One of the episodes which the United States Post Service (USPS) is trying to sweep under the rug, is their attempt to use rocket mail. i.e. send mail on actual rockets. Oh, and you might want to know that the first rocket to be used that way by the USPS was a nuclear missile.
The idea of rocket mail was originally developed in germany in the 19th century, but never really took off. However, as missile technology improved, the USPS took note of the idea and decided to give it a shot. And so, the first official American rocket mail was launched in 1959.
The USPS chose for that purpose a Regulus cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead. They stripped took the warhead off, and replaced it with mail containers that were supposed to withstand the impact when the missile hit the ground. The missile was launched from Virginia and reached its destination in Florida in just 22 minutes. Since the two states are around 700 miles apart (~1,200 km) that means the mail got to its destination at a speed of around 3,500 km/h. That’s pretty impressive for mail delivery.
The US Postmaster General got so excited that he publicly claimed that the event is –
“of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”
and that –
“Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”
Except, as we know very well now, they really didn’t stand on the threshold of rocket mail. The costs of rocket mail were too high – particularly for the infrastructure involved, which included the launch systems and the missile itself which couldn’t be reused. What’s more, at the same time that rocket mail was first attempted, international air travel became dramatically cheaper, so that important packages could easily be delivered in just a single day over the ocean, with no need for rockets of any kind.
Rocket mail is an historic invention which many futurists should consider whenever they gush about new technologies taking over the world. In the end, it all comes down to cost, and if that new technology is more expensive than what you currently use – or even from other technologies that are being developed at the same time – it probably won’t be used after all.
But at least the idea of rocket mail finally found use in Mission Impossible II after all – where Ethan Hunt’s sunglasses are being delivered to him via a rocket. The US Postmaster General can be proud indeed.
I was asked on Quora how the tanks of the future are going to be designed. Here’s my answer – I hope it’ll make you reflect once again on the future of war and what it entails.
And now, consider this: the Israeli Merkava Mark IV tank.
It is one of the most technologically advanced tanks in the world. It is armed with a massive 120 mm smoothbore gun that fires shells with immense explosive power, with two roof-mounted machine guns, and with a 60 mm mortar in case the soldiers inside really want to make a point. However, the tank has to be deployed on the field, and needs to reach its target. It also costs around $6 million.
Now consider this: the Israeli geek (picture taken from the Israeli reality show – Beauty and the Geek). The geek is the one on the left, in case you weren’t sure.
With the click of a button and the aid of some hacking software available on the Darknet, our humble Israeli geek can paralyze whole institutions, governments and critical infrastructures. He can derail trains (happened in Poland), deactivate sewage pumps and mix contaminated water with drinking water (happened in Texas), or even cut the power supply to tens of thousands of people (happened in Ukraine). And if that isn’t bad enough, he could take control over the enemy female citizens’ wireless vibrators and operate it to his and/or their satisfaction (potentially happened already).
Oh, and the Israeli geek works for free. Why? Because he loves hacking stuff. Just make sure you cover the licensing costs for the software he’s using, or he might hack your vibrator next.
So, you asked – “how will futuristic tanks be designed”?
I answer, “who cares”?
But Seriously Now…
When you’re thinking of the future, you have to realize that some paradigms are going to change. One of those paradigms is that of physical warfare. You see, tanks were created to do battle in a physical age, in which they had an important role: to protect troops and provide overwhelming firepower while bringing those troops wherever they needed to be. That was essentially the German blizkrieg strategy.
In the digital age, however, everything is connected to the internet, or very soon will be. Not just every computer, but every bridge, every building, every power plant and energy grid, and every car. And as security futurist Marc Goodman noted in his book Future Crimes, “when everything is connected, everything is vulnerable”. Any piece of infrastructure that you connect to the internet, immediately becomes vulnerable to hacking.
Now, here’s a question for you: what is the purpose of war?
I’ll give you a hint: it’s not about driving tanks with roaring engines around. It’s not about soldiers running and shooting in the field. It’s not even about dropping bombs from airplanes. All of the above are just tools for achieving the real purpose: winning the war by either making the enemy surrender to you, or neutralizing it completely.
And how do you neutralize the enemy? It’s quite simple: you demolish the enemy’s factories; you destroy their cities; you ruin your enemy’s citizens morale to the point where they can’t fight you anymore.
In the physical age, armies clashed on the field because each army was on the way to the other side’s cities and territory. That’s why you needed fast tanks with awesome armanent and armor. But today, in the digital age, hackers can leap straight over the battlefield, and make war directly between cities in real-time. They can shut down hospitals and power plants, kill everyone with a heart pacemaker or an insulin pump, and make trains and cars collide with each other. In short, they could shut down entire cities.
So again – who needs tanks?
I’m not saying there aren’t going to be tanks. The physical aspect of warfare still counts, and one can’t just disregard it. However, tanks simply don’t count as much in comparison to the cyber-security aspects of warfare (partly because tanks themselves are connected nowadays).
Again, that does not mean that tanks are useless. We still need to figure out the exact relationships between tanks and geeks, and precisely where, when and how needs to be deployed in the new digital age. But if you were to ask me in ten years what’s more important – the tank or the geek – then my bet would definitely be on the geek.
If this aspect of future warfare interests you, I invite you to read the two papers I’ve published in the European Journal of Futures Research and in Foresight, about future scenarios for crime and terror that rely on the internet of things.
I was recently asked on Quora whether there is some kind of a grand scheme to things: a destiny that we all share, a guiding hand that acts according to some kind of moral rules.
