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September 28, 2011

The Foresight Paradox

In every foresight or forecasting exercise, there are two overarching tensions:

  • The more certain and detailed the forecast, the more people will accept it and believe it to be useful.
  • The more certain and detailed the forecast, the less likely it is to happen.

This is the foresight paradox: you can be completely accurate, or you can be completely engaging, but you can't be both. As a result, every forecast (or scenario, or prediction) has to find the right balance between the two, trading off likelihood for believability.

As a simple example: a forecast that says "the next decade will see continued economic disruption" is very likely to be true, but of limited utility and almost no capacity to inspire innovative thought; conversely, a forecast that says "the Eurozone will collapse in the Summer of 2013, leaving EU countries scrambling to find usable currencies, with many temporarily adopting the dollar" is almost certainly not going to happen as described, but offers clear guidance for action, and can inspire novel business and political strategies. If the latter forecast is given by someone in a suit and tie, with a very serious sounding title from a very serious sounding institution, many people will accept it as being much more than informed conjecture -- and will reject the more general forecast as being useless.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Precise and detailed forecasts offer structure for thinking, giving the listener a framework upon which to build strategies or make concrete rebuttals. Moreover, there appears to be a psychology of belief that makes people more likely to listen to detailed predictions, offered with certainty and clarity, than to listen to general forecasts, or those offered with plenty of hedges and caveats -- even though the detailed predictions are almost always wrong. (This isn't helped by a media culture that favors the spectacular over the thoughtful, and the adamant over the hesitant.)

It's not hard to find pundits and self-described futurists who will gladly accept the visibility and attention that comes from making detailed, spectacular predictions, no matter the eventual accuracy. If confronted, they'll mumble something about timing or unpredictable events; such confrontations are vanishingly rare, however, especially for high-profile pundits. It doesn't matter how wrong you are if you get good ratings.

Ethical futurists have a bit more of a dilemma here, however. A forecast needs to be vivid and engaging enough to trigger action, yet general and cautious enough to engender restraint. Or, as I put it in one interview, should be wrong in useful ways.

The simplest approach is to keep forecasts as general as possible, using detail only when well-supported by evidence. With this method, the emphasis is on the present-day and near-term drivers that lead towards the (more general) future. There is a temptation to over-emphasize the visible, and not leave enough space for wild cards and "black swans," however. The core quandary remains knowing how general and cautious one can be while still offering useful insights, and how specific and detailed one can be while still not leading the audience astray.

Another fairly straightforward method is to use a more detailed forecast, but emphasize the uncertainty from the outset, being clear to the audience that the real outcomes will vary. The given forecast should be considered an example, not a certainty, a possible future that fits within a broader framework. Audiences don't always respond well to that approach, however; in some cases, they'll still take the example future to be the "real prediction," and in others can interpret an emphasis on caution to mean that the futurist really doesn't know what she or he is talking about.

My preferred approach is to use scenarios, essentially giving multiple examples within the general framework. This illustrates the shape of the broader framework better, and makes clear that no one specific forecast is the "real prediction." Yet the problems with this approach are manifold: coming up with three to five internally consistent forecasts is significantly harder than just coming up with one; audiences will gravitate towards preferred scenarios, sometimes ignoring those that don't turn out in ways they like; and it's difficult to encapsulate multiple scenarios into a short presentation or statement without rendering them meaningless.

This last problem is one that I've encountered quite a bit recently. There seems to be a trend in conferences right now (especially in Europe) to limit presentations to 15 minutes. Although there are definite benefits to this approach (most notably in maintaining audience interest), it means that any foresight-based presentation is crippled. A speaker simply doesn't have the time to offer multiple scenarios in anything other than a bullet point/headline format, surrounded by lots of big idea framing to give the scenario headlines some context (the talk I gave at the Guardian Activate Summit in London last year is probably my best effort at doing this).

Unfortunately, audiences don't respond as well to multiple scenarios as they do to single, detailed forecasts, even when they know the detailed forecasts will inevitably be wrong. Moreover, appearances limited by time (such as, in particular, television) make even the headline scenario approach difficult. The best one can do -- in my experience, at least, and I'd love to hear better suggestions -- is to be sure to offer caveats and use cautious language such as "appears to," "likely," and especially "one possibility" (or similar statements underlining that different outcomes are possible).

The modern spectacle-driven media loathes uncertainty, and will almost always give more attention to aggressive certitude (no matter the accuracy) than caution. Many business audiences feel the same way. Sadly, the foresight paradox boils down to this:

The futurists who get the most attention are usually the least accurate.

