"If you don't make predictions, you'll never know what to be surprised by"
Growing up, I was firmly in the optimism camp. I’d heard old timers wax and wane about the state of the world and think they were being old fashioned.
“Middle class income has been stagnant”
“Yes but could you watch videos of literally anything you wanted in a small personal information box? Finally things are being democratized.”
It took me years working in Washington watching how the tech companies operate to understand how ridiculous this is.
My big mistake when I was younger was assuming that because we now had something that was impossible in a previous time, it made our world incomparable to the past. Additionally, I naively thought companies providing the new tech had their goals in alignment with the general public (make something good and people will use it right?).
I also feel my distraction with shiny objects and a promise of a better future made me overlook how basic needs like housing, health, and stability were becoming less attainable.
Fascinating. These Long Boom Progression guys neither understand nor care about social behavior, or basic economics for that matter. To be sitting smack in the middle of the 2nd Guilded Age and keep a straight face while claiming technology will create such abundance (doubling down after the 1st article crashed and burned!) it will be "too cheap to meter" is rich. And what is it with these Long tech cons? Long Boom, Long Tail, Long Now. Every one a sleight of hand hustle, keep your eye on the ball that's way off in the future, it's gonna be great!
EmAn extremely interesting and thought-provoking essay.
I'd argue that relentless optimism is not the most significant fault in the "long boom" speculative journalism.
Rather, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature (eg, it's not open, generous, collectively-oriented, or inclusive). We're more often aggressive, territorial, tribal, selfish, and easily manipulated.
Yes, we're capable of significant societal change at inflection points under great leaders: ending slavery, fighting Nazi genocide, backing the New Deal, the Civil Rights agenda, women's rights, gay marriage, and briefly, post George Floyd's agonizingly slow public murder, a recognition of structural racism.
But, like all societies, propaganda works. The myth of the "genius" billionaire, the elevation of money over values, the stagnation of the political class, the backlash to demographic changes, the mainipulation of religion, and the capture of the media should have been factored into any predictions of the future.
Every civilization throughout history has destroyed itself by failing to learn from the past or adapt to circumvent the inherent weakness of human nature.
The thing is that the predictions of the Long Boom as you dig into them here in The Long Boom, Taken Seriously, are just based on nothing much in terms of knowledge. You read those and you realize Leyden was just skimming off the surface of press reports, pundit speculation, huffing the vapor of echo chambers--he didn't have the faintest idea what was going on in Russia, he didn't know anything about how plausible 'clean' fossil fuels really were, he wasn't paying the least bit of attention to what deregulation and 'structural adjustment' had already wrought in terms of interstate relationships and 'openness', he wasn't looking at projected tax revenues from anybody who knew anything (plus stupidly assuming tax rates would remain steady in an era when both political parties had embraced tax cuts as a political strategy), he had absolutely no sense of what was brewing in the culture *in the age of Newt Gingrich*. I mean, the reasons to think otherwise on every point he made were *already* known to many experts and already under discussion.
Forget looking back--reading those *at the time*, it was plain that there were really only two ways to understand what was behind these predictions: they were either a cynical move by a courtier intended to flatter the ideologically-driven optimism of several groups of possible patrons, or they were 100% knowledge-free, research-virgin nonsense.
Philip Tetlock has done some interesting work on forecasting and prediction, and I'm pretty convinced by what he's found. First, that a substantial proportion of people doing forecasting are actually *worse* than randomly wrong, e.g., if you give them a list of possible trends or future developments arranged into binaries, they'll often fare worse than 50-50 by a good margin. (This mirrors some other expert systems of evaluation and judgment--some studies have wine experts faring worse than 50-50 in guessing vintages, areas of origins, approximate price and commonly judged quality, and even varietals of wines they blind-taste, for example.) There are a lot of explanations: groupthink, ideology, or simpler forms of information poverty, e.g., forecasters who rely either on a single source too deeply or who just graze carelessly and go with the last thing they heard.
But Tetlock does also find there are 'superforecasters' who are considerably more accurate than random chance, and it turns out they have some distinctive individual characteristics but also that they all tend to combine a *diverse* range of deeply read and known archives of information with a very heterogenous range of types of sources--journalists, hard quantitative data supplied by governments and NGOs, on-the-ground experiential accounts, comparative analyses that bring other countries and situations into view, insider narratives, etc., and the superforecasters are always skeptical and willing to buck not just common wisdom but to revise and question their own previous judgments or inclinations.
Optimism and pessimism both need to come with skepticism. Thanks for bringing some.
There is something deeply wrong with their use of 'scenarios' and especially the idea of 'scenario killers'.
Peter Schwartz worked at Shell when they developed the scenario planning method (based on earlier work, of course). I worked for Harry Beckers (former Shell BoD in charge of R&D) in the 1990's. Harry was instrumental in developing the method in the 1970's and he instilled the scenario-methodology into us in he 1990's. Harry, by the way, was not a fan of Peter Schwartz (who wrote the book "The Art of the Long View" based on that Shell work), telling us that Peter had very little to do with the development, but still did become the face of scenario planning at the time.
Now, what is wrong is this. The idea behind scenario planning was that you would look for uncertainties that were both 'believable' and 'impactful'. Then, for every such uncertainty, you have two possible outcomes (it does/doesn't happen), which means that for every key uncertainty you get twice as many possible scenarios ('outcome worlds'). This quickly becomes too much, so you try to group certain outcome choices in a number of 'plots', which are supposed to cover as much as possible of the whole 'scenario space'. These plots are then fleshed out to become stories of potential future worlds. And these you use to gauge your potential strategy choices against.
People started to call these ('combined') plots 'scenarios' and then people started to think of the scenarios as 'predictions'. But they never were, and presenting a plot such as 'the long boom' as a prediction with some uncertainties that can 'kill the plot' is exactly what scenario planning is not about. There are no 'scenario killers' in 'scenario planning'. It is not about predictions, it is about uncertainties.
What is written down as 'scenario killers' apparently are the actual 'key uncertainties' and you need to create about 4 or 6 (there are reasons for these numbers) plots from them (by grouping choices of those uncertainties). Not the prediction (e.g. the long boom), but the *uncertainties* are the actual valuable parts of the story.
"while signaling that you are the rare type of person who does not find Richard Dawkins offputting." This is gold!
"I had to take a walk and calm myself down." Gold squared!
I suspect we began producing a lesser class of billionaire right after Leyden's initial prediction of good times. These are one-way guys, who see wealth as a path to power and power as the ultimate aphrodesiac. I wrote about them just the other day https://danafblankenhorn.substack.com/p/a-lesser-class-of-billionaire
The new billionaires Leyden loves have screwed up their own utopia to the point they may find themselves drowned in a bathtub
It's really just the perfect amalgam of Fukuyama and techno-optimism and about as serious as an 11 year old's drawing of his dream estate. ("Full size basketball court, water slide and a swim up bar because that's what I'll want when I am old enough to drink.") Not to be a gloomer, but how do serious people not realize that things never have worked like this? How did allegedly smart people not see by the late '90s the seriousness of our environmental crises and the rise of right-wing disinformation media?
We underestimate the general human ability to f**k things up. We don't need an active adversary to succumb to hubris. And there were other voices warning us like Kuttner that we were outstripping the planet's ability to recover.