Progress Counterfactuals: Better Roads Not Taken
Counterfactuals (alternative history) are a powerful retroforesight tool that some foresight practitioners use to explore alternative histories for societal events. They help us visualize different possible presents, based on different sets of past choices. Progress counterfactuals are a subset of these. They are stories that propose the existence of better roads not taken. By showing us how better foresight at the right time and place could have changed our history for the better, such counterfactuals help us see how better foresight today can greatly improve tomorrow. Chapter 6 offers a starter list of progress counterfactuals. We encourage you to send us others, and over time, we hope to build an impressive collection of them. Collectively, we see them as one of the most powerful ways to understand the value that foresight brings to the world, and they inspired the slogan of this Guide: Foresight matters!
Counterfactuals can be regressive (Hitler wins WWII), neutral (the specific outcomes of many wars and competitions seem neutral to global progress) and progressive (leading to clearly better futures). For two good counterfactual collections, see Ferguson’s Virtual History (2000), and Cowley’s The Collected What If? (2006). From an evolutionary developmental perspective, counterfactuals can also help us mentally explore what futures would have eventually turned out the same regardless of past human choices (developmental futures), and what futures would have likely turned out entirely differently based on those choices (evolutionary futures). As managers, activists and leaders, they help us understand what things we should try to influence, what forces and trends we should not fight against, but try to use to our advantage, and what things we can ignore.
Counterfactuals of all types are thus another story-based tool to help us explore the nature of progress, one of the most important concepts we can each understand, for ourselves, our families, and the world. We begin to understand, and feel deep in our gut, that the right foresight, coming to the right people at the right time, will profoundly improve the pace and outcomes of civilization. That motivates us to get such foresight, for ourselves, our families, our organizations, and the world.
Let’s briefly consider a few examples. See our Progress Counterfactuals Collection in Chapter 6 for a longer list.
In the 2nd century BCE,, could the Ancient Greeks, Phonecians, Early Romans, or another of the early trading and already literate Mediterranean civilizations have invented the printing press, fifteen hundred years before Gutenberg? It seems so. If the press had been invented, copied, and used by pre-Roman Empire merchants to trade papyrus with stamped maps, drawings, news, humor, stories, and practical advice, would this have led to a flourishing of knowledge and invention, limited the power of the monotheistic religions that arose later, accelerated the birth of democracy, and prevented the thousand-year Dark Ages that occurred in the West after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE? Futurist Jay Cornell and myself both find this a credible counterfactual. See Chapter 6’s 200 BCE: A Printing Press in Ancient Greece for this amazing story. If entrepreneurs, inventors or artists in these civilizations had developed just a little more foresight in the right place and time, we would be living in an astonishingly more advanced world today. Foresight matters!
In 50 CE, could Hero of Alexandria have invented the first practical steam engine for water pumping and ship propulsion, sixteen hundred years before impulse steam turbines by Giovanni Branca (1629) and John Wilkins (1648)? It seems so. Hero invented the world’s first primitive rotary steam engine, the Aeolipile, and even used it open temple doors. He also perfected the hand water pump of the Greek inventor Ctesibius. The Romans even used Hero’s pump and a mechanical fire hose to put out fires. In 2015, Theodosis Tassios published that Hero must have connected his Aolipile to his pump, creating the world’s first (impractical) steam-driven water pump. All Hero needed to do, to make his aolipile practical, was turn its rotating ball into a small windmill rotating on an axle inside a single output jet from his boiler. That would have created the first practical steam-powered water pump, and given the Romans an invention so useful it would have spread across the early Empire. A much better way to pump water up into cisterns would have greatly expanded Roman water works and aqueducts, a universally-valued goal. Slaves would have collected vast amounts of wood and coal. Steam powered turbines for Roman warships (invented by Charles Parsons in 1884) could also have been invented at the same time, as fast Roman triremes were of vital military interest. See our counterfactual, 50 CE: A Steam Engine in Ancient Rome for more details. Foresight matters!
In 1000 CE, could the Norse Vikings have successfully colonized Newfoundland, bringing North America a Norse democracy, 700 years before the United States? It definitely looks to be the case. Norse democracy began in Iceland in 930 CE, their Greenland settlement started in 980, lasted 500 years, and had at least 400 low-producing farms and 2,500 souls. Thorfinn Karlsefni’s expedition from Greenland to Newfoundland Island in 1009 had between 160 and 250 settlers, and was just one of several expeditions to North America from Greenland. If at any point over those 500 years the Norse had had the foresight to run two or three settlements in parallel, each on different islands in different Indian territories, they would likely have thrived in the new world. Each Indian tribe was entirely different in the way it interacted with outsiders. Some would have become great allies of the Norsesmen, others enemies. Even if all the tribes had eventually attacked the outsiders, they would have attacked at different times, as their cultures, practices, beliefs, and languages were all so different from each other. Had the Norse recognized this fact, as well as their undefeatable strategic advantage in being able to move their settlements by ship, we’d have had a technological democracy in North America seven hundred years earlier. See 1000 CE: A Norse Democracy in America for more. Foresight matters!
