What we get wrong when we try and imagine the future


I’m James Janson Young and I convene Ours For The Making.

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What we get wrong about the future 

You and I get a surprising amount wrong about the future. But, not in the ways that you might think. 

Watch the video on YouTube here

We’re not talking about failed predictions. We’re talking about about how you and I engage with time to come. And this matters, because the things we get wrong turn out to have some very real-world consequences.

There’s a fairly commonly held assumption that we live in a short term world and that we *clearly* don’t think about the future, because if we did, we wouldn’t get blindsided by things that we could’ve easily seen coming.

But perhaps we have good reason not to engage with the future?

The future can look pretty unappealing and unpalatable. 

It can look so uncertain what’s the point in planning? And the forces shaping the future can look so vast and powerful, we can easily feel like we have little influence to change course.

But, whilst this might sound familiar, you might also be thinking, hang on, I think about the future all the time.

And, you’d be right. We do think about the future. A lot.

We think about our upcoming appointments and scribble down to-do list items. We form intentions to read, exercise or practice musical instruments. We look forward to spending time with family and friends at the weekend. We ponder and predict what our futures might hold in the years to come. 

One study found that Chicago residents spent 14 per cent of their day contemplating the future compared with just four per cent thinking about the past. 

This amounts to a solid hour of thinking about the future for every seven hours of thinking.

But not so fast.

The researchers also found that half of these future-related thoughts “also pertained to the present”. In other words, a big chunk of what we’re interested in when we think about the future is essentially how our present circumstances and actions will play out in the near future.

When it comes to the longer term future, it turns out that we really struggle. 

In his book “The Good Ancestor”, public philosopher Roman Krznaric quotes survey data to show for most people “the future goes dark after 15 to 20 years.” 

This suggests that a lot of people aren’t thinking at all about great chunks of their lives to come: parent- and grandparenthood, their middle-age or retirement.

So, back to something I mentioned earlier: short-termism. Is it getting worse? 

You and I are surrounded by some pretty powerful forces that pin our attention to an increasingly tiny territory of time in the here and now. Distractive technologies, short-sighted business and politics tightly wound around short electoral and news cycles. Not to mention our minds’ natural bias towards the present over some abstract future. 

All of these factors could be contributing to our thinking and acting more and more short-term.

But even when we do think about the future, we have a major blind spot: We really struggle to grasp change: both its scale and speed.

First, we under-estimate how much we as individuals will change in the future.

Research has suggested that we suffer from a kind of “end of history illusion”. This means that whatever stage in life we’ve reached, we believe we’re at a watershed moment at which we’ve finally become the person we’ll be for the rest of our lives. 

As a result, we tend to under-estimate how much change we’ll undergo in the future. This means we’re more likely to over-invest in things and experiences for the future that are based on what we like and need today, and mistakenly assume that our likes and needs will be broadly the same from here on in. 

But there’s more. We don’t just under-estimate how much we’ll change in the future. We may well under-estimate how much the world around us will change.

And I’m not just talking about change related to the state of world geo-politically, or about climate change. 

I’m talking about pace of technological change. 

So, how much technological change can we reasonably expect to experience in our lifetimes or over the next, say 100 years? 

Technology is advancing in great strides all around us and on multiple fronts. AI, augmented reality, quantum computing, robotics, to name just a few.

Graphics by Ours For The Making. This features in the associated YouTube video

But, whilst this change feels fast, there’s a critical feature of the future that is leaving us even more wrong about what the world might look like in just a decade’s time, let alone in 50 or 100 years.

And that is how these technologies will combine to really accelerate change: AI and new batteries gives rise to self-driving electric cars.

The awesome power of quantum computing holds the potential to discover new chemicals, materials, drugs at speed. How? It transforms the costs of research. Switch your costly wet lab for a quantum computer that can do all the testing for you.

American inventor Ray Kurzweil put it like this: imagine the amount of development that took place between the advent of agriculture and the birth of the internet – some 20,000 years.

Kurzweil suggests that we can expect double that amount of technological progress again in the next 100 years. 

Or put another way, the level of progress and innovation that took us over 20 millennia to achieve, will be attained twice over in the next 876,000 hours. 

Now you might think that sounds like wild or naive optimism, but even if the rate of change is a tenth of this, it’s still a dizzying speed that will utterly transform the future look and feel of our lives. 

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