Saturday, November 29, 2003
Think About the Future!
So, my dad loaned me the "OMNI Future Almanac" from the now defunct OMNI magazine. In it are predections on all aspects of the future as seen from 1981 (the book was published in 1982, but there are a few references to 1981 as being the actual year it was written). It's very interesting in what it gets wrong and what it gets right.
As a person who is interested in determining what will happen in the years to come, it reminded me of what a difficult proposition seeing the future can be.
Here's a couple of things that struck me about future-casting while reading it:
Politics changes like the wind
It is very difficult to determine what will happen to various countries more than 10 years out. I know nothing about international politics, but I'm pretty sure that if I was thinking about it in 1981, I would not have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union; certainly OMNI didn't see it coming. And figuring out what localized instabilities would cause what to happen on the global scene is entirely beyond my comprehension. These events have the possibility of drastically changing every aspect about the future that we could predict. My opinion is that you just have to predict around them and hope for the best.
Complexity is not to be Underestimated
I would say that a rule of thumb for predicting the future is this: Complex problems get more complex the closer we appear to solving them. So often predictions of the future get caught up in the mentality of "we have just conquered a major part of the problem, therefore we should only be a short while to finishing the rest." It would seem that those complex problems of any consequence (Unified Field Theory, Cure for Cancer, Ultra-Clean Energy, etc) just get more and more complex with each step to be completed. If you are predicting something like the cure for cancer in the next 10 years, I'm guessing that you're missing the fact that one of your assumptions about how it will proceed from here contains a problem whose solution is more difficult than any previous problem in the past. It's the subtle ones that are the killers.
New Innovations are Hard to Predict
It is from these unforeseen, complex problems that we will have to solve in the future, that the great new innovations are likely to come from; and since we don't know the problems, we don't really know what we'll gain from them. It is likely that, in our effort to find a clean source of energy, for example, that we'll learn something that will transform the would in a way we had never predicted. What if we discovered that a certain kind of insect could provide enough energy to run a house and you only had to feed it a tomatoe a day. I'm guessing that'd have a profound impact on the world, but I couldn't say what (except that the price of tomatoes would rise dramatically). Could you? But it's just such wierd things that are likely to happen with us having no way to predict them.
Humans are a Self-Correcting System
This means that extreme views of the future, but utopian and dystopian, are fairly unlikely. If energy is important, we'll find a way to keep providing it for cheap whether it means making a new kind, or putting more effort into squeezing the last little bit out of the old kind. We are as unlikely to blow ourselves up as we are to lay down all of our arms. We aren't going to destroy the planet, but we may have to do some creative engineering to prevent it. The point is that we WILL prevent it before it becomes devastating. Does this mean there won't be devastating consequences to what we are doing? No. What it means is that if you can see the problems coming, it'll probably get dealt with before it destroys the planet. On the other end of the spectrum, if you can find a way for humans to all live in peace, someone else can think of a way to exploit it, or a very good reason why it's not a path most people would want the world to take.
Never Underestimate People's Power to Find Things Disagreeable
I think this is a problem with older predictions of the future more than more recent predections (just a guess on my part, if more recent predictions aren't better at this, shame on them). When people talk about sweeping changes that will effect everyone, the typically fail to think about how people will react to these changes. Genetic engineering is an obvious target: the OMNI book predicted wide-spread adoption of genetically modified foods, but failed to grasp the fact that people might have reservations with foods that have been modified by man's fallable hands. You looking forward to the day when you have a computer providing you data on everything you see? What if the camera on that computer came equipped with the same infrared camera that caused such a fuss because it could see under clothes in the daylight? What if it didn't need to have the camera to figure out what you look like naked and present it to any passerby (this will ultimately be the point to the longer article I write about copyright a privacy)? Think people might get on edge about it? Even if they don't it'll probably slow things down a while while our brains all catch up to the new implications. The point being that even if something is super sexy, it probably won't be adopted overnight, so you have to allow for that when you say that something will happen in the next 20 years.
Anyway, that's all for now. Probably more in a little bit as I dissect various predictions made by OMNI.
Interested in the future and how we might better predict it? Drop me a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org