LongBets.org is a website that launched in 2002 and specialised in long term predictions. Rather than short-term and inconsequential bets like which team would win the World Series, it asked significant questions like whether or not we’d have self-driving cars in 20 years. It got a lot of press coverage at the time, which led to a lot of content on the site. And then twenty years passed.
I figured I’d go poking around to see what I could learn about how LongBets was doing two decades later. Would it still be actively updated? What predictions came true? Was the site even running anymore? My curiosity brought me to the edge of a rabbit hole and then I fell in. Here’s what I found.
APIs are the way developers pull data from one website to another. So a Twitter API would let you see what’s trending, signing into an app with Gmail requires a Gmail API, and your car might use a Google Maps API to help you find the nearest bubble tea. APIs are how information is shared, but Longbets doesn’t have one. Which presents a challenge for someone like me trying to get information out of it.
I ended up writing a simple script to download all the pages of the site, then I wrote a bunch of other scripts to help me categorise them. Work like this is fun. Like an archeologist digging for fossils, each thing you do gets you closer to understanding what you’re dealing with. Soon I had a spreadsheet that I could analyse, and interesting details began to emerge as I polished the data.
The site has 895 predictions, but it turns out that a whopping 532 of them have been deleted from the site. That leaves us with 346 open predictions and 17 closed ones. But as I started working through them, I noticed something unsettling: some of the predictions haven’t been updated in years.
The oldest example is a prediction from 2004 that asserts “by 2006 a single-answer technology other than Google will emerge as the favoured answering service and will remain in power for at least two years.” That’s a prediction that should have been settled a full 16 years ago, yet it’s still open on the site.
I spent some time poking around to figure out who was in charge. The site was originally founded in 2002, and YouTube has a few scattered links to old lectures and discussions about the project. But not much else. I fired off an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, the only contact information I could find on the site.
Hello! I’ve enjoyed longbets for a long time and I wonder if there’s an API or other way to access all the information in it. For example, I’d love to see all bets that have been resolved so far, but I’m not sure if the website shows that.
After three weeks, I hadn’t gotten a response. But I did notice new content was being posted to the site. Looking further, I saw no presence on social media, and nothing I could see when I searched for information on GitHub and StackOverflow. That meant someone was updating the site, but quietly. And with some pretty big gaps. Very odd.
The 17 closed bets seemed to be the best chance for finding something interesting, so I checked there next. Is anyone home?
[Editorial note: at the very end of this issue, right as I was getting ready to publish it, I learned more. It turns out there is someone home, but I learned that too late for those insights to be much more than a footnote. Check it out at the end!]
Here’s a summary of every closed bet that was proven right:
2002: Blogs will rank higher than the New York Times in search by 2007
2002: Video-on-demand will be successful by 2010
2002: No one will will describe all the the forces of nature by 2020
2002: The US won’t be the leader in pollution by 2022
2003: The cost of energy will rise from 2003-2005
2003: The quality of life on earth will improve by 2013
2008: The S&P 500 will beat hedge funds by 2017
2018: Net Neutrality plans will not hit 30% usage in America by 2021
2019: Bitcoin will go up by 2021
2020: Covid will kill fewer than 10 million by 2022
And here’s everything that was proven wrong:
2002: Russia will be a world-leader in software development by 2012
2002: The Red Sox won’t win the World Series before the US Men’s Soccer team
2003: A Democrat will be president by 2005
2005: Cars will log fewer miles in 2010 than 2005
2007: US political parties won’t have conventions by 2012
2008: By 2018 the Euro won’t be used in France, Italy, and Germany
2008: The Large Hadron Collider will destroy Earth by 2018
2008: A major sports team will have a woman on it by 2020
2011: The original URL for this bet on Longbets will no longer exist by 2021
I see some interesting trends here. First, the optimists won more often than the pessimists. The two most clear examples of this is one person saying the earth will be destroyed by the Large Hadron Collider and another person saying everything will be better across all factors of human existence. That one was proven true! And I have some opinions about it, so let’s dive in.
We spend a lot of time in 2022 fretting about things heading in a bad direction. (This will still be true in 2032 and 2042 of course) Of course there are definitely a lot of things going wrong. But there are a lot of metrics we can point to for an objective glimpse of how life on earth is going, and that’s what this bet aimed to do. Here’s the original text of the prediction:
Over the next ten years, we will make measurable global progress in all five areas of the human condition: food, access to clean water, health, education, and the price of energy.