In 1912, could the ship’s passengers, and even the Titanic itself, have been saved by using its side anchors, steel cables, ropes, winches, steel bars, and cranes to lash its nose to the massive iceberg that it hit, keeping its front end high enough to prevent the aft compartments from flooding? Very likely so. At least it would have sank much slower if this strategy had been mentally discovered and employed. Hundreds of additional passengers could have been evacuated to the berg, to other smaller bergs nearby, and to lifeboats and rafts before the ship sank. The ship’s leaders would also have benefited from a more collaborative information-sharing and problem-solving process. See 1912: A Saved Titanic, for more on this counterfactual. Foresight matters!
In 1965, could the US have won the Vietnam War by creating a fully defensible capitalist state of New South Vietnam below the Mekong River? I believe our leaders simply needed to recognize that using the Mekong as a natural northern border would have made the land below it into an “island”, a small territory we could easily have defended, very much like Taiwan (a small capitalist territory we were already successfully defending), yet a space plenty large and fertile enough for all the noncommunist Vietnamese who wanted to continue their way of life. We just needed to realize that if we could not secure the vastly larger space of South Vietnam against the Viet Cong, this “island strategy” was our natural fallback solution. What would Asia and America be like today if we had won that failed and divisive War, with minimal US casualties, successfully defending and empowering millions of South Vietnamese entrepreneurs, and establishing a US military command in the Mekong Delta in the 1960s, as in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan? See 1965: A Successfully Defended South Vietnam, for this counterfactual. Foresight matters!
In 1970, could the world have had its first permanent “Exhibition City”, featuring the latest and the greatest in innovative and futuristic technologies, being tested and integrated into daily life? We very nearly did. In October 1966, Walt Disney made a visionary film introducing the Florida state legislature to his plans for EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a place where corporate R&D groups and entrepreneurs would live and work, find new solutions to the world’s most important problems, and a continual showcase of the best of American innovation to global visitors. Two weeks later, he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, and he died two months later. Imagine how much better society would be today, if Walt had lived, or appointed a future-oriented successor, and EPCOT had become the world’s first permanent crowdsourced innovation showcase and city, starting sixty years ago. See 1970: A Fully-Realized EPCOT for more on this counterfactual. Foresight matters!
In 2000, if the US decided to start subsidizing the growth of the Information Superhighway, and made low-cost fiber and high-speed cellular access a public right, the way Finland did with internet access in 2010, how much farther along would the web, mobile and the internet of things, and all the technologies and business models we can build on top of these critical communication technologies, be today? Telecom and cable oligopolies naturally seek to slow down the growth of wired and wireless bandwidth, as more bandwidth has the potential to deeply disrupt their current business models. Several urban broadband initiatives have been successfully sued by cable oligopolies, to prevent competition from emerging. The same kind of blockage to commerce and movement occurred in the era of private roads and turnpikes in the US, before they were nationalized, and highway access was made both a public right and free public good. If we’d had real political leadership on bandwidth, access, and affordability issues beginning in the early 1990s, when the information superhighway term first gained currency, and legislation in 2000 at the height of the first internet boom, how much better would the US and the world be today? See 2000: Subsidized American Broadband for more on this counterfactual. Foresight matters!
Whether we like it or not, there appear to be objectively better paths that societies can take, either now or later.
Notice that we’ve made some uncomfortable judgments in several of these counterfactuals. Developmental (probability) foresight is challenging, as it sometimes requires us to make social judgments, which some people are reluctant to do, perhaps because it is so easy to overdo them, to become biased, prejudiced, and chauvinistic. But just because it’s easy for us to fail with our judgments and predictions is no reason to avoid them. We must instead seek to use our foresight in humble and evidence-based ways. When we see more of the subset of historical events that are inevitable, we can better see that subset of present events that may also be inevitable in our time. A great book on global foresight with this perspective is Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Twelve Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016).
If we can achieve a deep and grounded foresight during challenging situations, we can often find a way to avert disasters, keep our best visions alive, and navigate past our difficulties to a vastly better future. But getting that foresight, and leading others to develop their own foresight visions, requires the right mindset, methods, and motivation. We must avoid arrogance and cognitive bias, use proven methods for uncovering the future, and continually tap into the wisdom of a diverse, talented, and incentivized crowd. Our abilities to do all of these things get better and more widely distributed every year. Though it is often wise to be a defensive pessimist in the near-term, all of us should be, and should lead others to become, deeply intelligently optimistic for our long-term future.
Let’s say it once more: foresight matters! What great ideas, what highly valuable probable and progress-generating developments are we missing or devaluing today? Latent foresight sits underused and underappreciated all around us today. It is an immensely rich resource, and every year we get better at believing it is there, and learning how to mine it. That may be the most exciting and important idea we can convey to everyone reading this Guide.