This is a great question, and one that we’re all worried about. While there’s no way to know for sure, the evidence points against this kind of fate-biased thinking – as a forecasting experiment funded by the US Department of Defense recently showed.
In 2011, the US Department of Defense began funding an unusual project: the Good Judgement Project. In this project, led by Philip E. Tetlock, Barbara Mellers and Don Moore, people were asked to volunteer their time and rate the chance of occurence for certain events. Overall, thousands of people took part in the exercise, and answered hundreds of questions over a time period of two years. Their answers were checked constantly, as soon as the events actually occurred.
After two years, the directors of the project identified a sub-type of people they called Superforecasters. These top forecasters were doing so well, that their predictions were 30% more accurate than those of intelligence officials who had access to highly classified information!
(and yes, for the statistics-lovers among us: the researchers absolutely did run statistical tests that showed the chances of those people being accidentally so accurate were miniscule. The superforecasters kept doing well, over and over again)
Once the researchers identified this subset of people, they began analyzing their personalities and methods of thinking. You can read about it in some of the papers about the research (attached at the end of this answer), as well as in the great book – Superforecasting: the Art and Science of Prediction. For this answer, the important thing to note is that those superforecasters were also tested for what I call “the fate bias”.
It’s obvious why we want to believe in fate. It gives our woes, and the sufferings of others, a special meaning. It justifies our pains, and makes us think that “it’s all for a reason”. Our belief in fate helps us deal with bereavement and with physical and mental pain.
But it also makes us lousy forecasters.
Fate is Incompatible with Accurate Forecasting
In the Good Judgement Project, the researchers ran tests on the participants to check for their belief in fate. They found out that the superforecasters utterly rejected fate. Even more significantly, the better an individual was at forecasting, the more inclined he was to reject fate. And the more he rejected fate, the more accurate he was at forecasting the future.
Fate is Incompatible with the Evidence
And so, it seems that fate is simply incompatible with the evidence. People who try to predict the occurrence of events in a ‘fateful’ way, as if they obeying a certain guiding hand, are prone to failure. On the other hand, those who believe there is no ‘higher order to things’ and plan accordingly, turn out to be usually right.
Does that mean there is no such thing as fate, or a grand scheme? Of course not. We can never disprove the existence of such a ‘grand plan’. What we can say with some certainty, however, is that human beings who claim to know what that plan actually is, seem to be constantly wrong – whereas those who don’t bother explaining things via fate, find out that reality agrees with them time and time again.
So there may be a grand plan. We may be in a movie, or God may be looking down on us from up above. But if that’s the case, it’s a god we don’t understand, and the plan – if there actually is one – is completely undecipherable to us. As Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett beautifully wrote –
God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising… an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.
And if that’s the case, I’d rather just say outloud – “I don’t believe in fate”, and plan and invest accordingly.
You’ll simply have better success that way. And when the universe is cheating at poker with blank cards, Heaven knows you need all the help you can get.
For further reading, here are links to some interesting papers about the Good Judgement Project and the insights derived from it –
I’ve finally had the chance to watch Star Wars – The Force Awakens, and I’m not going to sweeten the deal: It was incredibly mediocre. The director mainly played up on nostalgia value to replace the need for humor, real drama or character development. I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch it – just don’t set your expectations too high.
The really interesting thing in the movie for me, though, was the ongoing Failure of the Paradigm woven throughout the movie. As has often been mentioned in the past, Star Wars is in fact a medieval tale of knights in a shiny armor, a princess in distress (an actual princess! in space!), an evil dark wizard and some father-son unresolved issues. So yeah, we have a civilization that is technologically advanced enough to travel between planets at warp speed without much need for fuel, but we see no similar developments in any other fields: no nano-robots, no human augmentation, no biological warfare, no computer-brain interface, and absolutely no artificial intelligence. And please don’t insult my intelligence by claiming that R2D2 has one.
The question we should be asking is why. Why would any script writer ignore so many of these potential technological developments – some of which are bound to pop up in the next few decades – and focus instead on plots around which countless other stories have been told and retold throughout thousands of years?
The answer is the Failure of Paradigm: we are stuck in the current paradigm of humanity, love, heroes and free will expressed by biological entities. It takes a superb director and script writer – the Wachowskis’ The Matrix comes to mind – to create an excellent movie that makes you rethink those paradigms. But if you stick with the current paradigms, all you need is an average script, an average director and a lot of explosions to create a blockbuster.
Star Wars is a great example of how NOT to make a science fiction movie. It does not explore the boundaries of what’s possible and impossible in any significant way. It does not make us consider the impact of new technologies, or the changing structure of humanity. It sticks to the old lines and old terms: evil vs. good, empire vs. rebels, father vs. son, and a dashing hero with a bumbling damsel in distress (even though the damsel in the new movie is male). It is not science fiction. Instead, it is a fantasy movie.
And that’s great for some people. Heck, maybe even most people. That’s why it’s the ruling paradigm at the moment – it makes people feel happy and content. But I can’t help thinking and regretting the opportunity lost here. A movie with such a huge audience could make people think. The director could have involved a sophisticated AI in the plot, to make people consider the future of working with artificial virtual assistants. Instead we got a clownish robot. And destroying planets with cannons, requiring immense energy output? What evil empire in its right mind would use such an inefficient method? Why not, instead, just reprogram a single bacteria to create ‘grey goo’ – a self-replicating nano-robot that can devour all humans in its path in order to make more replicas of itself?
