Two more heuristic principles for scanning

A previous post listed 9 (or so) heuristic principles for futures scanning. At the top of that post, I intimated that there may well be more principles to follow once I thought some more about how to undertake what I consider to be best practice in scanning. And indeed it turns out that there are.

Here I add two more principles to those given earlier. The first codifies (and only half-jokingly ‘quantifies’) an observation from an earlier post about the difficulty of extracting useful data from a torrent of noise. The second is a somewhat abstract extension of The Feynman Principle, introducing a variational-directional dimension to it which maps onto a more advanced and subtle use of The Futures Cone.

Principles for scanning (cont’d)

The Sturgeon Principle

“90% of everything is crud.”

In 1953, while speaking at a convention, the science-fiction (SF) author Theodore Sturgeon famously pushed back against then-widespread criticism of SF for its allegedly low quality compared to other genres, such as mystery novels or westerns. He observed that whereas other genres were evaluated by their best examples, SF seemed to always be evaluated by its worst, with critics deriding SF by saying that “90% of science fiction is crud.” He countered by retorting:

They’re right. 90% of science fiction is crud. But then, 90% of everything is crud, and it’s the 10% that isn’t crud that’s important.

Of course, this statement became an instant meme – at a time before memes, as such, were even conceptualised – and it eventually became more widely known as “Sturgeon’s Law” (a term he himself avoided, preferring the word ‘revelation’, since he had already propounded another ‘law’ earlier). In essence, this principle reminds us that much, if not most, of the information we are likely to find, about any and all target topics, is likely to be somewhat less than useful. This may be due to it being mere uniformed opinion – which can now certainly be found in even more abundance these days thanks to the pervasiveness of social media – or it may simply be due to other more prosaic reasons, such as a simple paucity of good data, or from a lack of clarity or critical thought in drawing conclusions (cf. The Sagan Principle). The key point, then, is that not all information turned up by scanning is created equal. And so the trouble – or trick – is finding the 10% or so of this material which actually is worth looking at, as opposed to the very plentiful but generally not very useful crud that is always rather more easy to find even with quite minimal and/or cursory effort. This takes perseverance, patience, and the skilled use of ‘informed judgement based upon experience’ (something already mentioned elsewhere) which is necessary in order to select out the information that is truly important for developing viable forward views from that which may only appear so (if that); in other words, to pick out the (weak) signal from the (abundant) noise. Futures scanners sifting through the information torrent need to be fully aware of the weary pessimism inherent in The Sturgeon Principle, and not lose heart at – or their minds in – the enormous quantity of crud they are inevitably going to encounter. Futures scanning is like running a marathon through treacle, which is one reason why it is so difficult to do well. This is also why the much easier – and thus much more common – form of very limited just-in-time ‘quickie scanning’ is almost universally so awful. It confuses volume/noise with insight/signal, and can easily end up being worse than useless due to the false sense of (only apparent) utility that might be imputed to it. An alternative equivalent name might be ‘The Iceberg Principle’ – the (useful) 10% we do see rests upon the (useless) 90% we don’t.* You don’t get the former without the latter, since the former cannot exist without the latter, and so the core skill lies both in recognising that this is so in the first place, and then in extracting the rare useful from the abundantly not.

The Rao Principle

“Follow directions of ‘maximal interestingness’, treating momentary forward views as ‘perpetual beta’.”

Although I have employed a principle essentially equivalent to this since my early days as a futures scanner two decades ago, the above formulation of it (as well as its name) comes from combining a couple of more recent ideas by Venkatesh Rao from a series of blog posts called Breaking Smart which we used in the ‘capstone’ unit 21st Century Challenges in the Swinburne Master of Strategic Foresight in the last couple of years of its run. These ideas helped to crystallise what was then the tacit use of a fairly abstract principle into the more ‘sticky’ and memorable descriptor shown above. Much of Breaking Smart deals with software and its role in reshaping (or, as Marc Andreesen put it, “eating”) the world, while a significant subset describes the essence of the ‘agile’ approach to software development. We took this idea of agility into our attempt to equip our students with conceptual tools that would allow them to undertake ‘agile foresight’ (so to speak) after they left the Masters program and went out into the world to explore what their contributions to society would be. What I have above called The Rao Principle can be interpreted as a kind of ‘derivative’ form (in pretty much the literal mathematical sense) of The Feynman Principle, which – we recall – suggests that the thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting. The Rao Principle says that, as scanning brings interesting things onto our radar (The Sturgeon Principle notwithstanding), and since we perhaps might not be able to follow all of them due to limited actual or conceptual bandwidth, we should therefore seek to follow the directions of maximal interestingness, even as these might change over time due to even more interestingness emerging in subsequent scanning. Mathematically, this type of abstract implied direction can be found from analysing the derivatives of a function, be they spatial and/or temporal. More concretely, what this means in scanning practice is that since no single constant ‘direction’ of scanning of the target topic area can be fixed once and for all, the forward views we develop for a particular topic area must always be, as Rao has it, “in perpetual beta”, continually subject to updating over time as the directions of maximal interestingness change. So, while we are ever on the lookout for interesting things that don’t fit, per The Feynman Principle, we also need to be paying attention for any (as it were) ‘increased “density” of interestingness’ that seems to be pulling in certain directions as we scan. Like the tangent (derivative) of a time-varying function, the instantaneous direction will change moment-to-moment as time progresses. And so, too, consequently, will the forward views implied by our scanning at any given moment in time for any given topic area. In this view or approach, the orientation of the Futures Cone may therefore shift from moment to moment as we develop new prospects and ideas about the future from the results emerging from our scanning. It’s in this way that the Cone can be considered to be like the headlights of a car pointing ahead in the direction of its current motion – a metaphor I have used frequently in 20-odd years of foresight practice and teaching. If that motion should change direction, as it most assuredly will, then the futures ‘illuminated’ by the Cone will likewise necessarily shift. And, similarly, so too will our judgements about ideas about the future likely also shift between the various categories found within the Cone. Hence, there is a need to always regard any and all currently-held forward views (and the ‘directions’ they imply) as being in ‘perpetual beta’, subject to changes in the directions of maximal interestingness. As Master Yoda had it in The Empire Strikes Back, the future is “difficult to see – always in motion is the future.” We therefore need to build this fundamental insight into our principles for undertaking futures scanning, and keep ever in mind this key understanding of the inherently shape-shifting nature of our moment-to-moment views of the emerging future.

 

These two additional Principles can be slotted back into the earlier set, in the appropriate positions. This is left as an exercise for any interested readers who may be playing along at home 😉

Note

* In reality, it’s not necessarily exactly these proportions, owing to the relative densities of ice and salty seawater, but this is close enough for our purposes here.

Image Credit: Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash

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