Predicting the future

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Prediction is difficult, specially about the future“, said the father of quantum physics Niels Bohr, his words often quoted – wrongly – as a tautology. Bohr did not mean to state the obvious but made reference to the non-deterministic nature of quantum phenomena. Although the microscopic world of quanta is bound by a set of natural laws, and unlike Newtonian physics, it is truly impossible to predict the evolution of a quantum event in the future. The only thing you can predict is the probability of this event, or its “wave function” as it is called.

Are there any lessons to be learned by social futurologists from quantum physics? Economics is a prime example of a social science aspiring but failing to make reliable predictions for the future. Often economics is called the “dismal science” – but I think this is somewhat unfair.Economics could not possibly predict the future, not because of quantum phenomena, but because of the instability and indeterminism of macroscopic complex phenomena, such as markets and real-life events. But who knows? Perhaps “black swans” (unpredictable events that change the route of history) are related to quantum physics after all, although this needs to be further explored. Nevertheless, the media insist in demanding predictions from experts of all sorts, and salivate when these predictions fail. We seem to need our prophets and their prophesies badly; and to condemn them when they fail. Ultimately, we need to believe that the future can be foretold somehow, by magic or science, by a hallucinating Pythia or a number-crunching supercomputer. Why?

Futurology we owe mostly to the Victorians. Literary scientific romance (e.g. Erewhon by Samuel Butler) were in fact satyrical extrapolations of contemporary norms and trends. The future was like the present, only with a lot more wild-dreamed technology. Jules Verne, Edwin Abbott, and H.G. Wells take us on journeys where people are constant while everything else around them changes.  This wrongful perception for the future persisted in later science fiction as well. It always amuses me when I see the humans of the 23rd century in Star Trek t be so much like us, to be faced with our contemporary dilemma and culture wars. Such predictions assume that cultural perceptions and societal values remain constant and what changes is technology. They ignore (a) happenstance and (b) that technology changes cultural perceptions and societal values.

 

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Despite the shortcomings of human prescience the academic field of Future Studies appeared in the 1960s and has since flourished in several Universities around the world. Methodologies, such as foresight, have been developed to inform worried politicians, businessmen and investors about what is to come. These methods have become rather sophisticated over the years. History is analysed in computers and patterns emerge. For instance, it has been noted that whenever  there are many young unemployed men society explodes, and politics change.

And yet, I sometimes imagine myself drinking tea and reading The Times in London, some sunny day of June 1914. A friend comes along, and we pick up a conversation about all the wonderful things that have been happening in the world during the past forty years. The economy is booming, international trade connects the continents, science and technology is progressing with leaps and bounds, and the well-being of people increases with each passing year. Importantly, the Great Powers have found, at last, a way to keep the peace since the Napoleonic Wars ravaged the continent. The Kaiser, the English King and the Tsar are cousins.My imaginary friend asks me then: “How do you think the world will be in 100 years?“. “In the year 2014“, I reply rather confidently, “after one hundred years of peace and prosperity, people will have built homes to the moon and the stars, our great-grandsons will go to work on flying machines...”

A few days later, history self-folds into a terrible nightmare that starts with the invasion of Belgium by the German Imperial Army and ends in 1990 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Complexity renders all predictions about the future is evidently a fool’s errand. So why do we do it? Why are we so obsessed with predicting the future?

A utilitarian would say that predicting the future reduces the risk of investment in the present – which is right of course, and that is what risk managers do in investment banks. Similar utilitarian explanations apply to just about every decision we make, for instance to buy a house (we hope prices will rise and not fall in the future), or move jobs, or marry and have a family, or play diplomatic games in the international arena. There is something about our cognitive system that compels us to imagine the future; it’s what made our ancestors great strategists in hunting big game. We cannot escape our minds: predicting the future is what shapes us in the present, what makes us who we are and what we decide to do – and that is why we do it. Alas, often is the case that we fall in love with our prophesies, only to be surprised and shocked when they do not come true.

 

 

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