Here Are Some Of The Ways You Can Be Wrong About The Future


Monday, 8.22pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The future depends on what you do today. – Mahatma Gandhi

I am reading Bertrand de Jouvenel’s The art of conjecture which looks at how we try and predict what will happen.

How do we forecast possible futures – how do we come up with a vision, a conjecture – and then stop ourselves falling in love with it and believing that it will inevitably come true?

We do this kind of thinking all the time – from figuring out what to do next with our careers, our businesses and our relationships – to how we participate in society and politics based on our beliefs about what is going to happen.

We use lots of methods to do this thinking – many of them so automatically that we don’t question our approach to using them.

It makes sense, then, to spend a little bit of time thinking about how we think before we look at how we might think better – perhaps in the next post, so here are seven ways described by de Jouvenel in the book.

Let’s start with the concept of inertia.

Inertia is the tendency of something to keep doing what it’s doing.

If our local retail business has been growing organically at 3% a year since 2000, we think that is going to continue at about the same rate.

Things will be similar in the future to how they are now because things will keep happening in about the same way.

We’ll always commute to offices to work because that’s what we’ve always done.

Closely related to inertia is our tendency to use an analogy to explain what will happen.

The financial crisis in the 1920s led to a great depression and that’s what some people expected would happen in 2008.

But things didn’t quite work out that way and I suppose it’s too early to say exactly how they are working out.

Then there’s a view of what will happen as something like a journey on a railway track.

This model says that everyone is on a journey, some people are ahead of us but we’ll get there eventually.

That underpins the idea that developing countries, for example, will become as developed as developed countries – in time that’s inevitable.

If you’re running out of ideas, then the if-then approach works well to fill in the blanks.

This has to do with the idea of causality – that there is cause and effect.

If you do the things the same way they were done by someone else you can have the same results.

This is the mantra of the self-help industry. For example, because some people have made lots of money on the Internet, you can too by doing the same things.

Or you can be happy or thin or wealthy – just do what must be done and the result will happen.

At one extreme thinking in terms of cause and effect can take you down an avenue of positive thinking and the Think and grow rich schools of being.

Banish all negativity from your life, don’t listen to critics, believe in yourself.

At the other extreme is the person who believes that things are impossible because they just are, what de Jouvenel calls a priori – something independent of experience.

You believe it to be impossible and therefore it is.

It’s impossible to create a free encyclopedia.

It’s ludicrous to imagine a world without newspapers.

Chasms cannot be leaped – don’t even try.

But then someone builds a bridge and it’s suddenly possible.

A more complex approach looks at the world in terms of systems.

A simple approach is to say that things happen, which cause other things to happen which then affect things that happen.

When something feeds back into something else we get more complex behaviour – sometimes unpredictable behaviour.

You can build system models of lots of things – from the way communism should work to how to combat terrorism.

But somehow these sometimes overly mathematical models have been of little practical use in real situations.

But we like trying to use them anyway.

A final approach brought up in the book is to think in terms of forms.

Forms are about structure and hierarchy – there is natural size for a team, for example, or that the way you set up management depends on the size of your organisation.

All these approaches seem natural and we use them all the time.

It doesn’t take too much thought, however, to think of companies that don’t follow the norm.

Take the car industry, for example.

Who would have thought that the major automakers with their vast factories would be under pressure from lean Japanese producers?

Or that the future of car production seems to belong to Tesla.

It seems impossible to see how we could transition from a fossil fuel based economy to a renewable one – but have we reached a tipping point there?

But at the same time are we seeing the resurgence of a nasty kind of nationalism and despotic leaders – something that hasn’t worked too well before?

These ways of visualising the future come easily to us – and they are probably useful thinking tools.

The problem, sometimes, is that we believe our own stories – we believe that what we believe will come true and so we act as if that is what will happen.

what we should do is study the now – study what people say and what they do.

Because how the future turns out depends entirely on what we do in the present.

So what are you doing?

And is it good?


Karthik Suresh

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