At one point in response to a question, Stephenson said that people are notoriously bad with statistics.
The first thing that popped into my head was agreement, and not just because fractions and math can be scary.
I think I felt that thought because futures boiled down statistical likelihoods with a number between 0.0 and 1.0 lack any kind of rich, fulsome, evocative acuity.
0.0 - 1.1 doesn’t really activate the imagination to the point of feeling what it is to live within a possible future.
Stats don’t communicate experience quite as well as all the other mechanisms by which one can richly appreciate and excavate what it is to experience a possible world.
A day or two later, I listened to this episode of the same podcast. It was an interview with Philip Tetlock who’s, like..the “super forecaster” guy and who also gets introduced as “quite simply one of the world’s greatest social scientists.” (Ugh..I mean — nothing at all against Tetlock whatsoever..he seems like the kinda feller I could enjoy chatting with around the barbecue. It’s just frustrating that superlatives are used this way. They’re just not helpful. Maybe that’s just me..)
The episode was lousy with predictions, and rankings of great predictors, and insights on what makes a good predictor (and foxes.)
I’m not really into prediction. You know that if you’ve been following along.
Predicting things feels like a setup for bad behavior. It feels weird trying to anticipate what’s going to happen “next” or down the road. It’s hard to explain. It feels a bit like the phenomenon where you tell yourself something enough times with enough conviction that you are challenged to imagine anything else. Also predictions feel transactional. Someone wants that prediction in order to make a proposition bet on something happening and all of a sudden, it’s not about imagining possibilities richly, it’s about being right, whatever the heck that means. I guess it means placing the right financial bet on a possible outcome and reaping the rewards thus.
(Parenthetically, I’m super into riding bikes, especially on rough trails and gravel. You learn to avoid looking too hard at bits of the trail you want to avoid — rocks, roots, ruts, snakes — because if you look too hard at those things you want to avoid, you almost always end up going right into them. It’s weird. In aviation they call a similar kind of phenomenon ‘get-there-itis’ where you are so fixated on getting to where you originally intended to go that you don’t recognize that everything’s changed — really bad weather, for example — and you should begin to imagine other outcomes, like diverting somewhere safe.)
I think doing and relying exclusively on predictions can lead to get-there-itis.
There’s got to be a corollary in other practices. Like..are we in get-there-itis when it comes to Web3? Crypto? VR and AR? Geoengineering? Going to Mars?
I once asked someone to help me imagine what it would be to live in the VR future and they told me to imagine lines of people wrapping around the block of Apple stores worldwide.
🤷🏽♂️ Good start, but we can do better and I’m enjoying mentoring folks to imagine with a bit more depth. What’s the VR future as represented by the first thing you touch in the morning? Or the VR future in the context of an older model refrigerator, or underarm deodorant?
Given a set of statistics about possible outcomes of a sports match-up, episodic police procedural, spy thriller, or even a re-enactment of a historical event — it is likely you’d rather watch and experience the lived drama of things rather than just have an human-enhanced prediction algorithm tell you the likelihood of various outcomes.
(That’s the same as saying that the overwhelming majority of drama and/or sports fans would like to watch the action rather than just know the final score. It’s the setup of countless jokes, if you need proof. You know the one — main character missed watching the game live and implores supporting actors to keep mum about who won and inevitably someone does accidentally and you know — cue laugh track.)
I’m way more of a visual and tangible imagineer. I need to create, see, or tangibly handle a vision of some near future in order to consider, ponder, discuss that near future world. Let’s make a possible world with a high level of acuity, even and particularly if it that possible world runs counter to intuition. Dive into it. So much more fun. Let’s paint an evocative, provocative, curious world of possibilities, showing multiple possible outcomes rather than declaring winners.
And in that imaginative exercise, we learn to think through possibilities.
That’s the Design Fiction approach.
Just the facts - or just the stats - is simply too banal for me.
It leaves no room for actively engaging in outcomes, allowing the imagination to go big the way a really good story is able to do.
Statistics might be useful when bets are being placed on possible near future worlds. When one doesn’t care about the lived experiences of that world except insofar as one is attempting to place (typically financial) bets on outcomes.
And they might even be useful if they went along with a rich imaginary of that world that wasn’t just numbers, and wasn’t just prose analysis — but also with a visual story, like a photo book or picture postcards that came from that world, or some materialized souvenirs brought back from the imagination’s adventure in that world. And then, next to all of that material, there you can put your number between 0.0 - 1.0, along with a Yelp review and 5 star rating.
This is why we developed and evolved Design Fiction as a way of imagining possibility with rich acuity, rather than just predicting what will come next.
We really need to take our imaginations to the gym. Give them a good workout..develop a solid daily exercise regimen.
Got futures you need help imagining? It’s what I do. Get in touch.
You just read issue #27 of
You can also browse the full archives
of this newsletter.