Chapter 9. Visions and Challenges – Priorities for Professionals

Foresight is Becoming Probabilistic

As foresight grows up, we’re realizing that intelligent beings are always predicting, in all domains of our awareness, as one of our most fundamental methods of adaptation. The naive belief that it’s futile to predict, and the misunderstanding of complexity science that is sometimes used to justify it, is yielding to belief in a full continuum of statistical predictability in natural processes, from very low to very high, depending on context. We’re also understanding the factors that improve or degrade our probabilistic thinking, and how to strengthen our predictive faculties.

Theories and methods like Bayesian probability, one way of reasoning from incomplete information, are gaining ever greater communities of practice, as our world gets more and more data-rich. Of all the probable futures ahead, we’re finally realizing that certain futures, including exponential information production, scientific and technological change, and wealth production, are predictable as general processes, even when individual outcomes are far less certain, and that realization is causing inevitable social changes.

One social change is that both scientists, those who help us see hidden order in the world, and entrepreneurial and technical innovators, those who exploit that order the fastest and most broadly to make useful change, are increasingly the heroes of modern society. We saw this a bit in the twentieth century with science popularizers like Carl Sagan and moguls like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. More recently, entrepreneurial adulation has reached a new level with leaders like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk dreaming and often executing at grand scale.

And in the still-new industry of venture capital, new leaders like Tim Draper, Steve Jurvetson, Vinod Khosla, Paul Graham, and Mark Andreessen backing bold experiments in seed investments, and succeeding often enough to win our admiration (see the documentary Something Ventured, 2011 for a good history). We can expect more social elevation of the technical entrepreneur and the early-stage tech investor in years ahead, as we realize many of their projects are both increasingly impactful and increasingly likely to bear fruit.

In another social change, scholars are realizing that even societal foresight (social, economic and political change) is becoming more predictable and inertial the wealthier and more connected our countries and planet becomes. Certain futures play out the same way everywhere. Tom Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The World is Flat (2005) opened many eyes to some of the predictable and inexorable changes (good and bad) of globalization. The more technologically, economically, and culturally connected all of us get, the more the predictable contours of this global future emerge.

Even if the particular actions of any individual actor remain unpredictable, their average expected actions become ever better known. Increasingly, we believe we can discover ahead of time the greatest of the fast-coming changes in sci-tech, startups, and the digital world, as well as the slower changes in societal structure and policy that increasingly bind, regulate, and nudge us into one single global community.