The answer is obvious: developments like these would make this fictional world too different from anything we’re willing to accept. In a world of sophisticated risk-calculating AI, there’s not much place for heroics. In a world of nano-technology, there’s no place for wasteful explosions. And in a world with brain-machine interfaces, it is entirely possible that there’s no place for love, biological or otherwise. All of these paradigms that are inherent to us would be gone, and that’s a risk most directors and script writers just aren’t willing to take.
So go – watch the new Star Wars movie, for old time sakes. But after you do that, don’t skimp on some other science fiction movies from the last couple of years that force us to rethink our paradigms. I recommend Chappie and Ex Machina from the last year in particular. These movies may not have the same number of eager followers, and in some cases they are quite disturbing (Chappie only received a rating of 31% in Rotten Tomatoes) – but they will make you think between the explosions. And in the end, isn’t that what we should expect from our science fiction?
At the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, French artists made an attempt to forecast the shape of the world in 2000. They produced a few dozens of vivid and imaginative drawings (clearly they did not succumb to the Failure of the Paradigm!)
Here are a few samples from the World Exhibition. Can you tell what all of those have in common with each other?
“If you leaf through a few of them, you quickly notice that each of these books says more about the times in which it was written than about the times it was meant to foretell.”
You only need to take another look at the images to convince yourselves of the truth of Gilbert’s statement. The women and men are dressed in the same way they were dressed in 1900, except for when they go ‘bird hunting’ – in which case the gentlemen wear practical swimming suits, whereas the ladies still stick with their cumbersome dresses underwater. Policemen still employ swords and brass helmets, and of course there are no policewomen. Last but not least, it seems that the future is entirely reserved to the Caucasian race, since nowhere in these drawings can you see persons of African or Asian descent.
The Failure of Myth
While some of the technologies depicted in these ancient paintings actually became reality (Skype is a nice example), it clear the artists completely failed to capture a larger change. You may call this a change in the zeitgeist, the spirit of the generation, or in the myths that surround our existence and lives. I’ll be calling this A Failure of Myth, and I hope you’ll agree that it’s impossible to consider the future without also taking into account these changes in our mythologies and underlying social and cultural assumptions: men can be equal to women, colored folks have rights similar to white folks, and people of the LGBT have just the same right to exist as heterosexuals. None of these assumptions would’ve been obvious, or included in the myths and stories upon which society is bases, a mere fifty years ago. Today they’re being taken for granted.
Could we ever have forecast these changes?
Much as in the Failure of the Paradigm, I would posit that we could never accurately forecast the future ways in which myths and culture is about to change. We could hazard some guesses, but that’s just what they are: a guesswork that relies more on our myths in the present, than on solid understanding of the future.
That said, there are certain methodologies used by foresight researchers that could help us at least chart different solutions to problems in the present, in ways that force us to consider our current myths and worldviews – and challenge them when needed. These methodologies allow us to create alternative futures that could be vastly different from the present in the ways that really matter: how people think of themselves, of each other, and of the world around them.
In the rest of this blog post, I’ll sum up the practical principles of CLA, and show how they could be used to analyze different issues dealing with the future. Following that, in the next blog post, we’ll take a look again at the issue of aerial drones used for terrorist attacks, and use CLA to consider ways to deal with the threat.
CLA – Causal Layered Analysis
The core of CLA the idea that every problem can be looked at in four successive layers, each deeper than the previous one. Let’s look at each layer at its turn, and see how each layer adds depth to a discussion about a certain problem: the “high rate of medical mistakes leading to serious injury or death”, as Inayatullah describes in his book. My brief analysis of this problem at every level is almost entirely based on his examples and thoughts.
First Layer: the Litany
The litany is the day-to-day talk. When you’re arguing at dinner parties about the present and the future, you’re almost certainly using the first layer. You’re basically repeating whatever you’ve heard from the media, from the politicians, from thought leaders and from your family. You may make use of data and statistics, but these are only interpreted according to the prevalent and common worldview that most people share.
When we rely on the first layer to consider the issue of medical mistakes, we look at the problem in a largely superficial manner. We can sum the approach in one sentence: “physicians make mistakes? Teach them better, and if they still don’t improve, throw them to jail!” In effect, we’re focusing on the people who are making the mistake – the ones whom it’s so easy to blame. The solutions in this layer are usually short-term solutions, and can be summed up in short sentences that appeal to audiences who share the same worldview.
Second Layer: the Systemic View
Using the systemic view of the second layer, we try to delve deeper into the issue. We don’t blame people anymore (although that does not mean we remove the responsibility to their mistakes from their shoulders), but instead we try to understand how the system itself can contribute to the actions of the individual. To do that we analyze the social, economic and political forces that meld the system into its current shape.
In the case of medical mistakes, the second layer encourages us to start asking tougher questions about the systems under which physicians operate. Could it be, for example, that physicians are rushing their treatments since they are only allowed to talk with each patient 5-10 minutes, as is the custom in many public medical services? Or perhaps the shape of the hospital does not allow physicians to consult easily with each other, thus reaching more solid solutions via teamwork?
The questions asked in the second layer mode of thinking allow us to improve the system itself and make it more efficient. We do not take the responsibility off the shoulders of the individuals, but we do accept that better systems allow and encourage individuals to reach their maximum efficiency.
Third Layer: Worldview
This is the layer where things get hoary for most people. In this layer we try to identify and question the prevalent worldview and how it contributes to the issue. These are our “cognitive lenses” via which we view and interpret the world.
