Challenge 6 – Creating Good Progress Stories (Motivating and Adaptive Shared Visions)
Finding and telling relevant weeble stories and scenario stories covers the base of the pyramid of Three Ps of foresight work. Both of those kinds of stories prepare the ground for us to work on the top of the pyramid, on what is typically the most highly-valued task: envisioning preferable futures. We and our clients must find ethical and adaptive visions that inspire us. We also must learn how to create such stories for ourselves and our teams, and and tell them in a way that will recruit and motivate others to help us make them a reality.
We call these progress stories, because all good visions contain implicit or explicit ideas of personal, organizational, global, or universal progress within them. The “p-word” isn’t very popular with jaded intellectuals, cynical journalists, pessimists, conspiracy theorists, and others who are happy believing the fiction that our world is not getting better, at an accelerating rate, in lots of ways, but is instead “stagnant”, “getting steadily worse” or even “falling apart.”
As we’ll see in Chapters 7 and 11, regressive world views are intellectually and morally bankrupt. When you come across cynical and pessimistic people, challenge them to read Hans Rosling’s Factfulness (2018), have them take Rosling’s 12 question “State of the World” test. Everyone finally gets Question 13 right, on Climate Change, so that is not on the test. Of the 12,000 people who have taken his dozen-question test, in 14 countries, 80% score worse than random. Old information, biases and the media skew them to see civilization’s problems as much worse than they actually are. Only 10% do better, and none of the 12,000 people got all twelve questions right. I got only 9 of the 12 questions right, and I pride myself on seeing the positive trends in the world. Take the test yourself and see how well you do.
In a continually accelerating and complexifying world there are always a host of negative trends, like our growing bureacracy and plutocracy. But all of the problems we face today are one’s we’ve created for ourselves, with our stunning scientific and economic successes these last few centuries. We can also envision solutions to those problems.
As we’ll see, we don’t yet have a science of progress, but rather a useful collection of beliefs and philosophies in that regard. Nevertheless, good philosophers are always looking to a future where science can validate and improve our imperfect models. So even though the “p-word” (progress) has many different meanings for each of us, we each already have some concept of what progress word means, and what directions will take us to a better set of places than the places we live in today.
The futurist Fred Polak in his masterwork The Image of the Future (Elsevier Scientific, 1955) may have been the first to claim that our images of how the world works, and the futures that we believe we can have as a result of those images, are the most important determinants of our behavior, as individuals and in our cultures. Economist and sociologist Kenneth Boulding’s little book The Image (1956) offers another version of this vision-driven perspective on the future. The two books share similar titles because Kenneth and his sociologist wife Elise Boulding lived for a year in the same house with Fred and his wife Louise at Stanford University in 1954. Elise Boulding published a briefer English version of Polak’s The Image of the Future in 1973. A PDF can be found here.
In Polak and the Boulding’s views, finding and sharing the most useful and motivating visions we can find is one of our top responsibilities, as foresight professionals and as individuals. Aside from universal developmental forces that we don’t control, the futures we humans build for ourselves are flow directly from our image-inations. So do the best visioning that you can, on a regular basis, and choose to believe that you and humanity really deserve great things, now.
These folks would also say that all our science, technology, economics, politics, and social memes are, at root, mental constructions. Only a small fraction of these mental constructions will end up being universal truths, and beyond a small subset, we can’t figure which fraction of those images will survive the test of time.
Therefore, to have the greatest positive impact on our futures, we must recognize that the quality of our personal, organizational, and social visions is often our greatest lever for personal and social change. Other scholars in cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and philosophy have since said these things, but the clarity and scope of Polak and Boulding on this point have not yet been surpassed, to my knowledge.
Historical Eastern and Western Religious Attitudes to Progress
During the 1960’s counterculture, psychologist, theologian, and philosopher Alan Watts wrote a neat little book, called The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (PDF here), (1966). Popularizing Hindu philosophy, he argued it is an illusion to think of ourselves as disconnected from our environment and culture, which are the dominant inputs to who we are. He challenged us to imagine ourselves not as isolated egos, but as aspects of, and windows into, one universal self. That is a very helpful perspective.
Watts observed that the more disconnected we imagine ourselves to be from the universe, the more we fear personal death. He argued a false disconnectedness caused Western religions to imagine an afterlife that is not part of this world, to placate our fear of death. Watts argued that the philosophy Eastern mystics proposed, that certain aspects of ourselves are continually reincarnated in this existing universe, was a much more reasonable and evidence-based view. That was an excellent insight, but he did not see that technology itself has always been delivering that “reincarnation” of useful knowledge, of the informational parts of both our individual selves, and our collective “self”, and that is how civilization has grown.
