Thursday, January 1, 2009

WHAT CAN WE KNOW ABOUT THE FUTURE?

PART ONE – THE NATURAL

There are many question marks hanging over 2009. The end of 2008 had a significantly different tone from the beginning of the year. Warning lights came on with sudden increases in the values of commodities in particular oil and cereals. Then alarm bells started ringing as the American housing market was ripped open exposing a multi-headed cancer, with tentacles clearly originating in the organs of credit – the international industrial banking complex. While some of the largest and most trusted banking institutions were lying, not just on their backs in theatre attended by treasury surgeons, the sirens were crying from many corners, emergency meetings were convened and packets of blood were called for – truckloads. “What will we face in 2009?” has become a nagging question in many people’s minds. The question also begets another more abstract and more useful question – “What can we know about the future?”

The difference between the two questions is that the former invites an answer about how the external world will impact on us, whereas the latter shifts the focus onto a subject we all find interesting – ourselves. And we all have a stake in the future. The first thing to understand is that the future, like knowledge, is a concept. The words future and knowledge embody significant multi-layered meanings about our relationship with the world around us (and inside us) about which there is much common agreement. Whilst there may be many shades of meaning between individuals, there is a strong consensus about the central idea about what the future is and is not.

Knowledge and future are both high order ideas, that is, they are ideas which enclose and contain other ideas. The future is an aspect of a higher order idea again, the idea of time. On the one hand the future, like eternity, is a very long time, on the other it could be a brief moment. An astro-physicist and an atomic-particle physicist use different scales for measuring time’s multiple depths. The utility of higher order concepts such as knowledge and the future are their malleability. Like a piece of string (theory) the future can be expanded or contracted to whatever frame is most useful at the time. The mathematical association of time with energy and what it might mean about the nature of the cosmos is a pre-occupation for those with a mind for such things. For the majority of ordinary mortals however the first thing that we can know about an infinitely long period of time, to which we have very little access, is that the vast bulk of it does not concern us. Accepting our limitations, narrows our focus and our energies to the things that matter the most, which are generally prosaic. Where are we heading and are we heading in roughly the right direction? What is around the corner? Can we improve our situation?

From an ordinary human perspective the future is conjoined to the past through the present. The present like the future is an arbitrary elastic measure of time over which things can be known, but are not changing[i]. As soon as a change is detected, the present of a former moment, has become the past. The change has made it so. When things do not change, or we do not notice change, then our present moment expands and our experience of the passage of time may assume greater prominence – time drags and we get bored. Conversely if we notice many changes our focus shifts and we feel that time has sped up.

People’s experience of the past, present and future differs, depending on the individual’s ability to detect change. Those who cannot detect change, such as those in a coma, live in a continuous present which is expanded and a future which is collapsed. Those who don’t detect change, perhaps as a result of choice or circumstance are better off to the extent that their consciousness allows them. Their ability to respond to change is increased. A person, who is sensitive to changes around him is more aware still. If he has time and inclination he may discover patterns that change may indicate. He might then discern the significance of the change, consider the options and prepare a response. The response might be one which simply mitigates damage, or one which uses the change to uncover an opportunity.

Memory is critical to detection of change. If we have a failing memory our experience of change is impaired and our operations become enfeebled and clumsy. For memory to be accessed we also need time and space to remember. Without this our depth of focus is reduced to immediate concerns and we become blind to longer term concerns. We might have been too preoccupied getting the right meal in the dining carriage to realise that we have passed our stop.

We have heard it said that “if we could predict the future we wouldn’t be living in this house/doing this job, reading this blog, etc”. The assumption being that we would be able to utilize particular facts about the future, pick the right horse etc, buy and sell at the right time to our advantage. The deeper argument is that the future cannot be predicted with sufficient accuracy to make a difference, therefore we needn’t bother trying. This is fool’s wisdom. In everyday life we plan our holidays, apportion budgets and embark on projects into varying depths of our futures, some of which proceed according to plan and others require adjustment along the way. There is actually plenty that we can know about the future. Firstly we can know that there will be a future - that Monday will follow Sunday. We can also know that the moon will be full on a certain date and with it a high tide. That the sea temperature is likely to be within a certain range, that it will be more or les likely to rain at that time of year. There is much that we can predict with reasonable accuracy that occurs on a seasonal or cyclical basis.

Related to cycles are patterns of growth and decline in human endeavour as well as in nature. There are also patterns of increasing order and disorder within societies and populations. Much has been written on “mega-trends”, those trends which drive change and are predictive of stresses/forces within society. Typically these include population demographics, resource availability, technological break-throughs, and changes in values as goods and materials become more abundant or scarce or as conditions change. These trends can be plotted and predicted also with varying accuracy by analysts who earn their living by doing so. This information is becoming more widely available and debated openly. One only has to pick a good stream and drink from it.

We also determine our future. By getting on a particular train we arrive at a particular destination. We construct our future by participating in it, by analyzing our own trend-lines, our aspirations and plotting our course. To what degree have we invested or acquiesced in our own future. Does what we invest in relate to what is happening in the world? Will we swim with the current, across it or against it? The choice is ours including the lazy choice to do nothing, in which case the future simply becomes a fabric with us in it. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the future will be constructed for us by those who have the means and determination to do so. Those who lead us and those who govern us.

Our leaders, those to whom we have delegated responsibility and power and resources to do their job of leading are given the means to affect change. They are also subject to pressures within their constituency and from other/external constituencies to implement particular changes. They are also bound by the rules of their office, which they might or might not adjust along the way. Some of our future is in the hands of those we want to lead us to the degree that we have collectively placed it. Who are our leaders and to what do they aspire? Who is seeking to influence them? How strongly they are positioned to resist or direct and how deftly can they actually lead in the thick of the always pressurised cooker of leadership? How healthy is the leadership framework, the social contract between leaders and followers?

Those who govern us, like those who lead, exercise power and authority. The subtle distinction is that one who governs exercises power they have acquired but not necessarily been given through a social contract. This might include tyrants such as Robert Mugabe, but it might also include directors of multi-national corporations who are equally untouchable. It might also include other more diffuse powers such as the media or influential lobby groups with the ability to catalyse and implement change against our wishes. Who are the Lords and Governors of our world and what means do they use to govern? What truths are being with-held and what justifications (half-truths/lies) are being presented and what and how much have we acquiesced? Such questions are difficult and ponderous but to avoid asking them would leave us with critical blindspots.

The broad shape of the future can be deduced to some degree if one has modelled the past sufficiently carefully and as long as massive unforeseeable events such as an asteroid colliding with the earth does not also collide with present trends. Such discontinuities as the asteroid, the alien invasion, accidental thermo-nuclear war or a pole flip, by their very nature cannot be known ahead of time. They can however be guessed at and assessed and managed as risks. The probabilities of them occurring are usually so remote that they are considered and put to one side. We cannot waste time and resources on every possibility otherwise our future will simply be a state of gibbering paranoia. We must accept that discontinuities will always be blank patches on the map.

Detecting change, memory, observation of seasonal/cyclical behaviour, pattern recognition, trend watching, understanding leaders, governors and most importantly ourselves can bring a lot of clues about where we are headed. These pieces of the puzzle can be marshalled and pieced together to sketch a map of the near future. This map can be adjusted as time marches on. Those with the best maps are usually those with the grey hairs of experience and the scars of past mistakes.

In Part Two the focus moves beyond the natural. What else might assist us in knowing about the future.



[i] A mathematicians concept of the present is unhelpful because it reduces the present to an infinitesimally small period of time, so small that in fact it cannot exist.

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