As we try to analyze the issue of medical mistakes in the third layer, we begin to identify the worldviews behind medicine. We see that in modern medicine, the doctor is standing “high above” in the hierarchy of knowledge – certainly much higher than patients. This hierarchy of knowledge and prestige defines the relationship between the physician and the patient. As we understand this worldview, solutions that would’ve fit in the second layer – like the time physicians spend with patients – seem more like a small bandage on a gut wound, than an effective way to deal with the issue.
Another worldview that can be identified and challenges in this layer is the idea that patients actually need to go to clinics or to hospitals for check-ups. In an era of tele-presence and electronics, why not make use of wearable computing or digital doctors to take care of many patients? As we see this worldview and propose alternatives, we find that systemic solutions like “changing the shape of the hospitals” become unnecessary once more.
Fourth Layer: the Myth
The last layer, the myth, deals with the stories we tell ourselves and our children about the world and the ways things work. Mythologies are defined by Wikipedia as –
“a collection of myths… [and] stories … [that] explain nature, history, and customs.”
Make no mistake: our children’s books are all myths that serve to teach children how they should behave in society. When my son reads about Curious George, he learns that unrestrained curiosity can lead you into danger, but also to unexpected rewards. When he reads about Hensel and Gretel, he learns of the dangers of trusting strangers and step-moms. Even fantasy books teach us myths about the value of wisdom, physical prowess and even beauty as the tall, handsome prince saves the day. Myths are perpetuated everywhere in culture, and are constantly strengthened in our minds through the media.
What can we say about medical mistakes in the Myth level? Inayatullah believes that the deepest problem, immortalized in myth throughout the last two millennia, is that “the doctor knows best”. Patients are taught from a very young age that the physician’s verdict is more important than their own thoughts and feelings, and that they should not argue against it.
While I see the point in Inayatullah’s view, I’m not as certain that it is the reason behind medical mistakes. Instead, I would add a partner-myth: “the human doctor knows best”. This myth is spread to medical doctors in many institutes, and makes it more difficult to them to rely on computerized analysis, or even to consider that as human beings they’re biased by nature.
Consolidating the Layers
As you may have realized by now, CLA is not used to forecast one accurate future, but is instead meant to deepen our thinking about potential futures. Any discussion about long-term issues should open with an analysis of those issues in each of the four layers, so that the solutions we propose – i.e. the alternative futures – can deal not only with the superficial aspects of the issue, but also with the deeper causes and roots.
The Failure of Myth – i.e. our difficulty to realize that the future will not only change technologically, but also in the myths and worldviews we hold – is impossible to counter completely. We can’t know which myths will be promoted by future generations, just as we can’t forecast scientific breakthroughs fifty years in advance.
At most, we can be aware of the existence of the Failure of Myth in every discussion we hold about the future. We must assume, time after time, that the myths of future generations will be different from ours. My grandchildren may look at their meat-eating grandfather in horror, or laugh behind his back at his pants and shirt – while they walk naked in the streets. They may believe that complicated decisions should be left solely to computers, or that physical work should never be performed by human beings. These are just some of the possible myths that future generations can develop for themselves.
In the next blog post, I’ll go over the issue of aerial drones use for terrorist attacks, and analyze it by using CLA to identify a few possible myths and worldviews that we may need to change in order to deal with this threat.
In this post we’ll embark on a journey back in time, to the year 2000, when you were young and eager students. You’re sitting in a lecture given by a bald and handsome futurist. He’s promising to you that within 15 years, i.e. in the year 2015, the exponential growth in computational capabilities will ensure that you will be able to hold a super-computer in your hands.
“Yeah, right,” a smart-looking student sniggers loudly, “and what will we do with it?”
The futurist explains that the future you will watch movies, and hear music with that tiny computer. You exchange bewildered looks with your friends. You all find that difficult to believe in – how can you store large movies on such a small computer? The futurist explains that another trend – that of exponential growth in data storage – will mean that your hand-held super-computer will also store tens of thousands of megabytes.
You see some people in the audience rolling their eyes – promises, promises! Yet you are willing to keep on listening. Of course, the futurist then completely jumps off the cliff of rationality, and promises that in 15 years, everyone will enjoy wireless connectivity almost everywhere, at a speed of tens of megabytes per second.
“That makes no sense.” The smart student laughs again. “Who will ever need such a wireless network? Almost nobody has laptop computers anyway!”
The futurist reminds you that everyone is going to carry super-computers on their bodies in the future. The heckler laughs again, loudly.
The Failure of Segregation
I assume you realize the point by now. The failure demonstrated in this exchange is what I call The Failure of Segregation. It is an incredibly common failure, stemming from our need to focus on only a single trend, and missing the combined and cumulative impacts of two, three or even ten trends at the same time.
In the example above, the forecast made by the futurist would not have been reasonable if only one trend was analyzed. Who needs a superfast Wi-Fi if there aren’t advanced laptops and smartphones to use it? Almost nobody. So from a rational point of view, there’s no reason to invest in such a wireless network. It is only when you consider three trends together – exponential growth in computational capabilities, data storage and wireless network – that you can understand the future.
Every product we enjoy today, is the result of several trends coming into fruition together. Facebook, for example, would not have been nearly as successful if not for these trends –
Exponential growth in computational capabilities, so that nearly everyone has a personal computer.
Miniaturization and mobilization of computers into smartphones.
Exponential improvement of digital cameras, so that every smartphone has a camera today.
Cable internet everywhere.
Wireless internet (Wi-Fi) everywhere.
Cellular internet connections provided by the cellular phone companies.
GPS receiver in every smartphone.
The social trend of people using online social networks.
