Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, by Margaret Heffernan

In her new book, Margaret Heffernan explores approaches to digesting complexity in a world increasingly defined by the need and ability to offer predictions. Banner image: Shutterstock/Natahi4ka
Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, by Margaret Heffernan

Adapted from the introduction of Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future. Copyright (c) 2021 by Margaret Heffernan. Used with permission of the publisher, Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

This excerpt is part of a series in which experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address for the OECD the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.


We think about the future all day, every day. What time do I need to leave the house? What’s for breakfast? Can we picnic on the weekend? Should I change jobs? Move house? Online and offline, the news is mostly speculation: what will happen in Congress, in traffic, in the markets. However much we might aim to live in the present, we can’t cross the road without thinking ahead: Will that car reach me before I’m safely across? Our brains have evolved to anticipate whether we’ll like this food, this person, that book. Entire industries—property, travel, banks, insurance, pensions, technology—analyze, construct, and sell permutations of the future. So we cannot not think about it: neither our brains nor our lives will allow it.

Prospection bestows tremendous evolutionary advantage, alerting me to danger or reassuring me that the noise I hear isn’t a burglar but a cat. For the most part, it works so well that we scarcely notice when we get home on time, pack the right clothes, select satisfying homes and holidays. Apps train us to expect accuracy in plotting routes, choosing hotels, restaurants, and lovers with levels of confidence our ancestors never imagined. We have come to expect the future to be minutely and perfectly predictable. And then it rains after all, the train’s late, traffic is held up by a crash, the neighborhood is noisy, the job hateful, and the election doesn’t go our way. [...]. The predictability of life, on which we’ve come to depend, seems to fall away and we’re left angry, intolerant, fearful.

Our expectations are wrong. The future isn’t perfectly knowable and never has been. Our brains may be the single most complex object in the known universe, but they still make mistakes. Today’s technology may be the most advanced the world has ever seen but it is imperfect, too: incomplete, biased, and full of error. Google isn’t always right. Satnavs can’t foresee when a child will run into the road. Artificial intelligence trusts correlations that turn out to be irrelevant, biased, or ill-informed. DNA knows nothing about broken legs or toxic pollution.

Ineradicable uncertainty remains inherent to human life; Hannah Arendt called it the defining characteristic of the future. That this leaves us uncomfortable and anxious is why humans have always searched for ways to see what’s coming: oracles, shamans, horoscopes, religions. Longing to reduce uncertainty and doubt has driven much of our progress. The more we noticed, remembered, wrote down, and shared, the more knowledgeable we became and the better able we were to pass our learning on for future generations to increase. This made us better and better estimators, able to plan. The entire construct of management—forecast, plan, execute—hinges on our capacity to make well-informed estimates. The more we practiced it, the more accurate we became.

It makes sense to imagine that progress is infinitely sustainable, but it isn’t. Along the way, fundamental change has occurred. We have moved from a complicated world to a complex one. The two aren’t the same—and complexity isn’t just complication on steroids. Complicated environments are linear, follow rules, and are predictable; like an assembly line, they can be planned, managed, repeated, and controlled. They’re maximized by routine and efficiency. But the advent of globalization, coupled with pervasive communications, has made much of life complex: nonlinear and fluid, where very small effects may produce disproportionate impacts […]

What this shift means is that, while we can still be generally certain about many things, much remains specifically ambiguous. We know climate change is real but we can’t predict when or where wildfires will break out or when extreme weather events will destroy which harvests. The Bank of England acknowledges that there will be future banking busts, but cannot say when or why. […] We’re so dazzled by such systems, we forget, or prefer to deny, that contingencies have multiplied, fragility has proliferated, and accurate prediction has become harder. To be able to do and know so much, and yet not to be able to predict what we crave to know, is painful and frustrating. So we perpetuate the age-old search for sources of certainty. […] Overwhelmed by complexity, we seek simplification and too quickly reach for binary perspectives, just at the moment when we need broader ones.