Notably, the predictor Patrick Burns was so confident in his prediction that he set up a unique proposal for the bet. He offered a big list of metrics per measurement and allowed his challenger to pick any one they wanted. Steve B Kurtz picked the five metrics he was most sure would go in a bad direction over time. They were:
And from 2003 until 2013, none came true. Which is a pretty big deal. Not just that the news was good in a world that feels full to the brim with bad news, but that none of those indicators went the way of the pessimists.
The result might be surprising, if this isn’t the sort of thing you study. It might sound suspicious if you think that billionaires and big business control everything, governments are failing their people, and everything is going wrong at all times. But that worldview just isn’t supported by the facts.
Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people in extreme poverty went down by 1.1 billion, even as the world added 1.9 billion people. And while this was happening, more people got access to clean water, (from 62.8% to 68.4%) adult literacy rose (from 82% to 85%), GDP per unit of energy use increased (7.1 to 8.1), and the number of malnourhsed went down too. (I couldn’t find numbers from 2003 to 2013, but it was about 15% in 2000-2004 and about 8.9% in 2019).
It’s easy to let numbers like that roll over you and not really absorb their meaning. But imagine a single person in extreme poverty. Imagine a whole family unable to care for themselves and each of them dying from starvation as a result. Now imagine that doomed family being able to get access to clean water, a microloan, and better healthcare for the first time. That would be an amazing story, enough for the best memoir or Hollywood biography you’ve ever seen. And the world did that 138,000 times yesterday, the day before, and every single day for the last 25 years in a row. Our brains can’t even comprehend how objectively, demonstrably, clearly good this story is if it happens once, and we did it billions of times as a global community.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still big challenges, of course. But it means we are capable of tackling huge challenges and succeeding at them. To me, the fact that very few people know about this good news is a bigger issue than the challenges themselves. Because if we think everything is doomed, we’re not going to try as hard. And then we really will be doomed. But if we think change is possible, then we’ll make an effort. And things will continue to get better.
So I feel pretty strongly about this topic. But it’s convenient to look back at predictions and talk about how obvious they were in hindsight. So next I looked at LongBets predictions for next year, 2023, so I could make some predictions of my own. It’ll be interesting to see which ones I get right or wrong.
2008: Roe v. Wade will not celebrate a 50th anniversary
2012: People will be watching more live video than pre-recorded
2012: Aether Physics will replace General Relativity and Quantum Theory
2018: More people will own crypto than stocks
2018: The Equal Rights Amendment will pass
2018: At least one FIFA match will have more VR viewers than non-VR
2018: Heath care costs will be at least 20% higher for key US companies
2020: Only 1% of the Australian population will be infected with COVID
2021: Life expectancy will reach “longevity escape velocity”
2021: Boko Haram will attempt a coup
I do think Roe v Wade (abortion rights in the United States) are under attack, but I’d say it’s a toss-up. I say it will be overturned, but I don’t feel strongly about it. We know pre-recorded video is more common than live, Aether Physics is not on the cusp of replacing everything we know about physics, and more people own stocks than crypto. Hold that thought. Because as I was working through my predictions, something happened that struck me as more interesting than the predictions themselves.
While logging my predictions, I noticed someone named Jason Galbraith on another prediction site called PredictIt.org. His most recent comment had predicted the Republicans would only have 46 seats in the Senate, when most people are predicting 52 or 53. So he’s not just going to be a little bit wrong, he’s going to be epically, brutally, insanely wrong. To his credit, he took back his very bad prediction and instead was betting on Nikki Haley as the 2024 GOP nominee, which is less bad. But his confidence jumped out at me just as much as the inaccuracy of his predictions. He kept talking about “plowing all his winnings” into these long shot bets, which I found odd. But I moved on.
An hour later, I found another Jason Galbraith on Longbets.org, and discovered that it’s the same guy with the bold and incorrect predictions! It turns out both sites use Disqus as forum software, and Jason uses the same account across both. So it was interesting seeing him actively posting on two different prediction sites. Are there serial predictors? Do people make this their hobby? Is this a subculture I don’t know about? I wanted to learn more.
Over at Reddit there are forums for lots of different things. I tried visiting /r/predictions and was faced with a prediction that said
The CCP will take over Taiwan with cyber attack that takes control over 80% of the electric grid. Holding the electric grid hostage, they'll force Taiwan to invite them into their government. They'll shut down power to entire cities for days on end.