These are only eight trends, but I’m sure there are many others standing behind Facebook’s success. Only by looking at all eight trends could we have hoped to forecast the future accurately.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to look into all the possible trends at the same time.
A Problem of Complexity
Let’s say that you are now aware of the Failure of Segregation, and so you try to contemplate all of the technological trends together, to obtain a more accurate image of the future. If you try to consider just three technological trends (A, B and C) and the ways they could work together to create new products, you would have four possible results: AB, AC, BC and ABC. That’s not so bad, is it?
However, if you add just one more technological trend to the mix, you’ll find yourself with eleven possible results. Do the calculations yourself if you don’t believe me. The formula is relatively simple, with N being the number of trends you’re considering, and X being the number of possible combinations of trends –
It’s obvious that for just ten technological trends, there are about a thousand different ways to combine them together. Considering twenty trends will cause you a major headache, and will bring the number of possible combinations up to one million. Add just ten more trends, and you get a billion possible combinations.
To give you an understanding of the complexity of the task on hand, the international consulting firm Gartner has taken the effort to map 37 of the most highly expected technological trends in their Gartner’s 2015 Hype Cycle. I’ll let you do the calculations yourself for the number of combinations stemming from all of these trends.
The problem, of course, becomes even more complicated once you realize you can combine the same two, three or ten technologies to achieve different results. Smart robots (trend A) enjoying machine learning capabilities (trend B) could be used as autonomous cars, or they could be used to teach pupils in class. And of course, throughout this process we pretend to know that said trends will be continue just the way we expect them to – and trends rarely do that.
What you should be realizing by now is that the opposite of the Failure of Segregation is the Failure of Over-Aggregation: trying to look at tens of trends at the same time, even though the human brain cannot hold such an immense variety of resultant combinations and solutions.
So what can we do?
Dancing between Failures
Sadly, there’s no golden rule or a simple solution to these failures. The important thing is to be aware of their existence, so that discussions about the future cannot be oversimplified into considering just one trend, detached from the others.
Professional futurists use a variety of methods, including scenario development, general morphological analysis and causal layered analysis to analyze the different trends and attempt to recombine them into different solutions for the future. These methodologies all have their place, and I’ll explain them and their use in other posts in the future. However, for now it should be clear that the incredibly large number of possible solutions makes it impossible to consider only one future with any kind of certainty.
In some of the future posts in this series, I’ll delve deeper into the various methodologies designed to counter the two failures. It’s going to be interesting!
I often imagine myself meeting James Clark Maxwell, one of the greatest physicists in the history of the Earth, and the one indirectly responsible for almost all the machinery we’re using today – from radio to television sets and even power plants. He was recognized as a genius in his own time, and became a professor at the age of 25 years old. His research resulted in Maxwell’s Equations, which describe the connection between electric and magnetic fields. Every electronic device in existence today, and practically all the power stations transmitting electricity to billions of souls worldwide – they all owe their existence to Maxwell’s genius.
And yet when I approach that towering intellectual of the 19th century in my imagination, and try to tell him about all that has transpired in the 20th century, I find that he does not believe me. That is quite unseemly of him, seeing as he is a figment of my imagination, but when I devote some more thought to the issue, I realize that he has no reason to accept any word that I say. Why should he?
At first I decide to go cautiously with the old boy, and tell him about the X-rays – whose discovery was made in 1895, just 26 years after Maxwell’s death. “Are you talking of light that can go through the human body and chart all the bones in the way?” he asks me incredulously. “That’s impossible!”
And indeed, there is no scientific school in 1879 – Maxwell’s death date – that can support the idea of X-rays.
I decide to jump ahead and skip the theory of relativity, and instead tell him about the atom bomb that demolished Nagasaki and Hiroshima. “Are you trying to tell me that just by banging together two pieces of that chemical which you call Uranium 235, I can release enough energy to level an entire town?” he scoffs. “How gullible do you think I am?”
And once again, I find that I cannot fault him for disbelieving my claims. According to all the scientific knowledge from the 19th century, energy cannot come from nowhere. Maxwell, for all his genius, does not believe me, and could not have forecast these advancements when he was alive. Indeed, no logical forecasters from the 19th century would have made these predictions about the future, since they suffered from the Failure of the Paradigm.
A paradigm, according to Wikipedia, is “a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns”. In this definition one could include theories and even research methods. More to the point, a paradigm describes what can and cannot happen. It sets the boundaries of belief for us, and any forecast that falls outside of these boundaries requires the forecaster to come up with extremely strong evidence to justify it.
Up to our modern times and the advent of science, paradigms changed in a snail-like pace. People in the medieval times largely figured that their children would live and die the same way as they themselves did, as would their grandchildren and grand-grandchildren, up to the day of rapture. But then Science came, with thousands of scientists researching the movement of the planets, the workings of the human body – and the connections between the two. And as they uncovered the mysteries of the universe and the laws that govern our bodies, our planets and our minds, paradigms began to change, and the impossible became possible and plausible.
The discovery of the X-rays is just one example of an unexpected shift in paradigms. Other such shifts include –
Using nuclear energy in reactors and in bombs
Lord Rutherford – the “father of nuclear physics” in the beginning of the 20th century, often denigrated the idea that the energy existing in matter would be utilized by mankind, and yet one year after his death, the fission of the uranium nucleus was discovered.
According to the legend, the great experimental physicist Michael Faraday was paid a visit by governmental representatives back in the 19th century. Faraday showed the delegation his clunky and primitive electric motors – the first of their kind. The representatives were far from impressed, and one of them asked “what could possibly be the use for such toys?” Faraday’s answer (which is probably more urban myth than fact) was simple – “what use is a newborn baby?”