In The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory (2012), Michael Malone tells this story well. A long series of technological advances on Earth have increasingly captured, “reincarnated”, and “uploaded” our unique and valuable biological patterns into our faster, more flexible, and more long-lived technology. We began this uploading process, from human brains into technological systems, with the invention of oral language and tools, moving useful ideas from our own heads into the environment around us. Then we recorded that language in writing. Then we learned how to record our experiences. Then in the 2oth century, we began computing information outside our brains. Now, we’re moving some of our neural network algorithms into our increasingly brainlike deep learning computers. Even the preservation of individuals at death, and the future uploading of their memories and identities into computers, as some people doing cryonics today hope will happen, can be seen as just another, very similar step in this very long progression.
Because Watts, and the typical Eastern philosopher, did not see scientific and technical advance as an essential dynamic of conscious minds operating in the universe, they saw social progress as a questionable value. While Eastern religious philosophy did come to the evidence-based concept of reincarnation (of information), it focuses far too much on a form of individual progress they call “enlightenment”. Rather than recognizing how primitive and limited individual progress must always be relative to our collective progress, and how transient and limited biology is relative to technology, Eastern religious philosophy rejects the worth of material and technical societal progress. Perhaps for that reason more than any other, most scientific, technical, economic, and social progress occurred first in the West. In a primitive world, it is has been far better for social progress for us to be curious, critical, greedy and self-improvement oriented than to try to be egoless and selfless, and to falsely imagine we can attain personal perfection by how we think and feel.
Like the East, the West’s religious philosophy focused far too much on individual progress and salvation. Western religions barely recognize social progress, and the emerging collective self. Nevertheless, Western religions at least allowed material and technical progress to occur on the individual and national scale, as an example of God’s grace, and they saw some value in that progress. This difference in attitudes toward social progress made the West the first place where the accelerating engines of science, technology, and capitalism could emerge to do their work.
On The Taboo Against Seeing Universal Progress
It is my belief that if we want to truly see social progress we must think if it in universal terms, and ask how and why it may be happening on all Earthlike planets in our universe. That perspective requires us to see that our universe itself progressing, with humans and our science and technology as both unconscious and increasingly conscious catalysts. Chapters 7 and 11 will advance the idea, and early evidence for it, that progress is built into the dynamics of the universe, and that it will continue occur, with or without our conscious complicity, in better or worse ways, depending on our relation to it. Many of the most important, informational, and complex aspects of our world are progressing at an accelerating rate, whether we like it or not. Our individual self is becoming ever more cybernetic, and our collective self is becoming stronger and more conscious as well.
In the language of Watts, we can say we have a social taboo against seeing universal progress, as others will criticize us as being naive, or inattentive to all the problems that currently exist. Yet progress at all levels (Personal, Organizational, Global, and Universal) is very real, and the better students we are of it, the better our personal plans and visions can be. Our key choice is to see progress, and to aid it along, or not. If we don’t see it, it is easy to imagine disasters ahead, based on our actions or inactions, as Watts did in his writing, social and environmental disasters he assumed would result from our “unchecked egos.” Not seeing progress, it is also easy to imagine that this world is the best there is.
But the present is never the best there is, and we humans have a lot less influence over the nature of progress than we think. We are catalysts, not controllers, of the better futures that the universe continually produces. We can delay or hasten those better futures, and we can make the transitions to them nasty or sublime, based on our actions. But it is the paths we take, much less than the destinations, that are our key moral and social choices. So be sure you overcome not only the taboo of seeing yourself as part of the universe, but also the taboo against seeing and imagining progress, in every natural system that you encounter.
As committed future thinkers, we must ask: Are we able to imagine that our present reality could be significantly better? If so, what is the quality of our personal, organizational, and social visions? Have we carefully imagined what must come next? Have we diligently worked to foresee what may come? What each of us truly wants? Can we help others to find better images, even when we begin with doubt, uncertainty, and poor articulation of what we desire and can realistically attain? Once we each have our motivating yet practical images, can we share them, and get them constructively critiqued? Can we find great consensus visions?
This is only a starter list of questions about vision, but hopefully they inspire you to realize that developing the quality of your visions, for what you want to happen today, tomorrow, over your life, and over the lifetimes of your children’s childen, and helping others develop their own competing and cooperating visions, may be the greatest gift you can share with the world.
Our visions may start out poorly developed, but the more and smarter our foresight practice, the better we will get. Don’t skimp on daily visioning, for yourself and for your clients, and have regular social contact with others who will help you improve the quality of those visions, and continue to develop the kinds of talent, experiences, and intelligences that will best support and grow ability to image the future. A nice intro to personal visioning and daily journaling is Lucia Cappachioni’s Visioning, 2000.
Every futurist and foresighter who thinks they see a little bit more of the future than others, can use that gift to help others to craft better progress stories. The late leadership author Stephen Covey calls this the opportunity to “Find your Voice, and Inspire Others to Find Theirs.” He explores it in The Eighth Habit (2005), a sequel to the equally valuable The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989/2013). As Covey says, finding our voice and vision, and helping others to find theirs, is a habit that can move us from effectiveness to greatness in influencing others.