in Future

Puzzles, mysteries and futurism…

In a recent article in the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell use a distinction between two different kinds of problems: puzzles and mysteries. Gladwell is using Gregory Treverton’s definition of a puzzle as a problem which requires more information to be solved, and a mystery as a problem where we have too much information and which instead require judgement and assessment of uncertainty.

The point Gladwell is making is that we sometimes mistake mysteries for puzzles (and probably the other way around) and because of that apply the wrong strategy.

Alex Pang from the Institute for the Future connected the distinction to futurist’s activity which then was also noted by Cory Doctorow in Boing Boing.

Alex writes:

Our default assumption about the future is that it’s a puzzle. There is A Single Future, just like a single location where Osama bin Laden is hiding, and with enough information, we can solve it. But in reality, the future isn’t a puzzle; it’s a mystery. We can assemble vast amounts of information that offer clues about the future, but that information is going to be full of contradictions, mixed signals, and noise. Piling on even more facts won’t make the future easier to divine; it’ll make seeing the future harder.

Why is this so? Because there is no Single Future that futurists should be looking for. There are many possible futures, and the job of the futurist is to sort out which are more likely, and to help people see the contingency and opportunity in those futures. If fortunetellers traffic in knowledge of inevitabilities– in knowing exactly what is going to happen and when– the end-point of futurists’ work should be a better knowledge of the contingency that’s hard-wired into the future.

I agree with the fundamental idea that gathering more information doesn’t necessarily makes it easier to say anything more accurate about the future, and that there is a problem that we have the default tendency to approach many tasks as puzzles. I have however a problem with Alex’s post since he seems to confuse the nature of the conclusion (one or many futures) with the nature of the required input data.

The fundamental problem with saying something about the future is not if there is a single or many futures. It is that you can never know if it is a puzzle or mystery since there is no verifiable conclusion. Simply because is (yet) no future(s) to verify anything against. The future just exists as images in our heads – at least right now.

Gladwell writes:

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.

Gladwells text tells us that mysteries often don’t come to satisfying conclusions, but that is not the same as saying that they don’t have conclusions. Statements of the future don’t have conclusions at all. Especially not before they happen. Specific predictions may have a potential truth value and turn out to be true in the future but that is another story.

When it comes to the nature of the answers there are a lot to be said. E g Charles Handy pointed out in an article that there are (at least) two types of problems seeing it from the characters of the answer. Converging problems which have one correct answer and diverging problems which have several or situation dependent answers. An example of a converging problem is “Which is the shortest way to Bath?”. An example of a diverging problem is “”Why do you want to go to Bath?”. The second one is clearly more open and situation dependent. The problem as Handy is pointing at is that we are educated by solving converging problems, but in the real world most problems are diverging.

In general I think we have a strange tendency to reformulate all thinking into the shape of a problem and a solution. Very few things in the world are problems searching for solutions. Maybe it is our engineering culture that is the culprit? Think about it this way: If Orwell’s book “1984” is a solution or an answer, what was the problem???

Maybe this discussion in the end underlines that the futurist’s job a more creative than analytic one; it is about creating a lens through which you can see the world more clearly and so that the receivers can learn as much as possible. As always futurism is about creating better images of the future – better in terms of that they provide a better framework for to see the world and learn what to do next.

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  1. “The future just exists as images in our heads – at least right now.”

    I think reality exists as images in our heads, the future exists as a potential much like voltage is to currant. It may be a changing adapting voltage, but takes up space and time much like a particle wave.

  2. Larry, I think you are almost right and I like your metaphor. I usually make a point of that the images in our mind is the map, or the proxy of reality, we are basing our navigation efforts on. I still however believe that there exists a reality outside of our mind (otherwise solipsism would be true which turns a lot of things upside down) which is why we physically suffer the consequences of this real world. The problem seems to be that for us planning beings reality (the present state) have two separate but related sources where one is a map of the other.

    The map of the outside world is both less and more in comparison to the reality. It is less in the sense that it just provide you with an imperfect projection or image of reality. It is more because it part from the projection consists of both memories of the past but also ideas of aspirations, driving forces and images of things that could be.

  3. “Larry, I think you are almost right and I like your metaphor.”

    Thank you Martin. I always appreciate it when people tell me I halfway have my head out of my ass, ha! As for the metaphor, thank you again and you are welcome to it.