Technology offers a shiny new model, purporting to solve the problem that it amplifies and accelerates. Big data, analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence may help us to see more, to glean patterns previously impenetrable to the human brain alone. But their capacity to assess mountains of data at speed obscures their flaws. A large dataset might describe a group or neighborhood of voters well, but still be unable to forecast with certainty how an individual will decide to vote next time; people change—and not always predictably. Algorithms are, as the mathematician Cathy O’Neil once said, opinions encoded in numbers. They combine assumptions that are subjective, imposed on data that’s skewed and incomplete in complex environments. Unique or rare external events may render what was formerly predictable suddenly unforeseeable, where historical data is irrelevant or useless. […]

Read more on the Forum Network: Innovation in Real Places: Strategies for Prosperity in an Unforgiving World, by Dan Breznitz, Professor, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

The utopian fantasy of the tech industry—that all the data in the world will yield perfect predictions—appropriately provokes privacy champions. But that isn’t its only challenge.  Depending on technology incurs a high cost. Every time we use it, we outsource to machines what we could and can do ourselves. The more we use GPS, for example, the more the parts of our brain responsible for navigation and memory shrink. And the less we know our neighborhood. This is known as the automation paradox: the skills you automate, you lose. So the more we depend on machines to think for us, the less good we become at thinking for ourselves. The fewer decisions we make, the less good we become at making them. We risk falling into a trap: more need for certainty, more dependency on technology, less skill, more need. We become addicted to the very source of our anxiety. […]

The technology that deskills us, together with companies actively attempting to deprive us of human agency, threatens to leave us passive and conformist. But absolute certainty about all aspects of life would be tyranny. So, at a time in our history where we have huge decisions to make—about the climate, about technology, capitalism, democracy—we need our freedom, of thought and action, more than ever. In an age of uncertainty, we have to ask ourselves what we need to be, and what we need to do—and to come up with our own answers. […]

Accepting that the future is unknowable is where action begins. […] Just because we don’t know the future doesn’t mean we’re left helpless; there’s genius and creativity in preparation. In this complex, nonlinear world, there can be no step-by-step rulebook, no linear model, no simple antidote to uncertainty. Planning, theory, and ideologies break down in the face of unpredictability, leaving us instead with an urgent mandate and multiple methods to explore. This always begins with questions: What can we do right now? What do we need to be now? What must we preserve at all cost?

[My book Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future] is an optimistic one. Not because it promises that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Optimists aren’t idiots. They do better in life—live longer, healthier, more successful lives—for the simple reason that they don’t ignore problems or give up easily.

Psychologists distinguish between two kinds of optimists. Explainers accept that bad news is neither permanent (things can improve) nor universal (good news is happening somewhere else). Expectant optimists, by contrast, see problems but anticipate improvement. Unconstrained by reality, they have a fighting spirit. Both kinds of optimism alert individuals to fresh opportunities and to the resources needed to pursue goals. Where pessimists may avoid problems, optimists cope and solve. They are especially productive because optimists are more likely to reach out for help, to collaborate and trust others. That gives them more capacity and resilience than they could possess alone.

At a time when Americans are predominantly pessimistic about the future, and even successful CEOs share their gloom, when we are deluged with propaganda threatening to supplant human talents with the so-called perfection of machines, the sheer creativity of human interaction has never been more critical. We have a huge capacity for invention—if we use it. We have limitless talent for questions and exploration—if we develop it. We can imagine what we’ve never seen before—if we practice. Lose these gifts and we are adrift. Hone and develop them and we can make any future we choose.

Anyone who tries to tell us they know the future is simply trying to own it: a spurious claim to manifest destiny. The harder, more subtle truth is that the future is uncharted because we aren’t there yet. So [my] book can’t provide a map, an app, or any perfect certainty about destination or time of arrival. What it will do is provide the questions to lead you in the direction you choose. Many of the most inspiring people and stories start with uncertainty, are saturated with doubt, yet arrive triumphant at places in life they could not see when they set out. Their successes are deeply human, derived from curiosity, imagination, and not a little bravery. They were prepared to navigate the unknown in pursuit of the ill-defined because they knew that the only way to know the future is to make it.

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Find out more about Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, by Margaret Heffernan (published in February 2020, (c) 2021 by Margaret Heffernan)

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Comments

The uncertainty of the future gives us a space to enhance our decisions and trace the path through what we have learned, our capacity for self-knowledge will lead us towards an expected assumption, but we will never have total certainties ...