On Tea Leaves and Other Good Reading Material

Forecasting the future is another exercise often undertaken at the start of a new year, particularly in domains with high stakes and short collective attention spans (e.g., business, financial markets, politics, technology).  Much ink is spilled and carbon dioxide expelled in the ordinary course of business on attempts to identify trends and recommend courses of action, but the arrival of a new year seems to give everyone a license to prognosticate.  Inevitably, some forecasts will be true, and this will reinforce our faith and comfort that the future is predictable (perversely, given that some will be false, and some will be true for the wrong reasons).

From the perspective of the ‘content producers’ who create for mass consumption, I’d wager that confident forward-looking speculation (generally) sells a lot better than the humble admission that the world is complex and dynamic.  Even among those commissioned to forecast, there is tension between explication (often trite, heavily disclaimed, or TLDR) and sensationalism (which focuses attention on low-probability, if provocative, possibilities) that I suspect usually favors sensationalism.  A good way to get on CNBC is to look sharp in a tailored suit and predict that some boom or crisis is imminent, or that some market price or datum will reach a level widely outside of the ‘consensus.’  But in other contexts, the balance certainly shifts: a good way to keep your career as a Fed governor is to persuade the world that the economy’s engines are humming along within normal bounds.  It is critical to consider the motivations of the person making a forecast, and those of the owners of the medium in which it is distributed, as part of one’s analysis.

There is a lot of evidence that we often overestimate our ability (as individuals in our own lives, and as professionals) to divine the future, and I predict that I will return to this topic often in future postings.  Nevertheless, I find obscenely long-term forecasts particularly enjoyable, at least in part because their authors generally admit to the futility of the exercise for any end other than intellectual self-gratification.  One delightful read was this set of predictions for 2011 that were made in the year 1931, which was linked from one of my favorite blogs.  I enjoyed another piece that purports to be a set of predictions about the year 2000 from an issue of Ladies Home Journal in the year 1900 (I have not seen this debunked, e.g., on Snopes, but I’ve not looked hard).  These are helpful prompts to consider the limitations of my field of vision, as I think about the data, assumptions, analytical tools, and states of the art that informed these brave conjectures.

Fiction has a proud history of envisioning possible futures (or, more accurately, possible realities) and I’d claim that one marker of ‘good’ fiction is that it gives us plausible accounts of how people would respond to social structures, technologies, climates, and the like, that are quite different from our own.  There is naturally some amount of prediction in such efforts, although it is usually neither explicit nor a primary goal of the author.  For instance, it’s pretty easy for us to assume that in a future where there exist gigantic starships, there will also exist gigantic-starship warfare.  (Perhaps this is because gigantic-starship-industrial complexes simultaneously emerge on a variety of planets, all of which need continuous conflict to keep the middle-class employed, the lower-class oppressed, and the political elite in power…?).  I don’t consider these forecasts of the same sort as those described above, but it would nevertheless be a fun exercise to consider the implicit assumptions in fiction (particularly science-fiction).  To the extent that these may have changed over time (and I’m not sure how you would measure this) they may reveal other cognitive biases we bring to our own visions of the future.


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