New World Same Humans #16

Who owns the future? News from the computer world. Are we living in an economic singularity?

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

As I write, the UK prime minister is set to address the nation and announce a plan for the end of lockdown.

The immediate crisis is far from over. But in the UK and many other places, the peak has passed. No wonder, then, that our thoughts are turning to a new set of questions.

This week I thought about the ways we saw the pandemic coming, the ways we didn’t, and what that tells us about ourselves. The impulse to see the future is as old as human nature, but today it’s increasingly dominated by a foresight-industrial complex with its own strange set of rules.

Also, three emerging truths on the longterm impact of this crisis. Let’s do this.

Future imperfect

Is the pandemic a black swan? Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the statistician and risk analyst who coined the term, says no.

Under his definition a black swan is a rare, catastrophic and unpredictable event. The pandemic we’re living through is surely a rare catastrophe, but it wasn’t hard to see coming. SARS in 2002 and H1N1 in 2009 were clear warnings. Several thinkers, including Taleb himself, predicted a global viral outbreak with its origins in cross-species transmission.

The pandemic, in fact, is the whitest of white swans. So it’s arresting that in many ways it’s taken us by surprise. The crisis we inhabit now is many things; but is it in part a failure to think properly about our shared future?

Futurology has a bad reputation, and much of that reputation is deserved. Throw a virtual stone online and you’ll hit a half-baked foresight report, and the industry’s reliance on tired mantras – the future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed! – is easy to mock.

Still, the argument that all futures thinking is a waste of time is futile. The impulse to know the future is as old as human nature, and it has done much to shape our cultural inheritance. The ancient Greeks believed dreams were half-glimpsed visions of the future. Throughout our history those who claimed to know the future were prophets, sometimes touched by madness, often doomed. When H.G Wells wrote The Time Machine – a short novel about a machine that allows its inventor to travel to the future – he invented an entire sub-genre of science-fiction.

Given all that, and the apparent failure of foresight that is a part of this moment, it’s instructive to ask: how does futures thinking happen today? Who gets to do it? How can it be improved?

The modern foresight industry’s origin story is a fascinating one. That story has its roots in the paranoia that shaped relations between the USA and Soviet Union after WWII. In the US, the government-funded RAND Corporation pioneered new foresight methods, including scenario planning, to game out nuclear scenarios and develop the west’s guiding Cold War doctrine: mutually assured destruction (MAD). Next, the 1970s saw Shell pioneer the use of scenario planning in corporate settings, deploying the method to imagine futures in which the world had run out of oil, or global warming had put major coastal cities underwater. Of course, Shell executives weren’t so keen to share those imaginings with the rest of us.

Today, scenario planning and similar methodologies are just as likely to be used by supermarkets as by military strategists. But the origins of those methods are a reminder that what will happen next? is never a neutral question. Most foresight work today is conducted or commissioned by corporations. The question implicit in that work is always: how can we remain at least as profitable and powerful as we are now? For all that the futures industry dresses itself in the clothes of rebelliousness and disruption (another favourite word), it’s more often a conservative discipline, concerned to serve private interests and maintain the status quo.

So what to do? Today we live in a highly networked world, with new and dangerous fragilities that we don’t fully understand. Perhaps it’s time to free foresight work from the bonds of private interest and short-term politics, so that it more often serves the common, and planetary, good. We have a World Health Organisation and a World Trade Organisation; do we need a World Futures Organisation, too? The Singaporean government’s renowned Centre for Strategic Futures could provide the model.

When it comes to the pandemic, the failure was not to see a viral outbreak coming: many did that. Rather, there was widespread failure to take that possible future seriously enough. Deeply immersed in short-term concerns, most corporations and governments found it easy to prioritise risks that seemed easier to believe in, such as terrorist attack.  A thoroughly independent, global organisation would not have fallen so easily into that error.

