Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The future as caricature (part one)

In an episode of the fantastic 01988 TV series The Storyteller, an unkempt beggar is brought in to entertain the royal court. The young prince exclaims, dismayed, "He smells!" To which the beggar replies, matter-of-factly: "I am a beggar, sire. It is my business to smell."

In a similar way, as Alfred North Whitehead once said, "It is the business of the future to be dangerous." That danger lies in its uncertainty, which is its "business" because, quite simply, that's the way it is. Indeed it is more like that the further out you try to look. So the necessary response is to think about the future in a way that is true to and in accordance with its uncertain nature; thinking that is both honest and pragmatic, rather than wishfully precise and overly specific.

Paradox though it may seem, the value of fuzzy thinking has become increasingly clear to me. Bart Kosko makes a strong case for it, but his perspective seems unlikely to put a dent in the defences of the everyday objector. Edward de Bono, a populist philosopher and inventor of an array of ingenious tools for thought, mounts similar arguments. In a book I'm just finishing, Teach Yourself to Think, he gives the following example of why abstract (in the sense of general; non-specific) thinking can be useful:

Some electronic students [sic] were given a simple circuit to complete. Ninety-seven per cent of them complained that they did not have enough wire to complete the circuit. Only 3 per cent completed the circuit. the 97 per cent wanted 'wire' and since there was no wire they could not complete the task. the three per cent had a broad, general, blurry concept of 'a connector'. Since wire was not available they looked around for another type of connector. They used the screwdriver itself to complete the circuit.

~Edward de Bono, Teach Yourself to Think, 01995, p. 30.

I want to use de Bono's story to suggest two points. The first is the one the author intended: general (or "fuzzy") thinking can be superior because it sometimes suits the situation better. The second point goes meta on de Bono's story. Like many of the ostensible real-world examples he provides in his books, this one is anecdotal and may well be apocryphal. Even so, he furnishes particular percentage (97% failure, 3% success) to illustrate the point. He is using specificity -- precision -- in a story about the importance and value of imprecise thinking! But I say he's not contradicting himself: he's showing (by example) that effective thought, and effective communication, require selective use of both precision *and* vagueness, as appropriate to the situation. I believe the story would be less effective if told in terms of "the vast majority of the students" vs "just a few". The specious precision of the letter of the tale helps underline its spirit (the "moral", if you like).

The value of general, broad-brush thinking came encapsulated neatly in a comment I heard at a Long Now dinner last March, following the SALT presentation where archaeologist Brian Fagan took a long view of climate change. Among the dinner guests was activist Mike Roselle, co-founder of Earth First!. Roselle has spent his career, body and soul, committed to raising awareness (and occasionally, hell) for ecological ends. And, commenting on the dire need for inroads into the damaging habits that have brought us to the slowly unfolding crisis of our era, he said:

"We don't need to know True North, we just need to move in a northerly direction."

A light went on for me. On one level, Roselle's neat metaphor had an impact because I had spent so many fruitless hours the year before in meetings about Hawaii's sustainability taskforce; hours in which the general nature of the islands' challenge (its economic precariousness) appeared to be agreed and sufficiently well understood by all, yet to which it seemed no specific policy action could be directed because of lack of concrete agreement on statistical metrics such as "carrying capacity". Policy-makers appear to want to know "True North" before taking any steps at all; not willing to realise that the passage of time drags us along in whatever direction we happen to be facing anyway. Still, regardless of its other payoffs, the despoilation of every ecosystem we touch is, simply put, not the right general direction.

And, the next level up, Roselle's words rang true because of the widespread phenomenon of which my experience noted above is just one example: the inescapable fact of future uncertainty which vexes decision-makers quite severely, to the extent that they become paralysed by it.

As a matter of principle, the further out the time horizon one attempts to look, the more radical uncertainty we face. Unforeseeability is compounded. More time means more moments for contingency and chaos to kick in, and the cone of possibility space radiating from the present moment soon expands to encompass a huge array of hypothetical future states, through which the number of conceivable paths exponentially multiplies.

Lest that should prove a little hard to visualise, let me clarify with an example. The Nuclear Waste Management Organisation of Canada, due to the nature of its domain, needs to consider a longer time horizon than pretty much any other type of organisation in the world today. So, when they hired GBN as consultants to produce an array of scenarios for nuclear waste management, they did so for several different, expanding, timeframes: 25 years (1 generation); 175 years (7 generations); 500 years (20 generations) and 10,000 years (400 generations). From the Introduction to GBN's report:

Scenarios are stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. While it is possible to build such logic with some confidence using a 25 year time frame and with much less confidence using a 175 year time frame, moving beyond is nigh impossible: there are just too many options and too much that is unknown. As a result, deliberations at the 500-year time horizon led to descriptions of what came to be known as "end-points" or short descriptions of sets of conditions but with no attempt to structure a logical story. Furthermore, at 10,000 years, the best that the Team could do with any degree of comfort was to generate a series of short statements describing, "what-if such-and-so might happen?"

The full assembly of future possibilities then took the form of four fairly detailed stories extending out 25 years; 12 much briefer scenarios reaching out 175 years; 16 End-points at 500 years, and a long list of very brief What-ifs for 10,000 years. This distribution of shorter and longer lists of, respectively, longer and shorter descriptions satisfies the requirement that we say with relative precision and confidence what we can about the relatively short term, and to outline very briefly as many possibilities as we can imagine in the very long term.

~"Looking Forward to Learn: Future Scenarios for Testing Different Approaches to Managing Nuclear Fuel in Canada", Report submitted to NWMO by GBN, November 02003, p. 8.

Now, where were we?

Oh yeah. Dealing with an uncertain future.

/To be continued.../