Today, our entire economy and life are based on electronics and on the power obtained from electric power plants – all of them based on Faraday’s innovations, and completely unexpected at his time.
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells
This paradigm shift has happened just nine years ago. It was believed that biological cells, once they mature, can never ‘go back’ and become young again. Shinya Yamanaka other researchers have turned that belief on its head in 2006, by genetically engineering mature human cells back into youth, turning them into stem cells. That discovery has earned Yamanaka his 2012 Nobel prize.
How Paradigms Advance
It is most illuminating to see how computers have advanced throughout the 20th century, and have constantly shifted from one paradigm to the other along the years. From 1900 to the 1930s, computers were electromechanical in nature: slow and cumbersome constructs with electric switches. As technology progressed and new scientific discoveries were made, computers progressed to using electric relay technology, and then to vacuum tubes.
One of the first and best known computers based on vacuum tubes technology is the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which weighed 30 tons and used 200 kilowatts of electricity. It could perform 5,000 calculations a second – a task which every smartphone today exceeds without breaking a sweat… since the smartphones are based on new paradigms of transistors and integrated circuits.
At each point in time, if you were to ask most computer scientists whether computers could progress much beyond their current state of the art, the answer would’ve been negative. If the scientists and engineers working on the ENIAC were told about a smartphone, they would’ve been completely baffled. “How can you put so many vacuum tubes into one device?” they would’ve asked. “and where’s the energy to operate them all going to come from? This ‘smartphone’ idea is utter nonsense!”
And indeed, one cannot build a smartphone with vacuum tubes. The entire computing paradigm needed to change in order for this new technology to appear on the world’s stage.
What does the Failure of the Paradigm mean? Essentially what it means is that we cannot reliably forecast a future that is distant enough for a paradigm shift to occur. Once the paradigm changes, all previous limitations and boundaries are absolved, and what happens next is up to grabs.
This insight may sound gloomy, since it makes clear that reliable forecasts are impossible to make a decade or two into the future. And yet, now that we understand our limitations we can consider ways to circumvent them. The solutions I’ll propose for the Failure of the Paradigm are not as comforting as the mythical idea that we can know the future, but if you want to be better prepared for the next paradigm, you should consider employing them.
Solutions for the Failure of the Paradigm
First Solution: Invent the New Paradigm Yourself
The first solution is quite simple: invent the new paradigm yourself, and thus be the one standing on top when the new paradigm takes hold. The only problem is, nobody is quite certain what the next paradigm is going to be. This is the reason why we see the industry giants of today – Google, Facebook, and others – buying companies left-and-right. They’re purchasing drone companies, robotics companies, A.I. companies, and any other idea that looks as if it has a chance to grow into a new and successful paradigm a decade from now. They’re spreading and diversifying their investments, since if even one of these investments leads into the new paradigm, they will be the Big Winners.
Of course, this solution can only work for you if you’re an industry giant, with enough money to spare on many futile directions. If you’re a smaller company, you might consider the second solution instead.
Second Solution: Utilize New Paradigms Quickly
The famous entrepreneur Peter Diamandis often encourages executives to invite small teams of millennials into their factories and companies, and asking them to actively come up with ideas to disrupt the current workings of the company. The millennials – people between 20 to 30 years old – are less bound by ancient paradigms than the people currently working in most companies. Instead, they are living the new paradigms of social media, internet everywhere, constant surveillance and loss of privacy, etc. They can utilize and deploy the new paradigms rapidly, in a way that makes the old paradigms seem antique and useless.
This solution, then, helps executives circumvent the Failure of the Paradigm by adapting to new paradigms as quickly as possible.
Third Solution: Forecast Often, and Read Widely
One of the rules for effective Forecasting, as noted futurist Paul Saffo wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2007, is to forecast often. The proficient forecaster needs to be constantly on the alert for new discoveries and breakthroughs in science and technology – and be prepared to suggest new forecasts accordingly.
The reason behind this rule is that new paradigms rarely (if ever) appear out of the blue. There are always telltale signs, which are called Weak Signals in foresight slang. Such weak signals can be uncovered by searching for new patents, reading Scientific American, Science and Nature to find out about new discoveries, and generally browsing through the New York Times every morning. By so doing, one can be certain to have better hunch about the oncoming of a new paradigm.
Fourth Solution: Read Science Fiction
You knew that one was coming, didn’t you? And for a good reason, too. Many science fiction novels are based on some kind of a paradigm shift occurring, that forces the world to adapt to it. Sometimes it’s the creation of the World Wide Web (which William Gibson speculated about in his science fiction works), or rockets being sent to the moon (As was the case in Jules Verne’s book – “From the Earth to the Moon”), or even dealing with cloning, genetic engineering and bringing back extinct species, as in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.
Science fiction writers consider the possible paradigm shifts and analyze their consequences and implications for the world. Gibson and other science fiction writers understood that if the World Wide Web will be created, then we’ll have to deal with cyber-hackers, with cloud computing, and with mass-democratization of information. In short, they forecast the implications of the new paradigm shift.
Science fiction does not provide us with a solid forecast for the future, then, but it helps us open our minds and escape the Failure of the Paradigm by considering many potential new paradigms at the same time. While there is no research to support this claim, I truly believe that avid science fiction readers are better prepared for new paradigms than everyone else, as they’ve already lived those new paradigms in their minds.
