Habitum Alteram Naturam – Part 2

Updated 28-Jun-2024

Talkin' 'bout the future

Talking about the future has two senses, the first is along the lines of "just talk" as opposed to action. The second sense has talking as a part of bringing the future into being.

The best way to predict the future is to create it. --Peter Drucker

The Monk

There is a story somewhere which talks about a monk who was so devout and discerning that he only spoke the truth. He was never drawn into saying anything that wasn't true. He never speculated, dissembled, or told anything less than what was absolutely correct. Needless to say, he didn't have many opportunities for conversation; people are fond of their illusions.

It came to pass that the relation between the speech of the monk and the truth of the world was powerfully entwined. When the monk would talk about the future it would become true.

The Futurologist

The futurologist is something of the opposite of the monk. Most futurologists use what is called scenario planning to try and understand the future. A scenario is a description of a "possible future", in the lexicon of futurology. Good scenarios are vivid and compelling, much like a good story.

As the futurologists rely on the notion of possible worlds, it almost statistically impossible for a given scenario to actually come true. The futurologist necessarily lies. Of course the lie is meant to "tell the truth" of the future, much like the famous definition of painting.

The Possible

However, the future doesn't exist in our common sense meaning of the term. The truth that is being told is rather about the possible worlds notion of the future. In possible worlds, the future can be understood as various possibilities, not as an emergent actuality.

Possible worlds do not have a clear relationship to an actual, emergent future. Of course there is likely a feedback mechanism between talking about the future (future possibilities) and which possibilities may become more likely through those conversations.

Perception of the Future

Scenario planning in organizations was pioneered in Shell Oil. They credit their planning of scenarios with sensitizing their management to what was happening during the oil embargo in the 1970s. The unrestricted access to oil fields by oil companies was unquestioned at the time. One scenario, though considered unlikely, was that there would be restricted access at less favorable terms by the sovereign nations who controlled the oil fields. Shell was able to adjust their organizatinal strategy (stop building tankers and refineries, switch resources to exploration activities).

This approach makes scenario planning and perhaps other methods of futurology as adaptive responses to changing environments. So far so good. This approach understands the future as a changing environment that the organization must adapt to in order to survive and thrive. The world now knows, more clearly than ever before, that the possibilities of the future astound us, even when we know that to be the case. The day before the election, Uri Avnery wrote in the Bangkok Post:

In a world in which a person like Barack Hussein Obama can appear from nowhere and advance within a few years to the highest levels of world politics, nothing is predictable--and therefore everything is possible.

Talking helps Thinking

Talking about the future, in semi-structured approaches such as the futurologists scenarios, helps us think and understand future possible environments. These are fictions that train the mind, much like story problems in algebra class.

But how do we take the next step from thinking to action? How can we engage with the real, felt future?

The goal is not to understand the world but to change it. --Karl Marx

End of part 2, part 3 to follow...