But ultimately the foresight failure associated with the pandemic is rooted in the fundamental truth about futures work, which is also a fundamental truth about life. That is: no one knows the future. All intellectually honest foresight work – including Taleb’s black swan theory, and properly conducted scenario planning – starts with that truth, and commits itself to the management of uncertainty.

In a highly networked world that’s becoming ever-more complex, we need more of that kind of thinking. We need new methodologies that are more rigorous, and more evidence-based. We need to disentangle foresight work from the protection of capital and vested interests. And we need to institute public ownership of the data that will fuel new kinds of futures work in the decades ahead. Foresight-seekers of the world unite!

Life in the computer world

Three quick snippets from the virtual hall of mirrors:

NASA engineers piloting the Mars rover are having trouble managing work-life balance during lockdown.

Facebook is working on an AI-fuelled chatbot called Blender, which it recently open sourced. People say Blender ‘feels more human’ than other chatbots, though FB admits their bot is prone to offensive outbursts and takes a Trumpian approach to facts (i.e. it makes up its own). The emergence of AI-fuelled companions is a NWSH obsession: expect more in a future instalment.

The YouTube-famous robodog made by Boston Dynamics is patrolling a park in Singapore to ensure citizens maintain their social distance. Thank god there’s nothing Black Mirror about that.

And last, a salute to Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider, who died this week age 73. Listen to the 1981 track ‘Computer World’ and there can be no doubt: 40 years ago he heard our future.

The economic singularity is now

On Saturday, the New York Times published this astonishing front page.

If you don’t want to tap the link: it’s a chart that shows the monthly change in US employment since WWII. The line putters gently up and down across the top of the page from 1945 until April 2020, when it collapses to the bottom of the page and nestles next to the news nibs and the barcode. That’s because 20.5 million jobs were lost in the US in April.

Meanwhile, the Bank of England says the UK economy could shrink by 25% in the second quarter, and 14% this year. That would be the sharpest fall since 1706. The UK government, which has spent the last 10 years committed to a swingeing austerity programme, is pumping hundreds of billions into the economy. The U.S. Treasury Department plans to borrow nearly $3 trillion between April and June.

Economists are running out of adjectives in their attempt to describe what is happening. Unprecedented no longer carries the necessary shock value. Writing in The Times, the economist Sir Anton Muscatelli called a 25% contraction ‘economic armageddon’.

It feels as though three related truths are emerging into view:

First, we’ve never seen a set of economic circumstances like this. Much economic activity has shuddered to a standstill, everywhere, at the same time. Our ability to predict what happens to the economy next has fallen to zero. Is this moment best understood as a kind of economic singularity: a point at which the old economic rules break down?

Second, the ground has been laid for widespread questioning of the fundamentals that govern our socio-economic system. Many people will wonder: if there was no money for nurses/school textbooks/road repairs back in 2015, how come we just invented a few hundred billion in 2020? Economists will provide answers, but they won’t change the political reality. Some people will feel that they’ve been sold a set of hollow truths when it comes to the system they live inside, and that feeling will have consequences.

Third, the 2008 crisis gave us the Occupy movement, resurgent populisms, Brexit, Trump. This crisis is economically far more damaging. It’s hard to see how we avoid significant socio-political upheavals in the years ahead. Is it time to accept that there’s a non-insignificant chance of a world-historic change in a mature western democracy?

Those three paragraphs amount to little more than: interesting times ahead. So much right now is unclear. NWSH is a community: if you have a valuable perspective on all this that you’d like to share with the rest, drop me a line.

88 miles per hour

Time for me to get out of here. If enough of you share this newsletter, you’ll open a wormhole in the space-time continuum that will magically end lockdown.*

See you next week. Until then, step boldly into your future.


P.S: Let future generations hail Nikki Ritmeijer, who designed the illustrations in this email.

*Statement is for entertainment purposes only. Factual accuracy cannot be guaranteed. All rights reserved.

David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.