least as far as John Brunner’s 1975 scifi novel Shockwave Rider, which some of you might enjoy reading for its own sake.

John Brunner · He wrote some other good books including Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. The idea-ware in Shockwave Rider is good, in some respects astoundingly prescient for 1975; aside from poorly-considered adoption of some of the feebler notions in Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. The plot is pretty lame, veering at the end into children’s-crusade starry-eyedness. But that’s OK, because the characters and dialogue and so on are pretty good, which has saved more than a few lame plotlines.

Summary: The world has become Net-centric. Nicky Halflinger, uberhacker on the run, dodges, outwits, and generally codes circles around the evil forces of corporate/state nastiness, has a romance, meets some cool intelligent dogs, and brings Peace, Love, and Understanding to the world. What geek could resist it?

Delphi · What this has to do with the DARPA news story is that in the world of Shockwave Rider, such an ideas marketplace is all over the place. It’s called “Delphi,” after the oracle, because, the story goes, aggregate predictions by the populace at large, backed by their own money and expressed in the equivalent of stock prices, are highly accurate predictors of the future. Delphi stock tickers are in public places and available from every net access point. Our hero Nicky can of course make a handsome living just by playing the Delphi market, because that’s the kind of guy he is.

So could it work? We’ve all heard about the political stock markets that various institutions (mostly Universities) run at election time. I’ve been told that these things are good predictors of election outcomes. But then again, the guy telling me was a horny entrepreneur who had a business plan based on using them to predict the outcomes of certain business transactions.

Anyhow, you can count me among those who thought that this DARPA thing was obviously worth trying. It wouldn’t cost much, it might be fun, and if it could predict a few bad things before they happen, we might be able to keep a few of them from happening.


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July 31, 2003
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