After missing the talk by Brian Eno last month, I really wanted to see the next talk in the Long Now series. The December talk was by Peter Schwartz, a well-known futurist and business strategist. Schwartz was a co-founder of Global Business Network, a consulting company that uses scenario planning, a strategy of exploring possible outcomes and how they affect one’s strategy. Schwartz has also written several books on corporate strategy, including
The Art of the Long View. This talk was appropriately titled The Art of the Really Long View, purporting to talk about planning for decades if not centuries into the future.
I went in with a fair amount of skepticism because the accelerating pace of change seems to make it impossible to project into the future with any degree of reliability. Several authors have commented on this phenomenon; Vernor Vinge and his description of the Singularity and Ray Kurzweil in his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, both address the question of what happens when computers become self-evolving. Other technological phenomena that have the potential to drive change at an exponential rate include nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetic engineering, all of which are poised to become commonplace in the next few decades. So how can one make any plans for the future when the ground rules seem likely to be changed in the relatively near future?
In my understanding of scenario planning, the idea isn’t necessarily to predict a single future, but to identify key issues and key questions and answer those questions in a variety of ways to see how the different answers affect the future. That’s the approach that Schwartz took in this talk; he identified what he saw as being the important questions and how they might affect what happens. To use a concrete example, he started with discussing the effects of population on the environemtn. Paul Ehrlich apparently once identified environmental impact as being a function of three variables: population size, affluence, and technology. So Schwartz quickly outlined a variety of possibilities along those three axes. We could keep growing to a size of 50-100 billion, crammed in tightly all over the globe, living in relative squalor. If technology improves to reduce the environmental footprint of humans, perhaps it could even be done sustainably. We could level off demographically at around the size we are now. There could be a drastic reduction of population, accompanied by an increase in technology, such that millions of people could enjoy what he called “100,000 acre haciendas”. Or there could be a disaster such as an asteroid or a plague, and the millions of people would be living in a hunter-gatherer state. All sorts of possibilities. But the world is very different depending on how those possibilities develop.
So what are some of the questions that Schwartz asked? The first one he addressed was the question of evil. If people do bad things, do we view them as evil or do we view them as mentally ill? The answer determines a lot of how we react to the situation. Mental illness can be treated, and then it’s over. Evil is an eternal struggle against the devil. Societies based on one premise will be very different than one based on the other. Another example was reason vs. faith. How are they balanced? He noted in passing that it seems likely that faith is going to win this one, not because of its merits, but purely by demographics; people of faith have more babies than the “intelligentsia”. He claimed that going by current demographic trends and birth rates, all of America will be Mormon by 2085
Another interesting question is the question of citizenship and governance in societies, especially as we move towards a global society. How do we construct world-spanning governments that have the loyalty of people? People are evolutionarily programmed to be loyal to a tribe; how do we transfer that allegiance to larger and larger organizations? What does it mean to be a global citizen? Is the EU a good example of how we should be proceeding? (their pathetic attempts at a constitution would seem to indicate otherwise) (although he did make an interesting point that the EU is not about merging economies; it’s primarily about keeping the Europeans from war – in particular, keeping France and Germany from trying to take over the continent. Again.) A related question is whether we will learn how to build and fix countries, a question of obvious current relevance with America’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the EU’s experience in the Balkans. An obvious extension in my eyes is whether countries are going to continue to be a relevant social entity. It seems likely to me that nation-states are at an awkward size – too big to earn the personal loyalty of its citizens, but too small to deal with issues of global significance like the environment, or even terrorism. I can see the powers of the nation-state devolving in both directions, where the personal loyalty will move down the chain to a tribal level, and the global problems move upwards to some sort of global association of tribes, like the United Nations except more effective. Anyway.
Some science and technology questions that Schwartz singled out as potentially having a large impact include:
- Control of matter, energy and biology. I took this to mean things like nanotechnology.
- Dynamics of climate change, both long and short term. Are we experiencing global warming? Does human technology have any impact on climate changes? He mentioned an interesting theory that the rise of human agriculture over the past several thousand years may have caused global warming, to an extent that it prevented a mini ice age. So was it a good thing?
- Real life extension. Right now the limit on human life is around 120 years; that’s where the body breaks down pretty much irreversibly. The life expectancy gains of the past century have mostly been about eliminating accidental deaths and early deaths to sickness. But if we could learn to extend lifespans beyond 120 years or even indefinitely, that would have a huge impact on how most people approach life and how society is constructed.
- Cheap clean energy. What happens when the oil runs out in about a hundred years? The whole world economy will obviously change as well.
- Space flight. If we don’t have to support everybody on this planet, what happens?
The rest of my notes are kind of disjointed, which is somewhat of a reflection of his talk, which had a lot of interesting ideas, but no real continuous thread to tie them together.
One thing he mentioned was that his definition of “better” in terms of evaluating decisions is that which creates more options for the future. He wondered whether we would be the first generation to leave our children with fewer options than ourselves. I think he’s being unnecessarily pessimistic. Just in my memory, there have been vast changes as far as providing more options to people: the internet allows a plethora of communication channels, airflight deregulation has made it totally reasonable to fly across the country to visit friends regularly (at one point a few years ago, I met up with one friend 5 times in 5 different cities over the course of 7 months), etc. But it’s an interesting way to evaluate decision-making processes, and one that I suspect scenario planning does well on.
Another interesting thread was discussing the difference between powerful ideas and good ideas. Powerful ideas are those which are strong memes, which persist and spread, cooperate and compete, and which increase options. Good ideas are those which improve the lot of human hosts, help humans adapt to new situations, and which increase options. There are plenty of ideas which satisfy only one of these – a couple virulent powerful-but-not-good ideas are Naziism and Communism. The best ideas are those which are both good and powerful, obviously. So keep an eye out for those. In particular, he likes “meta-inventions”, inventions which allow other inventions to be made, again keeping with the idea of increasing options.
He referred to one topic that Brian Eno apparently discussed, called the Big Here in analogy to the Long Now. The Long Now is about expanding our consciousness to take responsibility for our actions across a long time frame. The Big Here (in my understanding since they still haven’t posted Eno’s post yet but they promise to do it at some point) is about expanding our consciousness outside of our normal social circles and communities to a larger community, possibly including the whole world. I just like the concept of the Big Here, and how it changes your viewpoint to even be aware of it. He suggested the questions of “How Long is your Now?” and “How Big is your Here?” when evaluating projects.
Other quick one-off comments that he made:
- The future exists only in our mind, just like the past, but the only thing we can affect the present. So the point of scenario planning is not to predict the future, but to get people to do something in the present. (approximately) “With multiple scenarios, it’s easy to get the future right. It’s much harder to get anybody to do anything about it.”
- I really liked the phrase “Conversation of the Long Now”, even though I can’t remember the context now.
- He mentioned his experience with the Peace Corps, and his description is that the Peace Corps will teach you a lot about yourself, but don’t expect to make a difference in the developing country where you are sent.
- When he asked somebody in Russia when they would know they were free back when it was still the Soviet Union, the response was that they would be free when they publish the laws. If the laws are published, then they can’t drag somebody away on trumped-up charges. I thought this was interesting, describing law as the published contract between government and citizen.
- Similarly, Schwartz thought we needed laws to address the relation between people and the ecosystem.
- Books he recommended included
On the Origins of War by Donald Kagan, and
Constant Battles by Steven LeBlanc.
- He also recommended the Gordon conferences as a place where science gets shaped today.
A pretty decent talk all told. It could have used a better unifying theme, and the discussion felt superficial to me. But some thought-provoking ideas regardless.