Blindspots to the future

By Robert Hickson 18/11/2015


Why is it more commonplace to attempt to predict technological developments, but not to be as speculative about cultural changes?

Tom Vanderbilt, writing in the Nautilus, discusses this. I’ve touched on this previously (and here) but Vanderbilt does it in more depth. He suggests that we both fail to notice some changes, and fail to give sufficient importance to some things that don’t change.

Vanderbilt quotes social historian Judith Flanders:

“Futurology is almost always wrong because it rarely takes into account behavioral changes”

And from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile

“We notice what varies and changes more that what plays a larger role but doesn’t change”

That’s not to say that social and cultural factors aren’t ignored. Demographic and ethnic changes are often highlighted as important drivers of change. But their implications can be too generalised, or not examined in the particular, so they are of little value.

The shock of the old

Vanderbilt draws on David Edgerton’s 2006 book The shock of the old (an interview in the Guardian is here). Edgerton makes two substantive points. Firstly, that we focus too much on current “innovations” and technologies as ideas, and not enough on how they are, or may be, used (or fail to be used.)

Secondly, we usually neglect to recognize that these new things sit alongside a much bigger collection of “old” technologies that remain useful. And also that particular inventions, or uses of them, wax and wane. This was also the thesis of James Burke’s excellent Connections TV series , which I loved watching when I was little.

People, Edgerton suggests, have come to think of “technology” as new and innovative, or view only certain things as technology.

You can see this in some of the sweeping prognostications about 3D printing, driverless cars, the singularity, etc.

[An aside: Edgerton also discusses the spuriousness of assertions that technological change is increasing (or decreasing). He points out that there is no common measure for assessing this (and proxies, such as patent numbers, that we do use aren’t very good), so it’s usually supported or disproved by anecdote.]

As Lem noted the urge for progress (see my last blog posting), Edgerton picks out our urge for novelty. We expect more change than usually occurs.

A useful metaphor, that Vanderbilt brings up, can be the telescope – we point it at “the future” to focus on particular features to bring them nearer. In the process we can miss what’s not in the field of view or, as some have done, “see” things that aren’t really there.

Martian face?
Martian face?

And sometimes we look through the opposite end of the telescope to make the past appear further away than it actually is.

So what makes a better futurist (and futures programme)?

Futurists, like economists need to pay more attention to what is going on around them now (and has happened before), rather than projecting too far forward with a limited range of indicators.

Often it’s the little changes that may matter most. Such as, people making costumes for their robots, grieving their destruction, or giving them funeral rights. Call centres starting to bring back real human conversation, The increasing numbers of tattoo parlours, gyms, and convenience stores on British High Streets as other businesses succumb to competition from online providers or mega store retailers.

Look to places other than the traditional “hot beds” of innovation like Silicon Valley. African countries, for example, are both developing new technologies, and applying existing technologies in new ways. How we find new uses for the “old” may be more important than creating new stuff.

Consider what you are certain about, and why. Many futures scenarios focus on what are “critical” uncertainties. Maybe we should also look more closely at what we consider are “critical certainties”. Questions, not predictions are generally the better course.

And avoid futuring alone. As some of the research from IARPA’s Good Judgement Project indicates, a team rather than an individual may often be better. Particularly if you can have a good argument. Futuring is a social activity too.