Fifth Solution: Become a Believer
When trying to look far into the future, don’t focus on the obstacles of the present paradigm. Rather if you constantly see that similar obstacles have been overcome in the past (as happened with computers), there is a good reason to assume that the current obstacles will be defeated as well, and a new paradigm will shine through. Therefore, you have to believe that mankind will keep on finding solutions and developing new paradigms. The forecaster is forced, in short, to become a believer.
Obviously, this is one of the toughest solutions to implement for us as rational human beings. It also requires us to look carefully at each technological field in order to understand the nature of the obstacles, and how long will it take (according to the trends from the past) to come up with a new paradigm to overcome them. Once the forecaster identifies these parameters, he can be more secure in his belief that new paradigms will be discovered and established.
Sixth Solution: Beware of Experts
This is more of an admonishment than an actual solution, but is true all the same. Beware of experts! Experts are people whose knowledge was developed during the previous paradigm, or at best during the current one. They often have a hard time translating their knowledge into useful insights about the next paradigm. While they can highlight all the difficulties existing in the current paradigm, it is up to you to consider how in touch those experts are with the next potential paradigms, and whether or not to listen to their advice. That’s what Arthur C. Clarke’s first law is all about –
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
The Failure of the Paradigm is a daunting one, since it means we can never forecast the future as reliably as we would like to. Nonetheless, business people today can employ the above solutions to be better prepared for the next paradigm, whatever it turns out to be.
Of all the proposed solutions to the Failure of the Paradigm, I like the fourth one the best: read science fiction. It’s a cheap solution that also brings much enjoyment to one’s life. In fact, when I consult for industrial firms, I often hire science fiction writers to write stories about the possible future of the company in light of a few potential paradigms. The resulting stories are read avidly by many of the employees in the company, and in many cases show the executives just how unprepared they are for these new paradigms.
Picture from Wikipedia, uploaded by the user Yerevanci
Today I would like to talk (write?) about the first of several different failures in foresight. This first failure – called the Failure of Nerve – had been identified in 1962 by noted futurist and science fiction titan Sir Arthur C. Clarke. While Clarke has mostly pinpointed this failure as a preface for his book about the future, I’ve identified several forces leading to the Failure of Nerve, and discuss ways to circumvent it, in the hope that the astute reader will avoid making similar failures when thinking about the future.
Failure of Nerve
The Failure of Nerve is one of the most frequent of failures when talking or writing about the future, at least in my personal experience. When experts or even laypeople are expressing an opinion about the future, you expect them to be knowledgeable enough to be aware of the facts and the data from the present. And yet, all too often, this expectation is smashed on the hard-rock of mankind’s arrogance. The Failure of Nerve occurs when people are too fearful of looking for answers in the data that surrounds them, and instead focus on repeating their preconceived notions – which might’ve been true in the past, but are no longer relevant in the present.
Examples for Failures of Nerve are sadly abundant. Many quote Simon Newcomb, the famous American astronomer, who declared that flying machines are essentially impossible, a mere two years before the first flight of the Wright brothers –
“The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be.”
However, this is not a Failure of Nerve, since in Newcomb’s time, the data from the scientific labs themselves was incorrect. As the Wright brothers wrote about their experiments –
“Having set out with absolute faith in the existing scientific data, we were driven to doubt one thing after another, till finally, after two years of experiment, we cast it all aside, and decided to rely entirely upon our own investigations.”
Newcomb’s Failure of Nerve appeared later on, when he was confronted with reports about the Wright brothers’ success. Instead of withholding judgement and checking the data again, Newcomb only conceded that flying machines may have a slight chance of existing, but they could certainly not carry any other human beings other than the pilot.
A similar Failure of Nerve can be found in the words of Napoleon Bonaparte from the year 1800, uttered in reply to news regarding Robert Fulton’s steamboat –
“What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.”
Had the uprising emperor bothered to take a better look at the current state of steamboats, he would’ve learned that boats with “bonfires under their decks” were already carrying passengers in the United States, even though the venture was not a commercial success. Fulton went on to construct a steamboat (nicknamed “Fulton’s Folly”) that rose to fame, and in 1816 France finally recovered its senses and purchased a steamboat from Great Britain. Knowing of Napoleon’s genius in warfare, it is an interesting thought exercise to consider how history might have changed had the emperor realized the potential in steamboats when the technology was still emergent.
How do we deal with a Failure of Nerve? To find the answer to that question, we need to understand the forces that make this failure so common.
Behind the Curtains of the Nerve
There are at least three different forces that can contribute to a Failure of Nerve. These are: selective exposure to information, confirmation bias, and last but definitely not least – the conservation of reputation.
The Force of Selective Exposure
Selective exposure to information is something we all suffer from. In this day and age, we have an abundance of information. In the past, news would’ve had taken weeks and months to get to us, and we only had the village elder’s opinion to interpret them for us. Today we’re flooded by information from multiple media sources, each of which with its own not-so-secret agenda. We’re also exposed to columns by social critics and other luminaries, and we can usually tell in advance how they look at things. If you read Tom Friedman’s column, you can be sure he’ll give you the leftist approach. If you open the TV at The Glenn Beck Program, on the other hand, you’ll get the right-winged view.
An abundance of information is all good and well, until you realize that human beings today suffer from a scarcity in attention. They can only focus on one article at a time, and as a result they must choose how to divide their time between competing pieces of information. The easiest choice? Obviously, to go with the news that support your current view on life. And that is indeed the way that many people choose – and understandably results in a Failure of Nerve. How can you be aware of any new information that stands in contradiction to your core beliefs, if you only listen to the people who repeat those same core beliefs?
