Nine years before the emergence and outbreak of the coronavirus, almost COVID-like situations were depicted in the movie Contagion, which was released in the year 2011. Similarly, a Simpsons episode titled "The City of New York vs Homer Simpson" that originally aired in the year 1997 features a plot that eerily mirrors the 9/11 tragedy in some ways.
There are many other fictional incidents from various books, movies, and TV shows that almost seem to predict what later happened in real life, and many of them involve science and technology. Consider the early depictions of futuristic tech like AI, robots, and virtual reality, for example.
Predictive programming is a theory devised by conspiracy theorists, it claims that the government or groups of elites are using fictional movies or books as a mass mind control tool to make the population more accepting of planned future events. So, how plausible is this theory? Does the media we consume make us more likely to calmly tolerate any changes that those in charge wish to make, or to accept things that appear bizarre?
What is predictive programming?
Predictive programming is not a scientific theory, but a notion developed by contrarians and conspiracists who believe that the world is run by a totalitarian government of "lizard people", or a powerful evil agency that fakes large-scale events to manipulate people’s opinion and further increase their dominance.
Conspiracy theorists claim that in order to prevent any sudden resistance or hostile reaction from the general public, the supreme totalitarian organization keeps adding subtle references to its planned future events in popular media so that when the event happens for real, the public is already mentally prepared and receptive to the new developments in the society.
This notion was first described and proposed by conspiracist Alan Watt, who defines predictive programming as “a subtle form of psychological conditioning provided by the media to acquaint the public with planned societal changes to be implemented by our leaders. If and when these changes are put through, the public will already be familiarized with them and will accept them as natural progressions, thus lessening possible public resistance and commotion.”
Supporters of the predictive programming theory, somewhat illogically, suggest that the government also employs this technique so that people don’t lose trust in the already established system. They claim that first, the government plans a complex situation, then hides references of these in media so that people become somewhat accustomed to the feelings caused by these situations, and finally, when the situation actually does arise, the people will look to the government for solutions.
The conspiracists also often argue that, although governments already have the solution to the problem they created in the first place, they deliberately wait for the right time to implement the solution in order to cause the most damage to people's ability to think for themselves. Some believers even claim that predictive programming is actually a highly advanced form of AI used for the psychological conditioning of the masses. Needless to say, these types of arguments are filled with logical fallacies, doctored footage and documents, outright lies, and a complete lack of proper scientific research or rigor. So, why do some people still believe them?
Psychologists and researchers consider incidents of predictive programming as either coincidences or likely scenarios based on real research. For example, it is not that difficult to imagine a scenario where an airplane is used as a weapon and write a book or movie with this as a plot, so when a similar event occurs in real life, conspiracists claim the earlier book or movie was actually a prediction. This tendency to view events as more predictable than they really are is called hindsight bias and is a common psychological response to a traumatic event.
A belief in predictive programming may also result from framing bias. This is when someone makes a decision or forms a belief because of the specific way information is presented to them, rather than on the objective facts. Many people come to a belief in conspiracy theories through listening, reading, or watching influencers or media personalities that they have come to trust because they seem familiar, rather than because they have been demonstrated to be truthful. Whereas, if such ideas are presented in a different way or by someone they do not trust, the believer may be more likely to come to a different conclusion about the information.
False facts also play a role in anchoring, where people use pre-existing information as a reference point for all subsequent conclusions. This is why, for example, belief in one conspiracy theory often leads to a belief in more and more conspiracy theories, even if the subsequent beliefs defy all logic and common sense.
Some reports also suggest that people may believe in predictive programming due to pareidolia, a generalized term for seeing patterns in random data. Face pareidolia, where people see faces in random objects or patterns of light and shadow is a common phenomenon. Some common examples are seeing a likeness of Jesus in a piece of toast or an image of a bird in a cloud. Once considered a symptom of psychosis, it actually arises from an error in visual perception.
However, researchers at the University of Sydney have found that our brains detect and respond emotionally to these illusory faces the same way they do to real human faces. If the same holds true with patterns of data that don't really exist, this could explain why some people tend to have an emotional response to these patterns.
Research published in 2015 by Dr. Rob Brotherton, a psychologist at Goldsmiths University of London, found that people who are prone to boredom are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Previous studies have also linked boredom to feelings of mild paranoia.
However, when it comes to technological innovations like face recognition systems, touchscreen, microchips, and self-driving cars, science fiction has often served as an inspiration for technological breakthroughs.
Perhaps it's the life that imitates art?
Martin Cooper, the designer of the Motorola DynTAC 8000x which was hailed as the world’s first mobile phone, claimed that he was inspired by the pocket-size wireless communicator devices featured in the 1966’s popular TV show Star Trek.
Today, companies like Apple and Microsoft invite sci-fi writers to lecture on topics that highlight the close relationship between science-fiction and real-world technological development. This relationship between sci-fi and real life is often termed design fiction and the sessions on design fiction are aimed at inspiring engineers and concept developers to come up with new and revolutionary product ideas.
Cory Doctorow, who is the author of the sci-fi novel Little Brother, lectures on design fiction to companies like Tesco. He told Smithsonian Magazine, “I really like design fiction or prototyping fiction. There is nothing weird about a company doing this, commissioning a story about people using a technology to decide if the technology is worth following through on. It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building”.
Most popular examples of predictive programming
Perhaps the oldest example of predictive programming is found in Morgan Robertson’s novel The Wreck of the Titan or Futility that was published in the year 1898. The book tells the story of a glorious ship named Titan that is believed to be unsinkable but during its voyage in the month of April in the North Atlantic ocean, the ship hits an iceberg and drowns along with the 2,500 passengers on board.
About 14 years later, RMS Titanic met the same fate in reality as that of Futility’s Titan. On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank in North Atlantic with 1500 passengers after colliding with an iceberg. Apart from the month, location, and conditions in which the ships crashed, the dimensions and speed of the fictional Titan and the real Titanic were also found to be almost similar. However, a large number of ships have been sunk by icebergs, so it is hardly surprising that both someones would use it as the subject of a novel, and that it would occur in real life.
1960s animated sitcom The Jetsons successfully predicted various modern-day technologies such as flat-screen televisions, video calling, smartwatches, robotic vacuum cleaners, drones, 3D printed food, etc., although many of these ideas had been floating around in the sci-fi world for some time. Demon Seed, a sci-fi film released in the year 1977, depicts smart home features like AI-controlled door locks, lights, and alarm systems. Similarly, self-driving cars were featured in the 1990’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone starred film Total Recall.
Some argue that The Simpsons predicted Trump's presidency in their episode "Bart to the Future" which originally aired in the year 2000. However, that episode originally referred to Trump's attempt to run as a Reform party candidate in 2000. Perhaps more prescient was in Episode 8 of Season 6, when a bully Dolph writes the memo “Beat up Martin” on his Apple Newton PDA. However, Newton translates the text to “Eat up, Martha,” a reference to the PDA’s poor handwriting recognition. It has been reported that, years later, when Apple was working on the iPhone keyboard, employees would quote, “Eat up, Martha” to each other to signal the importance of getting the autocorrect feature right.
No doubt some examples of predictive programming sound intriguing. Perhaps this is the real reason why they are highly popular among conspiracists and hoaxers — they are useful in attracting a paying audience and building a following. However, it is also important to keep in mind that scientists correct each other’s blind spots, glitches, biases, and faults; conspiracy theorists do not.