The long-distance telegraph began with a portent—Samuel F. B. Morse, standing in the chambers of the US Supreme Court on May 24,1844, wiring his assistant Alfred Vail in Baltimore a verse from the Old Testament: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.” The first thing we ask of any new connection is how it began, and from that origin can’t help trying to augur its future.
The first telephone call in history, made by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant on March 10, 1876, began with a bit of a paradox. “Mr. Watson, come here; I want to see you”—a simultaneous testament to its ability and inability to overcome physical distance.
The cell phone began with a boast—Motorola’s Martin Cooper walking down Sixth Avenue on April 3, 1973, as Manhattan pedestrians gawked, calling his rival Joel Engel at AT&T: “Joel, I’m calling you from a cellular phone. A real cellular phone: a handheld, portable, real, cellular phone.”
Take Hollywood, for instance: Among the ten highest-grossing movies of 1981, only two were sequels. In 1991, it was three. In 2001, it was five. And in 2011, eight of the top ten highest-grossing films were sequels. In fact, 2011 set a record for the greatest percentage of sequels among major studio releases. Then 2012 immediately broke that record; the next year would break it again. In December 2012, journalist Nick Allen looked ahead with palpable fatigue to the year to come:
Audiences will be given a sixth helping of X-Men plus Fast and Furious 6, Die Hard 5, Scary Movie 5 and Paranormal Activity 5. There will also be Iron Man 3, The Hangover 3, and second outings for The Muppets, The Smurfs, GI Joe and Bad Santa.
He made the assumption that the moment when he encountered the Berlin Wall wasn’t special—that it was equally likely to be any moment in the wall’s total lifetime. And if any moment was equally likely, then on average his arrival should have come precisely at the halfway point (since it was 50% likely to fall before halfway and 50% likely to fall after). More generally, unless we know better we can expect to have shown up precisely halfway into the duration of any given phenomenon. And if we assume that were arriving precisely halfway into something’s duration, the best guess we can make for how long it will last into the future becomes obvious: exactly as long as it’s lasted already. Gott saw the Berlin Wall eight years after it was built, so his best guess was that it would stand for eight years more. (It ended up being twenty.)
As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true.