Which seemed a bit … far-fetched. So I looked at the description for the forum and it said
This is a place to make your predictions utilizing methods like scrying, clairvoyance, prophetic dreams, remote viewing, automatic writing, numerology, astrology, all forms of divination. This is not for marking your words or for a "called it" type of thing. There are subreddits for those things. This is for extrasensory or esoteric predictions. In order to provide a safe place for users to practice their work, this sub is private.
Private? Then how could I see it? A bit of digging and I discovered the forum was taken public a few years prior. In the announcement post, someone asked what happened to “the old guy” and was told he had retired. Interesting. But as fascinated as I was by a forum for dream-state predictions, I was more curious about actual predictions.
Fortunately I’ve learned about some cool tips and tricks for navigating reddit. One of my favourite tools is a way to find what subs share users with other. For example, a search for “seattle” tells us similar subs are “seattlewa,” “Seahawks,” and “skiing.” So I figured a search for predictions would give me a bunch of good prediction sites, but that’s not what happened. The top result for people who read /r/predictions was for a sub for a far-right comedian. The second was for weed. The third was an anti-QAnon forum. Fascinating in its own way (far right, anti-far right, and weed is a notable range) but not the answers I was looking for. So I went back to reddit’s normal search instead.
If you do a search for “predictions” you see a few auto-complete results like
If you instead search for prediction, singular, you get some new ones like
And if you do a search for longbets, it turns out there’s a community with 34 people on it. And it’s inspired by the original site! Unfortunately, the most recent post is 2 years ago, and before that 6 years ago. So I had found another place that had been abandoned, which seems to be a theme. But 7 years ago, someone linked to a prediction site called FutureTimeline.net. That site is still active, and in fact it has its own reddit community with 1.8k people. Promising! So off I went.
Welcome to FutureTimeline.net and our official subreddit. Here we discuss future predictions – from the near future, to the far future and beyond. We also post the latest breakthroughs in science and technology, as well as relevant political, economic and cultural changes that have the potential to shape the course of history. Suggestions for the timeline can be discussed, researched and voted on.
The site and reddit seemed pretty cool, so I wrote the person who kicked it all off. I said
Hello William! My name is Jon Bell and I write a little zine/newsletter called Near Future Field Notes. My most recent issue is exploring longbets.org after 20 years to analyse the predictions, see if the site is still active, etc
It turns out the site is still being updated, but only barely. That led me to your website and sub, which feels a fair bit more active. I'm in New Zealand, so pretty much the worst timezone for chatting with London, but would you be open to a 30 minute video chat or phone call? I'd like to get your insights into predictions, communities of futurists, that sort of thing. And then our interview would be part of my next issue. Thoughts?
A few days later, I got a response offered to chat over email.
Hi Jon! Thanks for your interest in FutureTimeline :) For personal reasons, I don't normally do video chats or phone interviews. But I'm more than happy to answer any questions you have by email. I can be contacted here: https://www.futuretimeline.net/contact.htm I look forward to hearing from you. Cheers
I followed up, but it was another dead-end. I don’t think William was trying to dodge me, I just think I got stuck in his spam filter. I’d like to chat with him again sometime, but in the meantime I figured I’d get back into the predictions. What was predicted for 2021 on Longbets.org?
2011: A commercial airliner will be destroyed by terrorists via hacking
2016: Ten times more seafarers will die at sea than land
2019: Facebook Libra will result in less than 1.8 trillion in payments
2019: The US stock market will be in recession by 2021
A mixed bag here. Libra failed outright, and the US stock market had experienced a recession by 2021, but it was also at an all time high. No commercial airliner went down because of a hack, and I’m not sure exactly what happened with seafarers. I’m not even sure how to fact check that one.
I had planned to analyse the 2020 predictions, but an interesting search result caught my eye as I was double-checking numbers. An article called "Long Bets as Charitable Giving Opportunity” popped up and reported some of the same things I’ve been seeing. I could have saved a lot of time if I had found this article before I started my journey!
