Finding Weeble and Other Stories
This brings us to stories, or narratives. Stories can bring us into a future world better than almost any other device. They are both seductive and powerful, and for that reason, should be used later and carefully, after other foresight methods have surveyed the territory. Unfortunately, many future stories we find in print, including many published scenarios (stories that foresight professionals construct), are highly implausible as written, often even a waste of time for practical-minded folks to read.
Futurists are particularly in need of strong criticism of their work, as their creative minds and generalist tendencies will often lead them initially to opinions, predictions, and stories that sound great at first blush, from one perspective, but which are implausible, impossible, illogical, impractical, or even ridiculous on closer examination. All foresight professionals must speculate at times, and creative thinking will often lead us to new insights, but that speculation needs to be carefully compartmentalized within our business activities. Speculation needs to be confined to special times and places, or it becomes confused with reality.
There are at least five important classes of story that good foresighters must strive to collect, create, and understand. They cover all three corners of the Three Ps triangle. Two of these, weeble and wildcard stories, are concerned with the probable future. Two more, faulty and experimental stories, are concerned with the possible future. The fifth basic class, progress stories, involve the preferable future. We will introduce those in the next section.
As professionals we should publicly tell and write primarily stories that have survived a great deal of expert and lay critique. We can call those weeble stories. Because of all the criticism they have received, and survived, they have a greater probability of coming true. The Weeble is a small egg-shaped toy, sold by Hasbro since 1971. Almost all of a weeble’s weight is in the bottom of the egg, so when anyone knocks it over, it gets right back up. A weeble story is an interesting and reasonable speculation, prediction, trend or other judgment about the past, present, or future that has seen a lot of past criticism, yet so far it has kept getting back up. As the commercials used to say, “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” Implicit trends or conditions seem to support it, so the story continues to stay plausible. A weeble story is a description of the probable future that has survived a lot of criticism from a cognitively diverse audience. By doing so, it has earned the right to be taken seriously.
A good weeble story will continue to get criticized not because it is faulty. Good criticism quickly removes faulty stories, which we’ll talk about shortly. Rather it is criticized because it makes some specific or strong future claims, it goes against current practice, is counterintuitive, or someone will lose money or power or status or will have to modify their behavior if it turns out to be true. A good weeble story will be meaningful (the future will change in important ways if it is true) and most importantly, it keeps standing back up after criticism. It continues to gain evidence and argument for it, because the dominant trends or conditions appear to support it.
As a foresight practitioner, you want to find as many weeble stories relevant to your client as you can, and try to come up with new ones yourself. These are the stories you want to tell to clients when they are ready to hear them, and when you think they will do the most good. Try to tell your more speculative “pre-weeble” stories in private conversations first with critical but supportive colleagues, and make sure they survive their criticism before sharing them more widely. If you must discuss speculations in public, make sure they are acknowledged as speculations, and ask for critique. If criticism is the best antidote to error, private criticism and public qualifiers are the best protectors of your reputation.
For examples of some good weeble stories, think of Ghandi’s story about the inevitability of Indian independence, a story being told in British India in the 1930s and 1940s. Think also of the current story that women’s rights, democracy, and women’s suffrage must inevitably come to Saudia Arabia, North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, Afghanistan, and other human rights holdouts as the world grows ever wealthier and more technological. Think of futurists in the 1990’s saying we’d inevitably have self-driving cars in the 2010s (their predictions turned out right for test fleets, but commercial use may only come in the 2020s). Think of technology forecasters saying in the early 2000s that we’d have computers we can talk to on our phones for simple things in the 2010s (this prediction was more accurate, as Siri emerged on the iPhone in 2011). At the end of this chapter, I will briefly tell a weeble story about digital twins (personalized software agents), coming in the late 2010s, as a predictable iteration of the future web. Our weeble stories may wobble, be poorly told and need to be corrected a lot at first, but if they are weebles they won’t stay down for long.
It’s not easy to do controlled experiments in the foresight field. We can assess our foresight later for accuracy, but often the best we can do before the fact is to get our forecasts, predictions, opinions and speculations well criticized, and prune away the most implausible ones. Criticism is also central to peer review, a prerequisite of good science. As automated semantic understanding and analysis tools improve, the level of critical and peer review for any future story will become more visible for all stories we find on the web. In the meantime, we must do our own investigation.
