Jason Swanson shares his thoughts with us about the possibility of “Creating the Future” in this blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
I can’t believe it has been a year! For my last post in my tenure as an Emerging Fellow, I want to explore the idea of creating and influencing the future. Before I do, I want to take a moment to thank the APF, my fellow Emerging Fellows, and you, the reader, for allowing me to explore the many questions I hold about the field and the practice of foresight.
During one of my first classes at the University of Houston’s Foresight program, we were taught that Futurists engage in two main activities; we describe images of the future, and we work to influence the future. Ever since those early classes I have wondered to what extent the act of describing the future actually works to influence how the future might unfold, rather than the act of describing the future actually being separate than the act of influencing the future?
The act of forecasting or describing the future can be said to have an effect on influencing the future. Forecasts can act as provocations, leading to action. They can uncover new markets, uncover bias, and help stakeholders ask more critical questions about what they may or may not want in the future. Of course these are just a few examples of how forecasting might influence the future and in truth we may never know the true influence the images of the future we create actually have. Even without the ability to truly measure the level of influence in our forecasts, perhaps we can speculate as to the level of potential influence that the images of the future we create hold?
One example we might consider is Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality. Berger and Luckmann proposed that people create society, as we do so we create social facts, and in turn those social facts influence us as people, in turn making people a social product. An alternate explanation for the Social Construction of Reality might best be summed up in reply to why something is a particular way with the answer, “I don’t know it just is”. This to me brings home the point that as we create social facts, such as the 8 hour work day, they become such an ingrained idea in society after a period of time that we accept them as part of reality.
Berger and Luckmann’s work might provide some measure as to the level of influence our forecasts have on creating or influencing the future. Like social constructs that become social fact, certain images of the future might move from novel images and ideas to seemingly more plausible, almost expected futures. Andy Hines recently explored this idea with the Singularity, noting that while the Singularity itself may not be here, the idea has seeped into popular consciousness. I find myself wondering that as the Singularity concept gains more traction that if in some way this particular image of the future has become a sort of social fact, possibly enough so that Singularity might feel almost unavoidable?
Quantum physics might offer another example of forecasts themselves acting to influence the future, specifically the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat. In this thought experiment, physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed putting a cat in a box or steel chamber with a vial poison gas though if you prefer Einstein’s version it is gunpowder. There is a 50/50 chance that either the gas or the gunpowder, again depending on whose version you prefer, has killed the cat, and we won’t know until we look in the box. When we finally bring ourselves to look, the cat is either dead or alive. Before we look, the cat is in a superposition where it is both dead and alive, and it is our act of looking that forces nature’s decision. From the cat’s perspective, it either sees the powder explode or the gas leak or it does not. In this way, the cat’s reality becomes entangled with the outcome of the experiment, and it is our act of observation that forces nature to choose one option or another. Does our observation of change and forecasts of the future act in some similar fashion? Does describing the future act in some way to create it beyond simply influencing mental models in the same way we might observe whether the cat in the box might be living or dead? Does the future exist in some manner of superposition?
So, do we create the future simply by describing it? I like to think so, and I think the works of Berger, Luckmann, and Schrödinger provide some interesting ideas as to how. As to what extent? Well, much like the future, that remains uncertain.