Divining the Future

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Is it possible to divine the future? And if so, how do people go about it who do this for a living? Calculations involving probability and chance are more or less becoming standard part of almost any modern theory.
There is hardly a better example to establish a good risk assessment method than to study the knowledge that the risk sector volunteers.
So what do big shot risk (read: investment) managers --who likely possess a healthy dose of scepticism-- take to be guidelines for assessing future scenarios? What does a risk specialist's paranoid streak boil down to? And what makes their positive anticipations the justification of their profession? The most commonly used answer to both questions is of course the cliche 'if ..
millionaire' line.
That is why it is not surprising that we bumped into theory after theory after theory, looking to understand what makes risk issues crucial to understanding what's going on in the world at large.
First of all, aside from finding out how the risk professionals conjure up their theories, let's point out why it is about time we got round to the issue from a cultural perspective too.
It is because recent cultural theories are pointing in the direction of a breakdown between the domain of neurological and paranormal research.
That means that people generally are open to futuristic approaches.
History and mythology explain the present quite adequately, but with regard to the future all we can really do is guess.
The hunt is on now for finding out how to make 'informed' guesses.
The business world is convinced of the merits of risk models predicting the future because it makes a tonne of money from them.
Success stories lead to organizations' intensified efforts to not fall behind.
It is an art to revoke bad scenarios and turning them into outcomes that we all wish for.
Risk managers eagerly play into uncertainties and pretend to redress negative aspects.
They re-brand business decisions as risk policies.
Risk management first started to attract attention of people outside the business world when some of its star experts claimed staunch disasters had been predicted by its models, starting with the Asian currency crises in 1997, followed by the September 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York.
Both these events could have been prevented had the information not been fragmented, policymakers not been so hung up about their jurisprudence and had organizations not fouled up structurally.
One risk expert, Richard Slaughter, who wrote Else, a book that was published in 2002, offers both an explanation of the issues involved in risk assessment and what he calls 'a future context map'.
He, like many other risk specialists, broaches the issues undermining the well being of society from a socially structured angle.
His colleague Ulrich Beck defines risk as 'the modern approach to foresee and control the future consequences of human action'.
Interestingly, he narrows down the territory by showing how unlimited it is, in that this human action involves 'unintended consequences of radicalized modernization'.
Risk managers do one thing that a modern day writer also excels in - they write scenarios.
The term was sourced by a novelist and screenwriter, Leo Rosten, who happened to freelance at a company called RAND Corporation during the time that the spiritual father of Risk Management, Herman Kahn, a physicist, mathematician, and nuclear strategist was busy writing scenarios there in the 1940s.
Incidentally, Kahn subsequently founded his own foundation, the Hudson Institute in 1961.
The example of Kahn was first applied by two Shell employees Ted Newland and Pierre Wack, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s pioneered the company's risk approach by imagining where Shell as a company was going in years ahead and where the world was going.
Wack, who died recently, became a leader in the risk sector, put the art of scenario writing at the centre of any adequate risk strategy.
"Scenarios transform information into perceptions...
It is a creative experience that generates an 'Aha!' ...
and leads to strategic insights beyond the mind's previous reach," he once said.
The quest to involve every day life scenarios that are not immediately available in normal financial systems which depend on a categorization of the world in terms of industrial and economic parameters, became highly topical after 2002.
One immediate consequence of the success of risk specialists in predicting crises such as the Asian currency crises and the 9/11 has been the further maturing of the discipline itself.
It is no longer possible to group it into a political entity or into any other social category.
Risk is a powerful mobilizing agent however, which propels action by both those in power and the people faced with threats.
The scenarios that risk models conjure up more or less all involve fictitious events and our propensity to take the hypothetical scenarios seriously has grown stronger as risk managers underlined the seriousness of their gospel in the wake of disasters.
A first issue people noted after 1997 and 2002 is that our perception of time appeared to have undergone a review.
"The onrushing future - something non existent, constructed and fictitious - had now displaced the past as an influence on the present", according to Beck.
One result was the greater popularity of chaos and systems theory.
"Reflecting the planners' belief that the best possible future given if fictitious could be detected and actualised.
Risks are afterall, a type of virtual reality, real virtuality.
", Beck asserts.
Phrases associated with the trend include 'contextual thinking', 'intertextuality', 'calculability'.
"When you are trying to find that middle ground between paralysis and denial, you can't entertain 15 scenarios meaningfully and actually do something.
At the same time, you don't want to converge on one version of the future [but] you should be able to capture 80 percent or more of the most important uncertainties in the landscape.
The world will always throw some curve balls at you," says Chris Ertel, a senior practitioner from Global Business Network in San Francisco which specialises in scenario planning.
So what would a risk manager take into account, trying to circumvent a false representation of power structures and consequences of human actions? If millions of investments are involved, the incentive to have a proper perspective of the world impacting business is rather important.
