Prediction was a passion for my Grandad.
My Mum was a working single parent, so every school day, I dropped into my grandparents’ for lunch. And every day I’d see Grandad hunched over the racing pages, poring over form guides. He believed fervently that he could unlock the secrets buried in those mountains of stats. The big win was just around the corner.
I took an interest. It looked like my idea of fun. (I was an odd kid.) And it was educational. Working out the winnings on a five-horse accumulator (or parlay) was an excellent way to sharpen my mental arithmetic.
So how did he do? Well, he won enough to buy the occasional treat for his grandkids. But mostly, he kept the results to himself. Because mostly, he lost. Not badly. He enjoyed gambling, but money was always tight, and he was responsible. Even so, I doubt that he broke even most years.
Problem is, horse races are complex events. Unreliable trainers, jockeys who could not be relied upon, unexpectedly heavy ground: there was always a reason why his number never quite came up. (A former cavalryman, he never actually blamed the horse.)
And yet his lack of success never shook his faith in the power of prediction. One day, he knew, his painstaking research would pay off, and put him on easy street.
Prediction and Complexity
I thought of Grandad a lot while reading “Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together,” by Margaret Heffernan. It’s a book that casts a cold eye on our ability to predict the future, and our obsession with wanting to do so.
Increasingly, we face hugely complex circumstances and events in our lives. So in response, we crave certainty and security. And as the world becomes more complex, prediction seems to offer us that certainty.
Just think of those investment “gurus” who offer sure-fire stock market tips. They have legions of followers. Never mind that they rarely beat the market over time.
Big Data, Big Success?
We also face the constant presence of Big Data. Big Data is seductive. Because it promises that if we know enough, or let others know enough about us, our lives will be more efficient, eliminating waste and error. With enough data, you can predict all your future needs.
Consider the algorithm that uses your previous online searches to suggest products you might want to buy in future. Or the digital assistant that tells you when you’re likely running low on coffee, and might want to order more. Handy, right?
And stock management algorithms allow businesses to predict their customers’ behavior, and order exactly the right amount of stock to meet predicted demand. Prediction rules.
Well, maybe. What if a global pandemic causes a sudden spike in buying as people stockpile? How does your predictive algorithm look then? Empty shelves and angry shoppers suggest a system that doesn’t work when situations become complex and disrupted. It’s not robust.
Planning Without Prediction
“Uncharted” takes a different view. It examines other ways to plan and take control of our futures, both professionally and personally. These ways don’t involve prediction. Because in complex situations, prediction doesn’t work well enough.
Instead, these methods ask a succession of “What if” questions to sketch out a series of possible futures.
These futures vary enormously. Whole communities come together to work on huge projects. They adopt an approach called “scenario planning” – essentially, asking a series of focused but open questions about a situation. These questions help to build a series of possible narratives about the future.
Such projects acknowledge the limits of prediction. Instead, they plan based on experiment, and by using the insights of people from a wide range of backgrounds. They are truly collaborative.
But Heffernan doesn’t just focus on the big picture. She homes in on personal, even intimate, territory.
Shaping Our Own Futures
One particular chapter gave me a jolt. It’s called “Who Wants to Live Forever?” In it, Heffernan discusses the final lifestyle change for all of us: death.
In particular, she talks of planning a “good death.” Of resisting the urge to preserve life no matter what. And shaping as much as you can of that ultimate change. It’s an engrossing read. And for me, it was a very personal one.
My Grandad passed away after years of illness. After suffering several heart attacks, and cancer, he took the decision to refuse further treatment.
After he died, Mum went round to help sort out his personal effects. And she found them in perfect order, from his army paybook to his will. He had sorted out everything, with military precision.
He had decided how he wanted to go. And he took charge of what he could control, letting go of what he couldn’t.
This is the most powerful idea in the book. That any of us can take control of our lives, our careers, or the projects we work on. At any time. And we don’t need a prediction to tell us when to do it.
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