Philip E. Tetlock, in his new book Superforcasting, tells about Doug Lorch, one of the top forecasters discovered in recent years, who has found a way to circumvent selective exposure, albeit at an effort. In the words of Tetlock (p. 126) –
“Doug knows that when people read for pleasure they naturally gravitate to the like-minded. So he created a database containing hundreds of information sources – from the New York Times to obscure blogs – that are tagged by their ideological orientation, subject matter, and geographical origin, then wrote a program that selects what he should read next using criteria that emphasize diversity. … Doug is not merely open-minded. He is actively open-minded.”
Of course, reading opposite views to the one you adhere to can be annoying and vexing, to say the least. And yet, there is no other way to form a more nuanced and solid view of the future.
The Force of Confirmation Bias
Sadly, even when a person chooses to actively open his or her mind to different views, it does not mean that they will be able to assimilate the lessons into their outlook. As human beings, one is wired to –
“…search for, interpret, prefer, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less attention to information that contradicts it.” – Wikipedia
The confirmation bias is well-known to any expecting future-parent. You walk around in the city, and you find that the street is choke-full of parents with strollers and babies. They are everywhere. You can’t avoid them in the streets, on the bus, and even at work you find that your co-worker had decided to bring her children to the workplace today. So what happened? Has the world’s birth rate doubled itself all of a sudden?
The obvious answer is that we are constantly influenced by confirmation bias. If our mind is constantly thinking about babies, then we’ll pay more attention to any dripping toddler crossing the road, and the memory will be etched much more firmly into our minds.
The confirmation bias does not influence only young parents. It has some real importance in the way we view our world. A study from 2009 demonstrated that when people were asked to read certain articles spend 36 percent more time, on average, reading articles that they agreed with. Another study from 2009 demonstrated that when conservatives are watching The Colbert Report – in which Stephen Colbert satirizes the part of a right-winged news reporter – they read extra-meaning into his words. They claimed that Colbert only pretends to be joking, and actually means what he says on the show.
How does confirmation bias relate to the Failure of Nerve? In a way, it serves to negate some of the bad reputation that the Failure of Nerve has garnered from Clarke. The confirmation bias basically means that unless we make a truly tremendous and conscious attempt to analyze the world around us, our mind will fool us. We’ll pay less attention to evidence that refutes our current outlook, and consider it of lesser importance than other pieces of evidence. Or as the pioneer of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, put it (I found this great quote in a highly recommended blog: You Are Not So Smart) –
“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”
Can we fight off the influence of the confirmation bias over our thinking process? We can do that partially, but never completely and it will never be easy. Warren Buffett (third on the list of Forbes’ richest people in the world, and one of the most successful investors in the world) uses two means to tackle the confirmation bias: he specifically looks for dissenters and invites them to speak up, and (assumedly) he’s writing down promptly any piece of evidence that stands in contradiction to his current ideas. In the words of Buffet himself (quoted in TheDataPoint) –
“Charles Darwin used to say that whenever he ran into something that contradicted a conclusion he cherished, he was obliged to write the new finding down within 30 minutes. Otherwise his mind would work to reject the discordant information, much as the body rejects transplants.”
In short, in order to minimize the impact of confirmation bias, you need to remain constantly vigilant against the tendency to be certain of yourself. You must chase after those who disagree with you and seek their opinions actively, and perhaps most importantly: you should write it all down in order to distance yourself from your original perspective, and allow yourself to judge your thinking as though it were someone else’.
The Conservation of Reputation
One of the best known laws in the physical world is the Conservation of Mass. Only slightly less well-known is the law of Conservation of Reputation, which states that the average expert always takes the best of care not to lose face or reputation in his or her dealings with the media. Upton Sinclair had summed up the this law nicely when he wrote –
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Sadly enough, most experts believe that revisions of past forecasts, or indeed any change of opinion at all, will diminish and tarnish their reputation. And so, we can meet experts who will deny reality even when they meet it face-to-face. Some of them are probably blinded by their own big ideas and egos. Others probably choose to conserve what’s left of their reputation and dignity at any cost, even as they see their forecasts shrivel and wither in the light of the present.
The story of Larry Kudlow is particularly prominent in this regard. Kudlow forecast that President George W. Bush’s substantial tax cuts will result in an economic boom. The forecast fell flat, and the economy did not progress as well as it did during President Clinton’s reign. Kudlow did not seem to notice, and declared that the “Bush Rush” is here already. In fact, in 2008 he proclaimed that the current progress of American economy “may be the greatest story never told”. Five months later, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and the entire global financial system collapsed along with that of the U.S.
I am going to assume that Kudlow was truly sincere in his proclamations, but obviously many other experts will not feel the need to be as honest, and will adhere to their past proclamations and declarations come hell or high water. And if we’re totally honest, then it must be said that the public encourages such behavior. In January 2009, The Kudlow Report (starring none other than Kudlow himself) began airing on CNBS. Indeed, sticking to your guns even in the face of reality seems to be one of the most important lessons for experts who wish to come up with the upper hand in the present – and assume correctly that few if any would force them to come to terms with their forecasts from the past.
In this text, the first of several, I’ve covered the Failure of Nerve in foresight and forecasting. The Failure of Nerve was originally identified by Arthur C. Clarke, but I’ve tried to make use of our current understanding of behavioral psychology to add more depth and to identify ways for people to overcome this all-too-common failure. Another book which has been very helpful in this endeavor was the recently published Superforecasting by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, which you should definitely read if you’re interested in the art and science of forecasting.
There are obviously several other failures in foresight, which I will cover in future articles on the subject.