The Future is Here Today, and it's Superdense

The elastic has snapped on the future. Or at least that's how it seems this week. We're in a patch where simply saying "you can't make this stuff up" is insufficient, if not far too flippant. Since New Year's Day, we've seen the unravelling of a pan-regional power structure akin to the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc, and now a sequence of epic disasters culminating in the triple whammy of once-in-a-millennium earthquake, giant tsunami, and the possibility of multiple nuclear meltdowns in northern Japan. It feels like we are living in an extreme the midst of a scenario exercise that only an evil villain would hatch. It's the exception to the general rule that, as I wrote a while back, "tomorrow is like today, just later." Or, to use William Gibson's idea about its uneven distribution, one might say "the future is here today, and it's superdense."

In the process, those who make a living helping others develop structured ways of anticipating possible futures are seeing artifacts from those futures become postcards from the present. Using an interesting choice of words, the New York Times ran an article yesterday titled "The Limits of Safeguards and Human Foresight." The article's author, John Schwartz, aptly characterizes our collective priorities at the moment, saying that, in the US, our "mental infrastructure is in even poorer shape than the nation’s roads and bridges."

He is right in many ways. Our sensibilities about the future are becoming pretty warped these days as extreme events and equally extreme hyperbole in between them confuse our ability to model possible futures well. We don't need better predictions, but a more agile ability to forecast. This doesn't mean perfecting the ultimate black box, or calling all the Black Swans ahead of time. We need sharper skills for seeing the present and futures in context—sturdy tools and ways of holding both in our heads at the same time and understanding how they may relate to each other. We also need to set aside time and place to think about the so-called "unthinkable" because these extreme events, however so, remind us that chaotic systems produce clusters of events now and again that fall in the outer ranges of manageability. We don't need models of the future that fit our current capacity, we need greater capacity to handle all models.