The article compared LongBets to other prediction and betting sites, and decided there are too many flaws in the site to take it seriously. The summary at the top of the post states:
I evaluate use of Long Bets as a charitable giving opportunity by winning bets and directing the earnings to a good charity by making forecasts for all available bet opportunities and ranking them by expected value after adjusting for opportunity cost (defined by expected return of stock market indexing) and temporally discounting. I find that while there are ~41 open bets which I expect have positive expected value if counter-bets were accepted, few or none of my counter-bets were accepted. In general, LB has had almost zero activity for the past decade, and has not incentivized much forecasting. This failure is likely caused by its extreme restriction to even-odds bets, no return on bet funds (resulting in enormous opportunity costs), and lack of maintenance or publicity. All of these issues are highly likely to continue barring extensive changes to Long Bets, and I suggest that Long Bets should be wound down.
He found many of the same issues I noticed.
I had originally considered bundling up the LongBets data so I could post it on Github, in the interest of storing the information for the long haul. But after reading (well, skimming) this analysis and comparing it to my own, I wondered if it really mattered. Is the world a demonstrably better place if LongBets exists, considering how outdated it is? Or, to put it another way, is it worse to have a misleading site that’s barely updated but without admitting that it’s been mostly abandoned? It got me thinking about the goals of sites like these. Not just prediction sites, but all projects on the internet. What’s the point? And how we can make them last longer? Is it worth it? What would make it worth it?
I love making predictions. Not only to go through the process of trying to understand the future, but also to measure how I did. And I feel the same way about others. When things like Covid of the Russian-Ukrainian war occur, everyone has an opinion, but talk is cheap. I don’t want a shotgun approach to understanding current events, where out of thousand predictions from a thousand strangers someone is bound to be right.
No, I want to see people who have been right in the past so I can factor that in next time. And I want to spot the people who keep getting things wrong so I can safely ignore them. I have an example of myself on both sides of this divide. It’s really fun to go back and read how right I was … and also how wrong I was. Because in both cases I provided clear rationale for my predictions, and made sure they were easy to rate later.
In the first prediction, I said Joe Biden would be president and got things almost perfectly right. In the second, I reversed myself and explained why Joe Biden couldn’t win, which of course was perfectly wrong. But in reading the predictions back-to-back, you can see the exact moment I got it wrong. Which is really interesting!
Let's take a look by going back to January 18, 2020. Before Covid, before the Democratic primaries, and during a time when it seemed like Trump might end up being president for life.
Let’s kick things off by talking about my motivations for writing a post like this. It’s not to be right, it’s not to convince you to vote for a particular person, it’s not to sell a book. I have a single goal for writing this, which is to hold myself accountable for my predictions, which will probably be wrong. That’s it!
I want to look back in December 2020 and compare what I wrote here to what ends up happening, just to see how I did. The human brain does an amazing job of post-rationalising everything, and changing the story to make us look amazing and forward-thinking. But I want to get away from that. So the only way I can figure to improve is to put my thoughts on paper, refer to them later, figure out why I got certain things wrong, and go from there.
So where should we start? How about with something uncontroversial?
Mayor Pete Will Not Win the Democratic Primary
As of right now, he appears to be polling around 7%, but that’s not his biggest problem. His problem is how poorly he polls with African Americans. You don’t win without their votes, so Mayor Pete will not win.
African Americans Will Be a Mighty Force in the Party
This is not a prediction, it’s just a fact. If you don’t get enough of the African American vote, say goodbye to the nomination. So what does that translate into in terms of actual delegates? Where are there a lot of African American voters? In the Super Tuesday states, for starters.
Super Tuesday Will Crown the Winner
It happened in when Super Tuesday started in 1984. Then it happened again in 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2016. Which is just a long way of saying “the person who wins Super Tuesday eventually wins the nomination.” Obama won in 2008, Clinton won in 2016, Mondale won in 1984. Count on it.
There are 1358 votes up for grabs, and you need 1990 to win the nomination. That means 70% of the delegates needed to seal up the whole thing are awarded in a single day! That’s when and where it all happens, not New Hampshire and Iowa.
Those are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina get a lot of attention because they vote first. But they don't matter. If you combine all their votes, it adds up to 155, or about 7% of the total votes needed, compared to the 70% of Super Tuesday, making it precisely 10 times more important.
You don't actually "win states"
This is the most overlooked fact of the entire process, and it seems to surprise a new generation of primary voters every four years: the system is not winner take all. Votes are awarded proportionally. That means if you end up with 49% of people marking your name in the ballot, you get 49% of the delegates. If you get 51%, you don’t “win the state” because the system is not winner take all. You simply get 51% of the delegates, which is often a literal tie with the person who won 49%. This has huge implications to the whole primary calendar strategy, so it bears repeating. You don't win states. You win margins.