An exciting type of peer review called open peer commentary, where reviewers from a variety of specialties are solicited to publicly comment on a target article, and the author is allowed a brief public response to each published commentary, is a particularly good way to show the level of criticism that exists for controversial, abstract, or speculative works. My colleague Clement Vidal provides an example of this kind of review in our Evo Devo Universe conference publication The Evolution and Development of the Universe (2009). I hope more foresight journals engage in open peer commentary in coming years.
Wildcards are stories about the future that we consider to be low probability events, yet if they occurred, they would have a high probability of disruptive impact, either positive or negative in effect. We want to find wildcards whenever we can, and be sure we have scanning systems and early warning signals for their occurrence and strategies for keeping them low probability, or at least, reacting well to them if they occur. They are one of the foundations of good risk management. John Petersen’s classic, Out of the Blue: Wildcards and Other Big Future Surprises (1997), and Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2010) are two good introductions to the topic. Taleb’s book also considers how wildcards impact a system’s robustness and antifragility.
Faulty stories are stories about the possible future that someone finds attractive, or at least plausible, yet which do not survive serious critique. Just as life advances by trial and (lots of) error, our foresight advances by telling lots of trial stories, in the space of possible futures, and separating out the vast majority of faulty stories from the few remaining weeble stories. Most of our future stories have internal flaws that will keep all or most of them from ever occurring. One way to identify faulty stories is to examine the motives of the storyteller. If they are emotionally enamored by a particular future, say, humans in space, flying cars, or genetically-engineered immortality, they may be tempted to tell stories without regard to all the evidence against them. The most broadly effective way to identify them is to subject these stories to careful, open, and cognitively diverse critique. Faulty stories will very quickly be flagged by the crowd. Only the true believers will continue to tell them at that point.
It is critical for foresighters to recognize that just because a story is faulty doesn’t mean it won’t have deep or lasting influence on the future. Biological humans living in space in any numbers is a faulty story that nonetheless continues to inspire much innovation in space science and technology. The more knowledge you have of the STEEPS constraints and drivers behind the story being told, the better you can determine if it is a weeble, faulty, or other type of story. For an important example, genetically-engineered immortality is a popular but faulty story, according to any scientist with a good understanding of inexorable error and trash accumulation in molecular and cellular biology. By contrast, uploading of human memories, and possibly human personality, into computers, as a kind of digital immortality, is a weeble story. We’re already destructively uploading the brains of small animals (zebrafish, for example) with on the order of 80,000 neurons into computers today, in a largely automated fashion. We can’t yet read their memories from the scans, but that’s only because we haven’t fully cracked the molecular code for memory storage. Yet it is a weeble story that the thousands of neuroscientists working on that particular problem will crack it soon.
We need to understand all the faulty stories that the public, and our clients, cling to, and treat them gently, when helping them craft better foresight, strategy, and action. At the same time, all faulty stories eventually fall away, as social wisdom grows. Finding such stories early, learning how to bet against them, and how to promote their social unlearning, can offer great strategic opportunities.
Experimental (Uncertain) Stories
The last and largest class of possible stories are the experimental (uncertain) stories. Human science and critical faculties can help us weed out some possible stories as faulty, but the vast majority will remain experimental, uncertain, unknown. For a top example, think of the impact of humanity on climate change. Scientists can agree that humans are causing global warming, but when we craft stories for what may happen in the next fifty years, uncertainty reigns. We are literally conducting a vast global experiment with our behavior at present. Sometimes, as in new business ventures, the experimental stories we tell have downside risks (failure, bankruptcy) that we are prepared to accept. Other times, as with climate change, many of the downside risks are much beyond what we should be willing to accept. In that case, the challenge for the foresighter is to remind us of the negative wildcards, and to spur us into action to mitigate risk.
The good foresighter is familiar with and collects examples of all four of these kinds of stories. Welcoming and listening carefully listening to criticism is your best way to continue to improve your work, which will often be crude and only partly correct at first. Keep in mind that if you aren’t considerate and humble in telling your weeble stories, and in your calling out of faulty stories, your work may not be sufficiently empathetic to or understanding of those groups that will be most negatively impacted by the coming changes that you envision. If they are ideologically attached to faulty stories, be empathetic, and try to gently raise their awareness about the criticism on record, and how it might help them to address such criticism.
Finally, when you tell important stories to the people who need to hear them, they will often be sharply criticized, in biased, ideological and non-evidence based ways. Good foresight professionals take that criticism in stride, not overreacting, staying calm, humble, and happy, like the weeble in the picture above. If the evidence and critical history supports your story, you can expect it to bounce back. Your story may lose the battle, but it will eventually win the war. The more gracious and charitable you are with those who disagree with you, the faster their learning may occur.