A brief history of predicting the unpredictable

Think:Act Magazine “The Unknown”
A brief history of predicting the unpredictable

Portrait of Think:Act Magazine

Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
August 23, 2021

How thinking about the future became a profession


by Steffan Heuer
Illustrations by MUTI
Photos by iStockphoto

Read more about the topic "The Unknown"

Thinking about the future has always been enticing, but the advent of nuclear weapons and computers turned a passion into a profession to try to see and get ahead of outlier events.

Homo sapiens is, by most accounts, the only species that can "think" about "the future": the unknown next chapter, momentous change and catastrophic turning points. And we've been bad at it, argued financial trader-turned-philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 bestseller The Black Swan. In it, he postulates that "the world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable ... all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known and the repeated." He applied a catchy label to such outlier events, "black swans," inspired by the rare birds the Old World didn't know existed before the discovery of Australia in the early 17th century.

"What makes a difference are non-causal surprises, the flashes and bright novas in the evolutionary chain."

Theodore Gordon

The Millennium Project

Taleb is speaking of frightful fowl, or events that are characterized by three things: They are rare, have an extreme impact and provide humans with retrospective predictability – meaning experts will, in hindsight, find a way to explain them away. Think disastrous stock market crashes, the attacks of 9/11 or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Taleb's main criticism was aimed at the forecasters who are not only unaware how error-ridden their work is, but live and work in denial.

The Black Swan made Taleb a famous writer and sought-after lecturer as the Great Recession was rattling the world. Yet his book, which grew into a five-part miniseries, is hardly an unexpected outlier in trying to make sense of what seems unpredictable, chaotic and nebulous. In fact, he stands in a long line of forecasters who use more or less scientific approaches – instead of mystical or religious ones – to analyze what the future holds and where the next catastrophe (or big opportunity) might lurk. This type of rigorous future thinking and scenario planning that tries to take external shocks into account goes back at least to the post-World War II era, when the threat of nuclear annihilation and the rise of computers made "futurist" a venerable profession with an urgent brief.

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78% of the value of the NASDAQ composite was lost in the dotcom crash in the early 2000s.

One such forecaster of the early days is Theodore Gordon. The 90-year-old futurist developed a concept called Trend Impact Analysis (TIA) back in the 1970s that explicitly deals with the unexpected Taleb popularized. Today, he is a senior fellow at the Millennium Project, a think tank affiliated with the United Nations University that does scenario planning for current events such as the Covid-19 pandemic. "There's no such thing as a perfect model," Gordon says. "What makes a difference are non-causal surprises, the flashes and bright novas in the evolutionary chain." Gordon's crucial contribution was an approach that infuses quantitative methods with expert opinions about what crazy stuff the world might have in store for us. "The Black Swan was an important book because it made people pay attention and understand how crucial discontinuities are. TIA didn't have that impact on the field," Gordon admits.

Dig a little deeper, and Gordon, too, stands on the shoulders of other thinkers who have tried to sensitize citizens, government and the corporate world to the impact of outlier events. What hasn't changed as you look through the decades of trying to count black swans is the cast of characters: mostly white males with connections to, or in the employ of, the powers that be. That lack of diversity has seriously impeded how we think about outliers and options, says Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard . "All of these works are undoubtedly important and build on each other, but you have to ask who ultimately pays for research. We have to get rid of purely academic and military-industrial future thinking," Leonhard argues.

He sees encouraging signs that the field is becoming more diverse but thinks that broader input is urgently needed for another reason: The future is coming at us at an increasingly faster clip. Still, the notion of a "black swan" nobody can see coming is a misnomer, according to Leonhard. He prefers to call game-changing events "gray swans" since we already know momentous disruptions are approaching: catastrophic climate change; powerful and unregulated technologies such as AI; the ongoing merging of man and machine and genetic engineering; and the reckoning of an economic system obsessed with growth. "We create the future with everything we do and don't do," he says. "Outside of that, there are things we truly can't know, like comets crashing and aliens visiting."

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$2 trillion vanished from the value of global markets following the UK's 'Brexit' vote in 2016.

Games with a diverse set of participants are one of the most intriguing and inclusive ways to think about outliers. Add empowerment to it, and you arrive at a card game that puts a strong emphasis on inequality and social justice: Afro-Rithms from the Future. It was developed by Lonny Brooks, a communication and media studies professor at California State University in Hayward, southeast of San Francisco. The card deck is a tool to envision multiple futures with "more black storytelling and less white supremacy," as Brooks describes it. "Black people always had to innovate, be futurists – envision a place free of slavery, find their redemption. This was scenario making we can draw upon today." Players work with a deck of 90 individual cards divided between tensions, inspirations and system states. This kind of freewheeling exploration can yield serendipitous results. In one round set in 2030, a participant suggested a tattoo that can be scanned to find out one's heritage and receive slavery reparation funds.