According to All Current Polling, Biden Will Win Super Tuesday
I want to make something very, very clear. I’m not trying to piss anyone off by saying this. I’m not rooting for Biden, or rooting against Sanders. I’m just looking at the polling and the fact that Biden is incredibly popular in Super Tuesday states. He just is.
If Warren and Sanders were to combine their votes, they’d sweep almost every state. But they’re splitting the liberal vote so they’ll lose most states to Biden. (This is also how Trump won in the 2016 primary. Too many people stuck around too long, which split the vote. If the GOP had winnowed the field quicker, Trump would not have won the numbers game. Take note, Dems!)
The Left Wing is Gonna Be Rrrrreally Mad About Biden
Biden’s polling numbers have stayed consistently in first place, and African American voters in particular love Biden. You know who else loves him? Swing voters and independents. Oh, and older people. That leaves young people and the left wing, who hate him. This has all the makings of a giant brawl in the party. It’s gonna be a tough time. It’s gonna be sad.
Prediction #1: Biden Unites the Party
I don’t see this happening. The divide in the Democratic party is too deep, and too emotional, and Biden’s not good at speaking to the party faithful. But let’s just say magically the party somehow sticks together in order to take down Trump. Well, then my prediction gets super easy. Biden wins, easily. I’ll explain more down below in the electoral math section (spoiler: he wins his home state and Wisconsin and beats Trump), but first let’s discuss prediction #2 which is a lot more likely.
Prediction #2: The Party Splits Spectacularly
Whether or not it turns into a contested convention, my vote is on this one. The Sanders wing of the party simply will not be ok with Biden being the nominee. So I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it will not be harmonious. The Democratic circular firing squad will be fantastic news for Trump, and he’ll win easily.
The first thing you need to do with electoral math is just completely ignore 45 states. We know how they will vote for president, so we can focus on the 5 that will actually decide the election: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Right off the bat, I see Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida which are all the sorts of places where Trump support is pretty strong. Let’s go ahead and give those states to Trump now. That brings the to map to a near tie, 248 to 259.
Wow! That's a real squeaker, since you need 270 to win! But wait, what about Wisconsin and Pennsylvania? How will they vote? Well, Biden is from Pennsylvania and is running 7% points ahead of Trump there. I don’t think it’s crazy to think Biden (or Sanders) can count on this state turning back to blue.
Which leaves us with Wisconsin. Sanders is up 2% and Biden is up 3.7% on Trump as of today. But there is data that says Trump is more popular there today (41%) than on election day (35%). The economy is good overall, but Trump’s trade war is hurting farmers. So I don’t know which way Wisconsin will go on Election Day. But I know this: if Democrats unify to win those two states, they beat Trump.
On the other hand, a divided Democratic party can’t do much of anything, let alone beat an incumbent president with a good economy. So we’ll see.
Biden wins the primary due to the African American vote on Super Tuesday, it’s ugly, Democrats infight, Trump wins. The US pulls out of the Paris Agreement (we’re still in it until after Election Day!), and at least two more Supreme Court justices are nominated by Trump during his second term.
This is why the single most important thing Democrats can do is rally behind whoever their fellow Democrats nominate, even if it’s not their first, second, third, or fourth choice. But I’m not holding my breath. That kind of strategy isn’t how we do things in this party. But maybe we could start?
I took this assumption straight through to my second prediction, written about 6 weeks later. I thought there was no way the Democrats would unite behind Biden, but they did. And that's why Biden got through the primaries so well, and why he was strong enough to take on Trump.
Six weeks ago, I predicted that Biden would win.
The summary of that article was:
Oh my, how things have changed.
Biden is losing African-Americans
He’s still pretty strong with them, but so is Bernie. And that’s bad news in proportional voting. If Biden can win a state 75% to 25%, that can create a mathematical advantage. But if he wins 51% to 49%, it’s a wash. Right now Biden might be leading, but not by enough to save him.
Bernie is gaining more Latino vote
His numbers in Nevada were stunning. If he continues doing well with this demographic, that could make a big difference. For example, running up a big margin in diverse California would help him a lot.