But risk management is also widely in use in normal businesses and non profit organizations, not least because of the efforts of Peter Schwartz who used to be responsible for risk at Shell and who wrote a landmark book entitled 'The Art of the Long View'.
The answer to this question are mostly deeply philosophical rather than practical in nature.
Beck talks about a Post Political Technocratic World Society.
And others mostly talk in keyword type riddles.
One buzzword is 'reflexive'.
Firmly founded in post modern philosophy, it highlights an alternative to the dead end gospel preached by relativists.
One very practical approach was outlined in an interview by Maryln Walton, a scenario team leader at Herman Miller, a specialist agency in work environments, recently published in See.
In answer to the question why his company was interested in scenario planning, he said "The [..
] angle is to explore how work will change.
We wanted scenario thinking to impact both broader strategic issues within the company and also our design and development strategy.
We wanted to find out how present realities would shape future ones and what product designers should be thinking about.
] A key beginning is to choose and orient a committed cross functional team.
We include a variety of backgrounds and different kinds of thinking and skill sets.
We do that for a couple of reasons - to develop broad thinking skills and to spread the experience into as many parts of the organization as we can.
In the end, I imagine we exposed almost 500 people to scenario planning and a new way of thinking about the future.
The next step is to decide on the focal question.
Once the focal question is decided on, we try to think about the key forces of change, and in doing that we expose the gaps in our knowledge--which leads us to research and interviewing experts.
] The next step is to convene in a two day meeting with experts.
" That sounds pretty straightforward and logical.
There have been few occasions in which the systems have been taken to the test, which is a blessing of course because most risk scenarios involve disasters.
But the crises that are evaluated have taught us first and foremost that for a model to be truly effective, its combination with 'manufactured uncertainty' resembles the unlikely synthesis of knowledge and unawareness.
It would be impossible to speculate what a particular most optimal balance is and there are no direct laws here that can be considered as cast in stone.
Nevertheless it probably works somewhat similar to predicting fashion trends, something that virtually any woman displays a natural talent for.
Inputting historic data on colors shapes and sizes and conjuring up what's next is likely going to be easy compared to the complexity of the wider reality.
However, conjectures, reflexes, patterns, self reference and repetition are only a few phenomena that the post modern philosophy has been preparing us for since the early 1970s.
Reflexive proponents apparently have no business being submerged under the all impending knowledge that the future is one mass of incalculable hazardous events.
Instead they aim to carve out a politically mouldable impulse that they propose is directly triggered by fabricated uncertainty.
Aside from the business sector, which we only look at because it is a good indicator to see if risk managers can be taken seriously, there are a few art projects that cover fabricated uncertainties in relation to reality.
One of those is Hexen 2039, a project exploring the relationship between the military and occult theories for psychological warfare.
The project is centered around a fictitional character living in 2039, an alter ego of Susan Treister, the artist, who is part of an institute of Militronics and Advanced Time Interventionality (a fictional 21st Century organization) and who travels back in time regularly.
The character is at once an attraction and a study object, because the project derives a ton of real information about past military organizations and historical events involving the use of the occult and hidden informational techniques.
This means that the fiction is not all that implausible.
In the year 2039, the alter ego, who is called Rosalind Brodsky, travels to an assignment at West Point U.
Military Academy, situated on the banks of the Hudson River, 50 miles north of Manhattan in New York State.
Following investigations into the US Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Psyop) based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the assignment at West Point is part of an investigation into early forms of audio hypnosis or silent sounds technologies altering the brain's EEG pattersn, used for military purposes.
Sounds totally sci fi? It is because it is sci fi! But the project will baffle you as it links real historic details to a probable future.
For instance, Brodsky casually finds out that in 1939 the Military Academy was used as the setting for the witch's tower scene in the film the Wizard of Oz.
It's among the least impressive of the project's facts, and Treister establishes an uncanny relationship between Hollywood and the US military.
It appears that the military used remote viewing techniques (projecting human consciousness from one place to another and to gain accurate information about remote and hidden locations) that were meticulously detailed in a film shot not far from the particular military institution involved.
How much more uncanny can it get? The facts that Treister outlines throw up a mountain of moral implications, but the military and possible claims to the future are of course something completely different compared to civilian life.
When a high profile scenario is leaked to the public and is subsequently challenged by other professionals, the implications are usually rather damaging.
But generally, risk experts are becoming more accepted in the public domain.
"Scenario planning presents itself on the surface as a lofty intellectual activity, but in the end it really is all about engaging people and connecting people with their passions and their curiosity about the world and how it's changing", says Chris Ertel.
A much sought after quality in decision makers is 'contextual intelligence', the ability to think laterally, which sort of finds itself at the intersection of intellect and emotional intelligence.
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