September 6, 2011

Teratocracy Rises

FrankOne of the fundamental jobs of a futurist is to keep an eye out for the tentative signs of emerging changes -- sometimes referred to as "early indicators" or as "weak signals" (or, in my preferred phrase, no doubt shaped by my study of international politics, "distant early warnings"). Sometimes, those tentative signs are subtle, easily misinterpreted, and opaque; sometimes, they hit so hard they leave you dizzy. Consider this the latter.

I've been following indications for awhile that democracy as practiced in the post-industrial world is increasingly under threat; in February of this year, I wrote a piece ("Fear of Teratocracy") that explored the increasing attacks not just on the policies of leaders, but the on very legitimacy of leaders. In this world, it's not enough to say that your opponent is wrong, you have to say that your opponent simply has no right to lead. As democracy depends on the losers stepping aside gracefully as much as the winners ruling fairly, I tried to be clear in saying that attacks on the legitimacy of opponents were implicit attacks on democracy itself.

Apparently, I just needed to be patient; what was implicit has become explicit.

Over the last week, I have encountered three separate (and seemingly unrelated) attacks on democracy, written by residents of the US and Europe from highly-visible spots in the political-economic media system.

The first of these was by far the most blunt. At the conservative website "American Thinker," Matthew Vadum argued on September 1 that "registering the poor to vote is Un-American:"

Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country -- which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.

On September 4, libertarian news site "The Daily Bell" published an interview with influential investment advisor Doug Casey. The interview provides a wide-ranging discussion of coming social and economic apocalypse (and how you can invest now!), and in the midst of it we get the following:

Daily Bell: Is democracy a good thing?

Doug Casey: No. Democracy is just mob rule, dressed up in a coat and tie. It's too bad people conflate democracy, which is mob rule, with liberty and freedom. Democracy in most of the world is everybody voting for the person that promises him or her the most stolen goods from other people. Democracy is a political system, and all political systems rest on institutionalized coercion. I don't care whether it's a king, a president, a congress, or a mob of chimpanzees that tell me I have to pay 50% of my income over to them so they can fund wars, welfare programs, the police state, oligarchic corporations, or whatever. That's what democracy is today.

Finally, on September 5, Rich Miller and Simon Kennedy at Bloomberg.com opened a piece entitled "Economies in Peril Proving Voters Aren't Careful About What Is Wished For" with the line "The world economy is paying a price for democracy." Perhaps not as aggressive as the others, but certainly in the same vein.

If the first thing that you notice is that these are all conservative outlets, you're missing the bigger picture. All three are offering views of the institutional mainstream: Bloomberg is about as conventional-wisdom as you get; American Thinker is a regular player in the Conservative web/Republican Party network; and while the Daily Bell appears to be an outlier, Doug Casey himself is said to be quite influential. For any one of them to be adopting this position would be a (weak signal) blip; for all three -- and undoubtedly more that I just didn't encounter -- to take this position is, for me, a sign of something much larger, especially when coupled with existing attacks on the legitimacy of leadership (and the legitimacy of government itself). Getting this kind of argument from the institutional mainstream tells me that it's not going away any time soon, and is likely to become more pervasive.

Winston Churchill famously said "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." There is no reason to pretend that democracy, especially as structured today (19th century voting model immersed in a 21st century media environment), is even close to perfect. But the hallmark of a free society is transparency, and the ultimate expression of transparency is to have a voice in shaping society's future.

Those who attack democracy may claim to do so for a variety of reasons (in this instance, for economic efficiency and/or growth), but make no mistake: attacks on democracy arise when voters express opinions that don't agree with the attackers'.

Sometimes, attacks come from those who feel that the world isn't paying attention to their wisdom, that their voices aren't being heard (such as the numerous times I've heard climate activists lament the short-sightedness of the average voter). In this case, however, the attacks are coming from those who already have a major stake in the system, whose voices already receive (arguably disproportionate levels of) attention.

It's the business of the future to be dangerous, as Alfred North Whitehead said, and you don't get much more dangerous than attacks on the legitimacy of democracy. By no means is it guaranteed that this movement will win; in fact, I think it's more likely than not that they prove unable to get rid of democracy, although they are more likely to weaken it considerably, at least for a time. But that they are willing to attack the fundamental philosophy of the modern state in such blunt language, and have the resources to do more than just write noisy blog posts, suggests that this fight will be neither brief nor insubstantial.

In Fear of Teratocracy, I said this, and it remains true:

The question, then, is (as always) what is to be done? My answer is (also as always) more transparency, but that isn't enough. We also need to see a shift in the larger culture away from spectacle and attention-grabbing stimulation, and towards illumination and empathy-building consideration. But that shift doesn't seem like it will happen any time soon.

It's the business of the future to be dangerous; apparently, it's the business of the futurist to be depressed.

[Teratocracy: Rule by Monsters]

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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