Bernie will win
And the numbers aren’t even close. Looking at 538’s current model, you end up with a graph that looks like this after the dust settles. And there aren’t enough delegates remaining to make a difference. [Edit: I did a bunch of charts and graphs that explain how Biden and Sanders were going to battle to a tie, with neither side able to get enough delegates to win.]
So Bernie won’t get a majority of votes?
Nope. That’s not what the numbers are showing us. Maybe if everyone dropped out and it became a two person race, but that’s not going to happen.
[Edit: This is where my prediction goes from very accurate to very inaccurate. I said the only way for Biden to win is if everyone else drops out simultaneously, which was true. Then I said that would never happen … but that’s exactly what happened!]
What happens at the convention?
It’ll be very dramatic because Bernie won’t have a majority. (Get ready to hear the world plurality a lot!) But in the end the answer will be obvious: Bernie will have the most delegates (by a landslide), meaning he’ll get the superdelegates, and that will be that. [Edit: I was very wrong!]
The general election against Donald Trump
As I said last time, this is how you predict the November election.
The House and Senate
The Democrats will keep the House and fail to capture the Senate. The Senate has always been a stretch, and the House has always been in reach, and that hasn’t changed much.
[Another wrong prediction. I thought the Senate was too far out of reach, but the Democrats somewhat miraculously got it. Thanks for the help, Trump!]
How a Bernie presidency looks in split government
The White House doesn’t pass laws, congress does. So the entire legislative agenda that Democrats are excited to see enacted will be blocked by the Republican Senate. Perhaps even Supreme Court picks. Some things will change, but laws won’t. That’s split government for you!
So will Bernie win against Trump?
Bernie is not my first choice, but I’m all-in for him now. If Democrats have that attitude, he can and will win. If Democrats fracture, they’ll lose. And they’ll deserve it. The person who gets the most votes should always win.
Thus concludes my write-up of my big 2020 predictions, both right and very wrong. Let's get back to my adventures trying to figure out what happened to LongBets!
“I think I’ve cracked it,” I recently announced to a friend. “Near Future Field Notes is due in a few weeks and I think I’ve gotten it figured it out. I’m going to purposely describe the scattershot way I wrote the issue. First I looked for an API, then I scraped all the data, then I started analysing it, and all sorts of side quests happened. And they were more interesting than LongBets.org itself.”
I like Adaptation, the movie where a screenwriter struggles to adapt The Orchid Thief into a workable movie. In the end, he doesn’t manage to do it. The second half of the movie just sort of gives up on the whole project and turns into a wild adventure that absolutely never happened. It’s quite a ride. I’m not saying this issue is quite that interesting or intense, but I do like the “I tried to make a story out of this, and here’s what happened instead" angle. So where are we?
So it seems like it might be time for a summary. Here we go.
This project taught me that things need a reason to continue existing, or else they will disappear. Gravity pulls at things, whether it’s an apple falling to earth or a planet revolving around the sun. And entropy pulls at things too, whether a forest reclaiming a downed tree or a folder called “projects” on your desktop that is full of things you’re never going to get to. At least not without tremendous effort. You earn your way into the future by working on things. You fade into the past by letting things lapse. And that’s where I think capitalism does a great job. It makes sure people keep building for the future.
What Calvin and Hobbes can teach us
Bill Watterson created Calvin and Hobbes and worked really hard at it for ten years. He famously had a lot of big feelings about the whole process. He said the deadlines were too intense, the newspapers were getting too small, and said he couldn’t possibly keep up the pace. So he took a lot of sabbaticals, which his syndicate allowed because he was the biggest cartoonist in the world and held power in the relationship. He made the company enough money that he could carve out time for self-care. Good for him!
But what if he hadn’t been doing it for a pay check? What if he still needed to make money somehow, perhaps painting houses, before coming home and attempting to draw comics in the few hours before bed? Would we have gotten ten years of great content? No way. Would we have even gotten a tenth of his output? Doubtful. Not only would we never have heard of Calvin and Hobbes, I suspect there wouldn’t have been much content to read. Capitalism is the system that allowed his art to pay for his mortgage. And it’s the system that kept him going, even as it got really hard for him. Because he had bills to pay.
