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Telling the future


The future can only be experience vicariously (in the present) through story telling. As a consequence, the future is a problem of narration. Everyone can tell stories. Life is full of people telling themselves and others stories consciously or unconsciously. Many of the problems of the present owe their origins to ill-told stories that are often confused with reality.

On the other hand telling stories is an art and requires skill and vision. Many of those people who are called on as experts to predict the future are not versed in the art of storytelling. The aim of storytelling is not prediction, however, but creating an (imaginary) world that holds the reader's attention, sparking off emotions, triggering visions and possibly producing learning experiences.

One particular genre of stories about the future is the dystopian novel. Such visions are all based on an imbalance, caused by the dominance of one or more facets of society: surveillance and information flow in Orwell's 1984; TV reality shows in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games; plastic surgery in Pretties by Scott Westerfeld; ... One of the attractions of such futures is that they offer the author the possibility of portraying a hero or heroine fighting against indomitable odds in a society bound for disaster and give the reader a feeling of being able to master the future, whatever the odds.

Prediction of the future based on storytelling consist of removing those elements of the story that make it particular and give it life and interest, transforming it into a model in which the possible is supposedly made probable. This slight of hand may work for simple circumstances but is completely misleading and misguided once the situation becomes more complex.


Just as other aspects of the world around us, our vision and understanding of the future is strongly influenced by the many models and belief systems (not to mention personal experience) through which we see the world. Models, theories and belief systems help us understand what happens and guide our actions by providing a simplified explicative framework within which to act. Such frameworks have most value with they manage to explain circumstances other than those they were initially designed for.

Our understanding of time was and, to a large extent, still is, governed by a linear vision in which cause and effect are linked together along a line of time that runs from the distant past through the present and on into the future. For many things this approximation still holds good. If the hammer hits my finger rather than the nail in the plank, I will probably have a bruise tomorrow.

Technological determinism is a typical linear model in which the evolution of technology is seen as resulting in future effects on behaviour and, through it, society. Many of the technocratic visions of the future are tacitly based on this model. Experience and research show, however, that there is a constant mutual interplay between technological development and ways of working (and doing), the outcome of which is rarely predictable.

In general, the future in complex situations is much less predictable. Chaos theory and the notion of complexity offer a more appropriate model in which the future emerges from present complexity by a phenomenon called emergence. One of the inherent characteristics of emergence is that what emerges is necessarily unpredictable. In other words, complex situations do not follow the linear model but result in breaks in the continuum of cause and effect. This makes planning for the future extremely difficult.


Government has to do with running society, providing services and planning for the future. The main axis of government when it comes to the future is policy-making. On the basis of scientific research, opinion polls, belief systems, political and commercial pressure and personal whims, governments trace out their future actions. Current forms of government and policy-making depend heavily on an approach based on cause and effect and the predictability of the future. As society is typically a complex system, such reliance on a linear model is bound to produce mishaps if not catastrophes.
In the polarised system that underlies our democracies, with its reliance on political parties, blame is attributed to those who fail to predict and plan for the future and error is sanctioned by political disfavour. This punitive system is supposed to incite improved performance in the future. Yet how can improvement be achieved when outcomes are necessarily unpredictable?

The central question and the major challenge is: how can society be organised such that it can manage its development and the use of resources in complex situations were the future is inherently unpredictable?

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Created: April 23rd, 2012 - Last up-dated: April 23rd, 2012