[NetBehaviour] A worse crystal ball

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Fri Oct 16 17:07:34 CEST 2020

Hi all,

I'm in election-news-detox today which may reveal one of the reasons why writing about the election is not always so worthwhile.  But maybe writing about it doesn't have to be the same as reading the news about it, or about the same topics, or a response to what one has read?  Of course the internet is so good at harvesting our call-and-response energy that it's little surprise to see the quagmire that forms on almost every question.

One center of gravity affecting my own experience of the election is the dismay and even horror at how sub-ideal the political process is in the US.  Maybe it suffices to say that we are no longer on the "full democracy" list, but have joined the unenviable ranks of "flawed democracy."  One can wish and hope for the "full," but more often than not one finds the "flawed."  This may not change soon, or even ever.  (The US never was that democratic anyway; we just place our monarchic principle in a document -- the Constitution -- rather than a person, in a deft sleight of hand befitting the age of Voltaire which nevertheless reserves a small thread of hope, protected by a bodyguard of near-infinite procrastination, for improvement over the system which preceded the Revolution.)

I do think that voting out the current administration would have a lot of benefits over the alternative.  That's just my opinion though, not much more than a hunch or preference, and who really knows what will happen in the future.

Thoughts and debates of late on political agency (or lack thereof), hopes for progress out of centrism, heterogeneity in national makeups, and pandemic constraints on being all seem somehow related, and together they formed an interesting lens through which I read an article in Foreign Affairs this week about methods of prediction.

The article says that scenario planning and probabilistic forecasting don't work very well separately, in geopolitics or elsewhere, and should be combined.  The scenario method has been called "story and system" or "ersatz experience," where people dream up possible outcomes just for the informational value.  Then probability can be brought in via the method of finding "open minded" and "numerate" people who have been trained to avoid bias and letting them discuss as a group to get the "wisdom of the crowd."  The article claims this gets 30% better prediction results than intelligence pros who have access to classified info.

In any case, the article is nothing earth-shattering but was of a little bit of interest in context.  It also mentioned the four "China scenarios" put forth by Rand 2050: Triumphant, Ascendant, Stagnant, and Imploding.  These are the four quadrants of possibility defined along the two axes of Leadership and Economy (i.e., both bad = Imploding).  Yet even with scenario and probability at use, it seems to me that human agency is the factor of core importance.  What are people capable of choosing?  How can they be motivated or de-motivated in their choices?  The choice factor will also often morph and shift to oppose any steps taken toward control, or can go in any of a million directions.  Hence the interest that some have in "irreversible black swan" events, or the Pandora's box, something by definition impossible to predict but which once "out there" changes a lot of other uncertainties into settled probabilities.

It's hard to say what role art, literature, and human imagination can have during the next 80 years of tension between the flawed democracy (to put it generously) of the US and the system of power (by whatever name) of China.  To me, art and literature can be extremely motivating as well as somewhat demotivating.  Choice is still a factor in how people conduct these behaviors.  So, from my perspective a centrist politics (avoidance of the worst) with ambitious and innovative aesthetics (hope for the best) might be a "best of both worlds" approach to the next 80 years.  Of course, bold and daring politics (from the left, right, or both) combined with retrenching traditional aesthetics will be the likelier probability if nationalist populism retains control over all major nations.  Maybe we will see a pendulum swing between the two -- was it Montaigne who said "everything is a see-saw"?

An interesting side note is the mention in Rand 2040 of possible "black swans" that could occur between now and 2040 to shape geopolitical security conditions, and one that they mention is "a new religion" which to me implies the various conspiracy theologies that are so rapidly proliferating even among government officials.  Another alternative might be something more secular, a hybrid of the imaginative in science and aesthetics both, but the prospects for such a change are by necessity unknown.  This is of course a very good thing!  🙂

All best wishes and regards,



"Tetlock discovered that the key to more accurate geopolitical forecasting was to take people who were naturally numerate and open-minded, train them to think probabilistically and avoid common biases, and then group them so they could leverage the 'wisdom of the crowd.' The best forecasters would approach seemingly intractable questions by decomposing them into parts, researching the past frequency of similar (if not precisely analogous) events, adjusting the odds based the uniqueness of the situation, and continually updating their estimates as new information emerged."

"Questions should be chosen not only for their individual diagnostic value but also for their diversity as a set, so that each cluster provides the greatest amount of information about which imagined future is emerging—or which elements of which envisioned futures are emerging."

"Finally, and most important, because question clusters yield forecasts, one can attach meaningful probabilities to the likelihood that particular events will occur in the future. This provides a sort of advance early warning system. An event does not need to actually transpire for the United States to have actionable information. That, more than anything else, gives question clusters an advantage over traditional indications and warnings."

"Overcoming the tyranny of the present requires high-level action and broad, sustained effort. Leaders across the U.S. government must cultivate the cognitive habits of top forecasters throughout their organizations, while also institutionalizing the imaginative processes of scenario planners. The country’s prosperity, its security, and, ultimately, its power all depend on policymakers’ ability to envision long-term futures, anticipate short-term developments, and use both projections to inform everything from the budget to grand strategy."

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