Where LongBets struggles
LongBets.org has no such system that can keep it on anyone’s mind. No one is paying their bills with LongBets.org. It’s no one’s main hobby. Very few people check it weekly, let alone daily or hourly. It’s just out there, gathering dust, with a lot of irrelevant and outdated content amongst the odd gem. And why would it change without a reason to exist and attempt to do better? Wikipedia is vibrant because people have bought into the idea that it’s an authoritative source. Predictit.org is vibrant because it’s constantly updated with new events and the wisdom of the crowds can actually make good predictions when the arena is set up correctly.
But LongBets has none of that. The structure of each prediction is mostly interesting for the two people involved in the bet, and maybe a few people following along. Beyond that, there’s limited utility and no reason for it to improve. But I don’t think that shows us that sites like this have no role to play. I think it shows that execution matters. It reminds me of all of the Twitter clones that have failed. The idea — a social network where people can talk — isn’t hard to do. It’s the execution that’s hard to get right, and until now no one has done it better than Twitter.
LongBets finds itself in the reverse situation. The other prediction sites have done a better job, so they're more vibrant and relevant. In my view, we should open-source the content, wind down the website, and anyone interested in the future should make a truly future-proof and dynamic LongBets competitor. One that has a reason to continue existing, and can provide value to people reading it.
They say the future belongs to people who invent it. This project showed me that it's not a one-time thing. Inventing an idea like LongBets is one thing, but finding a reason to keep it alive is another. It's that latter bit that's much harder. Maybe we don't need so many inventors, but instead more people who are willing to carry the flame.
The moment I finished editing this issue of Near Future Field Notes, I idly clicked on a YouTube video with 22 views called “Why do I hang out on forecasting sites and trade prediction markets-As the World Burns.”
The video is by a man named Randall Burns who said
Why do I hang out on on prediction sites and trade prediction markets?I grew up in the bible belt and saw people really get taken for a ride by people i consider at best false prophets and at worse some of my top candidates for demonic possession(if such a thing actually exists). When i looked i found there really was a an academic literature on this topic.
And he was right. He linked to a bunch of helpful links on wikipedia and university websites that I wish I had discovered a few weeks ago. Amongst the flurry of links, I noticed him say
My favorite forecasting sites are predictit.org and metaculus.com
Metaculus.com? I checked it out and was pretty impressed. He also mentioned Longbets, so I got curious all over again. After a little digging, I searched for The Long Now Foundation on Medium.com They’re the people who run Long Bets, and it turns out they do have a bit of a presence! This was bad news for the story arc that I had written, and even the cover I had commissioned about my perspective. It went:
But as I clicked through their stories on Medium, I realised that I had missed a lot of content in my writeup. Maybe LongBets hadn’t fallen into disrepair! Maybe other sites hadn’t done a better job! Darn it. I imagined contacting someone at LongBets, setting up a video chat, learning tons about the organisation, finding a deep respect for the work they do, and then needing to change this entire issue. That would be a bummer, because I’m running up against a deadline here!
Another approach would be to pretend I never saw these new tabs and links. In law, they refer to this as “burying evidence,” and journalists are taught not to change the facts to match a pre-determined narrative. But I’m just a guy running a website. Do I really need to hold myself to the same journalistic standards as people writing for the New York Times? I’m not sure I’m ready to completely change my issue this late in the game.
So I’m going to pick a third option. I’m going to refer to all the cool content I discovered, then I’ll write up a proposed series of interview questions that I’d ask someone at LongBets if I chatted with them on a video call. That will let me ship on time without burying the last minute information I got. Here goes!
Visiting medium.com/the-long-now-foundation shows a bunch of interesting content. The most recent article was written a year ago, on May 19, 2021, by Ahmed Kabil. A few months before that, Brittany Nicole Cox wrote an essay, and a month before that we see one from Michael Garfield. Those are three people I’ve never heard of, and might be able to provide a clue into who’s running the show over there!
And LongNow isn’t just a publication, it’s also a username on Medium. Clicking into that shows a lot of interesting content from 2014 to February 2021. In fact, there’s even an article with the title “Our Long Bets and Predictions about 02020” which would have been a centrepiece for this entire issue if I had been able to find it. I highly recommend looking it up, there’s a lot of fun analysis there.
I looked into Ahmed Kabli and discovered he’s an editor at The Long Now Foundation. So if I had time to have a video chat with him, I’d probably ask him questions like this:
But I’ve hit my deadline, so this part of the story will have to end there. That’s the fun thing about the future — it never goes anywhere. It’s always there, beckoning, taunting us with all the things that will eventually happen. Just not yet. Until we decide to make it so.