Chapter 6. Futurepedia – Probable, Possible, Dystopic, and Protopic Futures

II. Progress Counterfactuals Collection

Cowley (Ed). 2006

Cowley (Ed). 2006

As we said in Chapter 1, Counterfactuals (alternative histories) are a powerful tool that some foresight practitioners use to explore societal events. They help us visualize different past choices, and their consequences today. Counterfactuals can be regressive (Hitler wins WWII), neutral (having no clear effect on global progress) and progressiveFor two good collections, see Ferguson’s Virtual History (2000), and Cowley’s The Collected What If? (2006). 

Progress counterfactuals are of particular interest to foresight and leadership, and are the subject of this collection. These are stories that claim the existence of significantly better roads for social evolution or development that were within reach, yet for various reasons not taken. They are thus another 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 hope you enjoy this starter set of progress counterfactuals, which seem an appropriate way to begin our Futurepedia. Our collection is only a modest start. We have arranged them in chronological order, with a subjective estimate of the time at which potentially much better choices could have been made, as each story argues.

This chronological order reminds us of the importance of time, one of our most precious resources. Dear reader, please don’t waste another moment! Start building better foresight today, for yourself, your family, your organizations, and the world. The future needs your good ideas, strategies, and actions, right now. Enjoy these stories, and please send me your own!

200 BCE: A Printing Press in Ancient Greece
50 CE: A Steam Engine in Ancient Rome
1000 CE: A Norse Democracy in America
1896: Neoslavery Defeated (Reconstruction II)
1912: A Saved Titanic
1938: The Ludlow Amendment (War Referendum)
1953: No US Coup in Iran – We Ally Instead
1955: Substantially Safer Cars
1965: A Defended South Vietnam (Vietnam War)
1970: A Fully-Realized EPCOT
1991: An Accountability Doctrine (Gulf War)
1993: Tablets and eBooks at the Birth of the Web
2000: Accelerated American Broadband
2007: An Autonomy Doctrine (Iraq War)

These counterfactuals are roughly categorized in the STEEPS categorization (Science, Technology, Economics/Entrepreneurship, Environment/Resources, Politics/Policy, and Social Activism/Social Culture) of important foresight topics, based on a subjective assessment of the top categories in which better strategic foresight and action might have led us to significantly better outcomes than the history that actually occurred. There are of course thousands of important progress counterfactuals we could easily imagine. One fine year I expect we’ll see a whole field of graduate study in this topic emerge. In the meantime, we can do what we can to help this way of thinking grow and and improve.

From an evolutionary developmental perspective, counterfactuals can help us mentally imagine what futures would have eventually turned out the same regardless of past human choices (developmental futures, like math, electricity, computing, and increasingly, smarter-than-human machines), what futures would have likely turned out differently based on our choices (evolutionary futures), and what actions with respect to both kinds of processes might have led us to a better world. As managers, activists and leaders, counterfactuals 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.

Ferguson (2000)

Ferguson (2000)

By showing us how better foresight, innovation, and leadership at the right time and place could have changed our history for the better, progress counterfactuals can help us see that better foresight and leadership today can greatly improve tomorrow. Reading them, we can begin to understand, and to feel deep in our gut, that the right foresight, coming to the right people at the right time, can profoundly improve the pace and outcomes of civilization.  They inspired the slogan of this Guide: Foresight matters! 

Can you think of other episodes in history where a leader, with better foresight, could have substantially improved the course of history, for their society or the world? Can you think of the foresight or Eight Skills lessons that this history, and the road not taken, offers to modern leaders? Has someone already written up this counterfactual, at least in part? If not, would you like to write it up, or have us write it up instead? Let us know. Human history began at least 5,000 years ago, so we have a lot of time and experience to pull from.

Some of these counterfactuals are low probability futures. They would have required a significant amount of foresight, a critical innovation, and/or courageous leadership to emerge. Others are higher probability. A good counterfactual should seem both valuable and at least plausible, under the right conditions.

Significantly progressive yet also plausible alternative histories aren’t as easy to find as one might think. Bringing a valuable innovation or advance to the world ten years or more ahead of when it actually happened is a rule of thumb I like to use as a significance test for writing up a counterfactual for others to consider.

Many candidate counterfactuals look promising at first, but as you learn more about the history around them, you’ll quickly discover hidden reasons why they never happened. Bad luck and lack of vision can prevent progress, but usually there are many other problems as well, problems for which there are no easy solutions. Realizing the problems that prevent more progressive futures is itself a great learning experience.

Let’s look quickly at an example of an innovation that looks plausible, until you investigate it more closely. Television was first invented circa 1925, nearly simultaneously in three different places: the US, the UK, and Germany. So it seems like it was ripe for emerging at the time.

But the television industry didn’t start growing, first in the US and the UK, until 1947. Could television, and thus close behind it, other features of the Information Age, have reached mass adoption a decade or more earlier than it did? That certainly looks like a good candidate for a counterfactual.

But it makes sense only if we substantially rewrite history. The Great Depression and World War II both greatly slowed TVs development in both the US and the UK. Taking either of those events out of the picture makes for a much less plausible and instructive counterfactual. For this story to be really valuable, we need a to find a strategy that would have allowed TV to scale during the Great Depression, in either the US or the UK. I can’t presently find such a story. Maybe you can.

In the US, the plutocrat David Sarnoff at RCA was able to monopolize TV’s patents and greatly slow its development so it wouldn’t interfere with his radio empire. But Sarnoff’s monopolizing didn’t impact TV in the UK in the 1930s. The main problem with 1930’s television was the limitations of the systems themselves.

The picture quality of the mechanical TV of the 1930’s just wasn’t good enough, and electronic TV technology wasn’t much better at first, from any of the competing inventors in the US and the UK. The cost of electronic TV receivers were also far too expensive for mass adoption in the early years.

If Sarnoff hadn’t been head of RCA, global television would surely have arrived earlier, but I can’t see any obvious way it might have arrived a decade earlier. In researching TV’s fascinating early history, and all its colorful characters, I found that all the things I thought might speed its development were tried, in some fashion or another, either in the US or the UK.

So an earlier television counterfactual doesn’t pass the significance test, as far as I can see at least. I wish it did, and please let me know if you disagree! Finding plausible progress counterfactuals is a great foresight exercise. With each one we find we get another great story, and an opportunity to learn a bit more about ways we might innovate or strategize better today.

Do you have any great stories of missed opportunities that you’d like to share? Please let me know, either by confidential email or in the comments below. As we grow this collection, I plan to eventually publish a coffee-table book and visual media around these counterfactuals, as an edited volume of individual contributions.

The tentative book title is: Better Roads Not Taken: Progress Counterfactuals in History, and their Lessons for Leaders Today. Thanks for reading!