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Risk management gets tougher when key science fiction author cannot forecast a future state

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Leading indicators come in many forms; the first hat trick is to recognize them as they are rarely labeled as such, the second is to take appropriate action without undue blowback.

As a risk analyst, I pay attention when one of science fiction's greatest modern authors, William Gibson, who has explored the "relationship between technology and society" since his 1984 Neuromancer, coining cyberspace and predicting a number of technology-driven societal impacts, states that he can no longer make reasonable predictions/projections about the future because of its complexity. Gibson is now so cautious about attempting prediction/projection that he has set his current book, Spook Country, in the recent past.

I pay very close attention and so should any strategic planner, product designer, culture pundit and investor as each will need better tools and a faster clockspeed (decision cycle time - think Boyd's Loop) to adapt to change that will effectively emerge beneath their feet.

Readers unfamiliar with his work should know that Gibson is neither "Luddite or a technophile," nor does he make moral judgments about technology, feeling as I do that "technologies are morally neutral until humans beings pick them up and use them for something":

Most societal change now is technologically driven, so there's no way to look at where the human universe is going without looking at the effect of emergent technology. There's not really anything else driving change in the world, I believe...

[Technology is] a positive thing depending on what happens when we use it. Nothing that I can see other than the market drives the emergence of new technologies. The technologies that change society most profoundly aren't legislated into existence...

All of the big changes that emergent technologies bring us are, for the most part, completely unanticipated by the people that introduce those technologies. It's out of control by its very nature and if you could control it, it wouldn't work...

Why Gibson believes it so difficult to write intelligently about a coherent future

I regularly comment that systems fail and complex systems tend to fail more frequently as they must obey Ackoff's three rules of systems and that "systems fail [most often] at their boundaries, and that includes boundaries between components and clusters of components that act as subsystems." As had many, I knew that that technology creation was rising and the resultant system complexity was rising exponentially but I had no calibration until Gibson:

The trouble is there are enough crazy factors and wild cards on the table now that I can't convince myself of where a future might be in 10 to 15 years. I think we've been in a very long, century-long period of increasingly exponential technologically-driven change.

We hit a point somewhere in the mid-18th century where we started doing what we think of technology today and it started changing things for us, changing society. Since World War II it's going literally exponential and what we are experiencing now is the real vertigo of that - we have no idea at all now where we are going.

Will global warming catch up with us? Is that irreparable? Will technological civilisation collapse? There seems to be some possibility of that over the next 30 or 40 years or will we do some Verner Vinge singularity trick and suddenly become capable of everything and everything will be cool and the geek rapture will arrive? That's a possibility too.

Every corporate planner should feel their ears burning:

You can see it in corporate futurism as easily as you can see it in science fiction. In corporate futurism they are really winging it - it must be increasingly difficult to come in and tell the board what you think is going to happen in 10 years because you've got to be bullshitting if you claiming to know. That wasn't true to the same extent even a decade ago.

It appears that Gibson will stay in the present until he can again grasp a viable future; I might add that he is far more honest than most commercial analysts:

I think what I may be doing here with this current batch of books is attempting to take the measure of the present, which will allow me to try that sort of projection again. I sort of hope so, otherwise I don't know what I'll do!

What to do if you are not as good as Gibson

I make no pretense to see where Gibson cannot, but if I have to start under such ambiguous conditions I would use the McLuhan Tetrad originally designed to examine media effects in combination with technology food chain analysis.

Traditional technology food chain analysis examines multiple streams of technologies and the rate at which they are maturing. Imaginary lines are drawn through all streams at various time intervals thereby offering 'slices of technologies' that when combined offer the potential of discovering otherwise invisible applications, products or services.

Technology food chain analysis can be used to identify future needed bits of technologies which can then be bought, or an investment made in the firm, when the cost is low. Food chain analysis is superb for identifying investment opportunities and for ascertaining the "moment" in maturity that merits investment or partnering. Investment at that time diminishes risk of failure, avoids development costs, and lowers acquisition costs. Japan, among other states, has used food chain analysis to evaluate US companies being considered for investment, frequently detecting an opportunity unknown to the firms being approached for investment.

Opportunities in each technology time slice are often not visible beyond the trivial without enhancement, which is where McLuhan comes in handy. Originally formulated to examine the effects of an emerging technology (or medium) on society, McLuhan posed four laws:

  • Enhancement or extend: new media provide improved performance over the old
  • Obsolescence: new media render previous models passe
  • Retrieval: new media contains existing elements from the cultural inventory
  • Reversal: we tend to over do the new until we run out of benefits and into detriments

Later phrased as questions:

  • What does the medium [technology] enhance?
  • What does the medium make obsolete?
  • What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  • What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?

The tetrad is explored for each technology stream at time t along the maturation cycle, after which the tetrad is explored against the results of the entire slice composite (all technologies at time t), i.e., a structured brainstorming and analysis session is conducted around the tetrad implications at each intersection along the time slice after which the results of these individual sessions are inputs for a final tetrad-structured brainstorming session of the entire time slice.

Where I attempting to answer Gibson, I would do the same against societal trends with the goal of discovering what technologies might be needed to satisfy human expectations, then I would merge the technological and the societal.

Grant Czerepak has recently extended McLuhan with his Six Hats, Six Coats Framework which, I think, will make it easier to merge the technological and the societal:

The Six Hats represent:

  • REVISE: Conceptualize. Expand Meaning. What are you enhancing or making right? Creativity.
  • RELATE: Contextualize. Focus on Uniqueness. What is your mantra? Relativity.
  • REPORT: Logicalize. Maximize Value. What are you normalizing to the limit? Optimicity.
  • RECORD: Physicalize. Minimize Cost. What is your business model? Pessimicity.
  • REFINE: Mechanicalize. Humanize Interaction. How do you lower the barriers to adoption? Anthropicity.
  • REPEAT: Operationalize. Synchronize. Increase Availability. How do you make yourself convenient? Synchronicity.

While the Six Coats represent:

  • MOTIVE: Motivational. Why? Concepts affected.
  • LOCALE: Spatial. Where? Contexts affected.
  • OBJECT: Formal. What? Logics affected.
  • METHOD: Functional. How? Physics affected.
  • PERSON: Personal. Who? Humans affected.
  • MOMENT: Temporal. When? Synchrons affected.

I also invite unusual people, young people and 'outlier' personalities to comment, people that might seem to be dreamers or those deemed 'impractical' by their peers in order to break though orthodox thinking. Some of these sessions are truly remarkable in their breadth. Call it a special wisdom of crowds session (also here).

It is not Gibson but it is where I start, then continue to refine and question through each time t interval. When I get a new, unexpected result at time t + 1... t + n, I ask what we missed, what blinded us or did not consider at the previous time t. The answers can become new threads for analysis in and of themselves.

The results of the tetrad-food chain analysis process can then be run through both risk and development analyses.

Part 2: Risk management by other means to forecast a future state

Q&A: William Gibson, science fiction novelist
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Published: Monday 06 August 2007

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Gordon Housworth



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