Brooks has honed the game over the past three years and has run it with more than a thousand participants so far, in person and virtually, and is now working on a version that can be played online and potentially with VR headsets. Early interest came from Google, the US health insurance company Blue Shield and UNESCO's Futures Literacy Summit. Inclusion makes for better forecasting and future thinking, the professor is convinced. "The game can help in schools and communities. What if we created a network of the imagination where marginalized groups can present their visions that can be transformed into new cultural activities and policy agendas for legislation so communities come armed with scenarios of the future they can articulate?"

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This crowdsourced approach alongside today's unheard-of reams of data and arsenal of analytical tools might turn out to be the best preparation for dealing with future pandemics and the ravages of climate change. Scouting for black and gray swans has already spawned a new kind of proactive science fiction, such as Kim Stanley Robinson's late-2020 book Ministry for the Future. The fictitious agency's mission is as simple as daunting: "Established in 2025, the purpose of the new organization was simple: to advocate for the world's future generations and to protect all living creatures, present and future. It soon became known as the Ministry for the Future."

A brief history of futurist thought: These thinkers found different ways of seeing what lies ahead – and predicting the beyond.
Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think" (1945)

One of the earliest works forecasters will bring up is "As We May Think" by the American engineer and science administrator Vannevar Bush. His 1945 essay ran in "The Atlantic" and predicted the PC, the web and speech recognition. He envisioned a "memex desk" that stored loads of interlinked information, similar to how the brain works.

Bush set the stage for many of the heady tech predictions to come in the following decades — and darkly pondered the downsides: "The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house ... They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good."

Herman Kahn, "Thinking about the unthinkable" (1962)

The very real possibility of nuclear war led to the establishment of think tanks like the RAND Corporation and "thinking about the unthinkable" – also the title of the 1962 book by Herman Kahn, who left RAND to start The Hudson Institute. The peace movement resented him for his chilling "what-if" scenarios – say, if the Soviets were to drop a nuclear bomb on New York – and director Stanley Kubrick modeled his deranged film villain Dr. Strangelove on him.

Nevertheless, Kahn's cool approach of employing systems and game theory when dealing with outliers was influential in focusing generations on thinking through the wildest disruption out there: man-made annihilation.

Alvin and Heidi Toffler, "The Future as a Way of Life / Future Shock" (1965/1970)

No one better gave words to the growing sense of disorientation than journalist Alvin Toffler. In 1965, he penned "The Future as a Way of Life" and by 1970 had spun it with his wife and (unmentioned) co-author Heidi into Future Shock, a classic read on why and how we ought to think about the unknown. "Future shock" is ''the premature arrival of the future ... culture shock in one's own society." The book predicted big disruptions that seem ordinary in 2021, like the redefinition of work and hunting for life on exoplanets.

The book’s lasting impact, argues Silicon Valley forecaster Paul Saffo, is its call "to create a culture in which anticipating the future becomes the everyday concern of everyone, not just experts."

Buckminster Fuller, "Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity" (1969)

As future thinking oscillated between being the domain of highly paid experts often associated with government and large corporations and evolving into more of a popular science playground, the tone became ever more urgent.

Architect and designer Buckminster Fuller's 1969 tome "Utopia or Oblivion": The Prospects for Humanity put a stark choice in front of his readers: "The future is a choice between Utopia and Oblivion. [It] will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment ... Humanity is 'in final exam' as to whether or not it qualifies for continuance in the Universe." Important here was the insight that black swans will hit us, but humans do have the agency to shape the future.

John Naisbitt, "Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives" (1982)

Trend scouts could take heart from another seminal work that appeared in 1982: Former marine and self-taught writer John Naisbitt's "Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives". The bestseller predicted disruptions that seem commonplace today: globalization, hierarchies making way for networks, China's rise and the knowledge economy.

He was explicit that if one keeps an ear to the ground, it's possible to master – and potentially profit – from momentous change. This more optimistic mindset came into its own with the 1993 launch of "Wired" magazine, each issue acting as an ongoing exercise in future-telling where the next big thing is always on the horizon. And it's mostly good.

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Munich Office, Central Europe