Why straight-line projections into the future are usually wrong

Image credit: Grist

There’s a charming naiveté that results from the way our brains work. As we evolved to deal with relatively simple challenges on the savannah of Africa and the primordial forests of Eurasia, we’ve never developed the sorts of cognitive capacity necessary for dealing with complexity. Nor have we developed any meaningful cognitive ability to understand anything but short-term causal chains.

That’s why, for example, we persistently over-exploit natural resources. Although a small number of people can understand that over-fishing is insane because it inevitably destroys fish stocks, the vast majority blindly over-fish because there are no mechanisms by means of which “the tragedy of the commons” can be avoided. It’s why we humans have exterminated thousands of species over the last few thousand years and have now accelerated our activities to the point where by the end of this century we’ll have eliminated about a quarter of all animal species larger than insects.

The reason this happens is that our brains are hardwired to operate in very limited ways. If today we do something that results in getting us something we want, tomorrow we’ll do it even more. So if I throw out my medium-sized net today and catch 500 fish, tomorrow I’ll throw out a larger net and catch 1,000 fish. My fellow piscatorians will copy me in order to emulate my success. Soon we’ll all be catching 1,000 fish per day. Quite rapidly the average size of the fish we’re catching will diminish because we’ll have removed of a lot of breeding adults and so we’ll be netting proportionately more junior fish. Quite quickly we’ll catch all these too, before they have time to breed. And so, one day, we’ll all go out happily on our boats and discover the waters are empty.

At which point we’ll most likely blame someone else for our misfortune and take our spears and slaughter them in retribution.

Our brains can’t do much more than take whatever is happening today and project it in a straight line far into the future. That’s why sci-fi depictions of the future are always hilariously wrong and why we’re not living in a world of Jetson flying cars that have 1950s-style tail fins and huge round steering wheels. It’s why we’re not all driving nuclear-powered racing cars. It’s also why the world isn’t run by one enormous IBM mainframe computer.

When we look at the phenomenon of straight-line projections we see something interesting: our brains don’t react so much to general trends as to highly-publicized events. Thus something as significant as the development of the microchip meant far less to us than the photogenic but brief-lived hippy communes of the 1960s. When we look back at some of the futurism of the 1960s we don’t see predictions of cellular phones, laptop computers, or anything like that. What we see are predictions that we’ll all live in high-rise apartment buildings housing huge inter-generational communes that grow their own vegetables on rooftops and weave their own hippy-style garments.

This is because in the late 1960s, communes were getting a lot of press coverage, not least because of the assumed sexual experimentation that the bored suburbanite was told was rife within such environments. So our brains did the usual straight-line-into-the-future routine and never once paused to assess the plausibility of the projections that resulted.

We’re seeing a similar thing now thanks to the way governments have responded to mass hysteria induced by irresponsible sensationalist reportage of the recent coronavirus epidemic. According to Joe and Jane Pundit, we’re now all going to work from home forever, life will never be the same again, and… we’re all going to bicycle our way into the future, abjuring the automobile in all its forms.

Here’s the “logic” behind these breathless proclamations sweeping through the ranks of the chattering classes: due to social distancing requirements, public transportation is less attractive than it once was. And we’re all going to be working from home henceforth so we won’t need to commute to the office. And the weather is quite nice at this time of year. The only possible conclusion is that we’ll all be using bicycles and that’s a very good thing because it will reduce global emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Here’s a generic view from The Economist magazine:

National and city governments are fizzing with new, or revamped, schemes. Grant Shapps, Britain’s transport minister, in a speech on May 9th , promised to make “a ‘once in a generation’ change to the way people travel in Britain.” He announced a £2bn investment in more cycling infrastructure and better pavements. Manchester has plans for the country’s “most comprehensive” integrated walking and cycling network. France wants to spend €20m to subsidise cycle training and more parking spaces for bikes. Bologna is bringing forward its plan for a Bicipolitana, 493km of cycle lanes, from 2030 to later this year, when 60% of it should be finished. Seattle plans to shut 20 miles of streets to most cars permanently.

Only, of course, things aren’t actually so simple. For a start, the office is not going to disappear except in the case of a very small number of forward-looking technology companies. More than 90% of office workers will be summoned back to their cramped little cubes by managers desperate to reacquire their tokens of self-esteem. Meanwhile, anyone who’s ever gone anywhere with a family will discover that trying to organize a cross-country peloton comprising several children will be fraught, not least because no one will be able to bring with them much of anything on their new-style summer vacation trip. There’s a limit to how many clothes, snacks, drinks, and favorite toys one can cram into a set of panniers. Oh, and don’t try to bring much back from the supermarket, for the same reason.

Meanwhile, for those with memories longer than

… what was I saying…?

…oh, yes, memories longer than a goldfish will recall that while the months of May through September are in the northern hemisphere generally clement and benevolent, things do tend to change somewhat for the worse later in the year. In fact, if we live in a country where November through February brings darkness, freezing winds, sleet, icy rain, and snow, it may vaguely occur to us to wonder if during this time of year (which, amazingly, comes around every twelve months even when we forget this will happen because we’re too busy writing breathless opinion pieces about a future dominated by bicycles) the bicycle is really truly going to be an appealing form of transportation compared to a bus, a train, or a personal family car, all of which shelter us from nasty weather rather nicely.

As always, our brains respond to the well-publicized and we miss the matters of real importance. The chattering classes are busy painting a world not so far removed from the hippy commune visions of the late 1960s while missing entirely the real factors that will shape the future.

We’ve just self-harmed in a form never previously seen in history. Never before have we shut down most of the planet in a concerted mass panic, thus throwing one and a half billion people into extreme financial insecurity from which most will never fully recover. We’ve inflicted on our economies a blow to GDP at least as great as seen in the Great Depression of the 1930s. It doesn’t matter if you think this was “worth it to save lives” or not; what matters are the facts.

And the facts are clear: when we humans experience loss of security we become very anxious. This triggers a hardwired behavioral response, which is to look for a “strong” leader to guide us out of the mess. That’s why the late 1920s and early 1930s were such a great time for fascism in all its forms (including, of course, the Soviet version of fascism dressed up as Marxism). On a smaller scale the financial turbulence of the 2008 economic meltdown led to the wave of mindless populism/nationalism that has swept the world since 2016. If a relatively small economic bump in the road in 2008 led to the likes of Brexit, Trump, Modi, Erdogan, Duterte, Bolsonaro, PiS, AfD and all the rest, it’s not difficult to see that the enormous economic crater we’ve just created is going to lead to much worse outcomes than blustering orange morons undermining essential trans-national organizations and eradicating basic legal norms within their own countries.

But the chattering classes aren’t writing about any of the likely future events because they can’t see them. The human brain isn’t adapted to grasp the obvious even when it’s right in front of us. So we’ll continue to see silly articles about working from home and the Rise of the Bicycle and all the while the deep dark tectonic social movements will continue until their consequences burst upon us to the surprise of nearly everyone.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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