We Need to Start Predicting Our Futures

Democratic congressional representatives stage a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Democratic congressional representatives stage a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. (June 22-23, 2016)

The June 22-23, 2016 sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives was shocking to some, inspiring to others, and surprising to most. Yet I found myself nodding, saying to myself “that makes sense, no surprise here”. I’ve been a professional futurist for more than two decades and an interested amateur for many years before that.

One of the hazards of being a professional in the field of futures studies is becoming jaded. I remember a few years back being at a World Futures Society conference and lamenting over drinks at the end of a long day of sessions that there simply wasn’t much new being discussed. All of the so-called “wildcards” – defined in the field as low-probability, high-impact events – were the same old stuff rehashed. Most of the trends identified had been recycled from other sources. There just weren’t the interesting surprises there once were. The field of futures studies was, well, just so predictable. Clearly it was time for another beer…and maybe some new thinking.

The term “black swans” is sometimes used as another term for wildcards. It is also used to refer to an event that could absolutely not be predicted. When Nassim Nicholas Taleb published his bestseller Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable in 2007, I read it eagerly. However, I came away greatly disappointed because I either failed to understand his logic (always a possibility) or, upon more reflection, found that it was deeply flawed (also a possibility).

The term “black swan” was eagerly seized by many inside and outside of the futures and foresight field as evidence that prediction was essentially impossible, that we should be using approaches that viewed the future from the perspective that pretty much everything was unpredictable, and we needed to find ways of dealing with the resulting uncertainty.

Based on my experience over the past couple of decades I have come to dislike the term “black swan” not because I think Taleb is entirely wrong but because I have seen it used in far too many cases as an excuse to throw up one’s hands and say we can’t (or couldn’t, if the event has already occurred) have predicted this, that, or the next thing.

I think that more often than not a more appropriate term is “black elephant”, which I first heard at a week-long Booksprint writing event I participated in in Austria a couple of years ago. A “black elephant” is an event that went unpredicted or was considered unpredictable because everyone chose to ignore the elephant in the room.

So what does this all have to do with the sit-in at the U.S. House of Representatives? I think it is further evidence that there is a massive elephant in the room that we need to stop ignoring. American society is well into a period of massive technological, economic, social, and political change. So is Europe. And the Arab world. And the Far East. And pretty much all of the rest of the world.

I mention the United States simply because, after living here for more than 30 years, it is the society I am most familiar with. American society is undergoing deep and profound change. As this change has unfolded, we have seen a series of events that might called black swans. However, as professionals in the futures and foresight field, it is long past time that we stop being surprised by these kinds of events.

The sudden legalization of same-sex marriage across the United States in 2015 was a stunning reversal of legal and societal norms. Was it a black swan event? Hardly. At best, it was unpredictable only in its timing. There was plenty of evidence dating back at least a couple of decades that American societal values were shifting towards acceptance of same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is just one of a number of examples of that societal shift. There are many others. The sit-in at the House of Representatives is one of those.

At this point in American history we face yet another event that, if not unprecedented, is at least highly unusual – the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the presidency of the United States and the disintegration of one of America’s major political parties.

So are all of these “black swan” events? Hardly. While they may be difficult to predict, they are not unpredictable.

When I was in the Studies of the Future program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake in the early 1990s, one of the courses I took was quantitative futures research methods, taught by Peter Bishop. As we went through the semester, my graphs of data series and their associated trends grew more numerous and more sophisticated. Eventually I took scissors and glue and literally cut and pasted them onto a large roll of paper. It was my first futures timeline.

Soon I moved to computer graphics software for creating timelines and in 1994 printed up a few hundred copies of one. That one is now lost to history, but in 1998 I created another timeline based on the earlier version with a few more data series added to it. (A PDF version is still available for downloading.) If you look at the period from 2010 to 2030 in the “Crime and Social Mood” band you will see the notation “Period of increased social and civil unrest”. The “War/Armed Conflict” band has a notation “Period of increased probability of American involvement in war” for the period from 2004 to 2027.

In 2008 I did another update (PDF available for downloading) while working as the leader of Social Technologies’ futures interactive program. That updated version noted the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and “~2015-2040: Global war period (higher risk)”. A press statement written at the time noted that we were moving into a period during which:

  • social tensions would rise (between 2010 and the mid-2030s)
  • the influence of the religious right on American politics declines (through the mid-2030s)
  • American politics shifts from right of political center to left of political center (2005 to 2030)

Of course, these are broad statements and not specific events. They were intended to provide a long-term perspective on major shifts over the next two to three decades. Given recent events, these broad predictions seem to be on track and the conclusions (at least to me) seem fairly obvious – American society is changing in profound and fundamental ways.

The technological, economic, social, and political environment, not to mention the natural environment, has entered a period of rapid change. With the environment changing, we are likely to see more discontinuities – defined as a sudden historical change. We need to expect them, rather than having them sweep over us and then in retrospect shrug our shoulders and say “It was a black swan, how could we have known”.

Experience shows us that we can’t make predictions with 100% accuracy. That doesn’t mean we need to give up and simply not make predictions. There is a middle ground – the exploratory forecast – that uses an iterative process for identifying long-term changes in technological, economic, social, and political systems and making more precise forecasts of coming events.

As the world enters a period of transformation to the Molecular Age, futures and foresight professionals need to up their game and do a better job of anticipating events. We might not always forecast individual events like a congressional sit in, but we can certainly do better than not predicting anything at all. We simply can’t afford to be surprised by all the events we will face over the next couple of decades.

So what does all this have to do with transmedia storytelling? As I’ve noted in a couple of articles — Tales of Our Tomorrows: Transmedia Storytelling and Communicating About the Future and What in the World? Storyworlds, Science Fiction and Futures Studies — transmedia storytelling has a role to play in communicating about our futures.

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