Hot Topic: Futuring with Wild Cards
“Global pandemic” has been one of many wild cards—low-probability/high-impact scenarios—that futurists have discussed for decades. As we have seen with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and the impacts of COVID-19, the point of discussing wild cards is to prepare for them—or at least to weigh the costs of not doing so.
Current conditions already meet or exceed the warnings previously issued about pandemics, as microbiologists Tyler A. Kokjohn and Kimbal E. Cooper wrote about the avian flu (H5N1) outbreak in The Futurist in 2006: “If a pandemic strikes in the near term, the capacity to manufacture vaccine will not be sufficient to meet the enormous upsurge in worldwide demand. … A full-scale outbreak will quickly overwhelm medical facilities and staff, deplete drug stockpiles, and disrupt civic functions. … In short, pandemic influenza should be viewed as a permanent problem that can only be managed, but never solved definitively.”
On the brighter side, futurists also foresaw some of the mitigating factors in today’s world, such as telemedicine, telecommuting, tele-education, tele-everything—in short, technologically enhanced social distancing that helps many of us to keep on going as normally and safely as possible.
Complexity is another trait making wild cards hard to deal with, potentially turning up other, perhaps equally impactful, wild cards. In his 1997 article for The Futurist, John L. Petersen, author of Out of the Blue: Wild Cards and Other Big Surprises, described several events besides “worldwide epidemic” that remain very much worth consideration, such as:
- Nuclear terrorists attack the United States.
- Hackers blackmail the Federal Reserve.
- International financial collapse.
- Global food shortage.
- Climatic instability and turn for the worst.
- Rise of an American dictator.
- Information war breaks out.
The latter concept might be recast today as “Fake news becomes weaponized.” Whether this has actually been the case with information about the current pandemic, it’s clear that “unsubstantiated and outright false information about the coronavirus has been ripping across the internet,” Ali Breland writes in Mother Jones. [See “Dealing with Deepfakes,” below.]
One question a lot of futurists have been asking is how to get decision makers to take these low-probability events seriously, even with vivid depictions of the highly impactful disruptions they could cause.
“Decision makers don’t always pay attention to futurists’ warnings,” Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes told the World Future Society’s annual meeting in 1998. Hughes led the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1996 to 1999, when he was responsible for keeping Washington informed of potential problem areas, such as the conflict at that time between India and Pakistan.
According to Hughes, “The military was not surprised by India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests [in the spring of 1998]—only by the day it actually happened. But the politicians were [surprised]. The politicians all said, ‘You didn’t grab us by the lapels!’ I now know I’m in the lapel business.”
We don’t know whether anyone was grabbing President Bush’s lapels before 9/11, for instance, but in 2020 we can identify at least one lapel grabber in the Trump administration: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. As he told Science magazine, “When you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens. So, I’m going to keep pushing.”
But if lapel grabbing still doesn’t work, another approach to making leaders listen comes from the1984 comedy Ghostbusters, when Dr. Venkman (Bill Murray) persuades the mayor of New York to let his unconventional team of scientists stop the supernatural catastrophe at hand: “If I’m right, and we can stop this thing, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters!”
Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, writers, and Ivan Reitman, director, Ghostbusters, 1984. Quote via Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087332/quotes/qt0475916
Ali Breland, “Why Coronavirus Misinformation Is Out of Control,” Mother Jones, posted online March 19, 2020. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/03/coronavirus-misinformation/
Jon Cohen, “‘I’m going to keep pushing.’ Anthony Fauci tries to make the White House listen to facts of the pandemic,” Science, posted online March 22, 2020. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/i-m-going-keep-pushing-anthony-fauci-tries-make-white-house-listen-facts-pandemic
Kimbal E. Cooper and Tyler A. Kokjohn, “In the Shadow of Pandemic,” The Futurist, September-October 2006.
John L. Petersen, “The ‘Wild Cards’ in Our Future: Preparing for the Improbable,” The Futurist, July-August 1997.
Cynthia G. Wagner, “Highlights from Future Quest” [Hughes quoted in sidebar for “Future Quest: Strategies for the New Millennium”] The Futurist, November 1998, p. 41.
Futurist Pandemic Projects and Resources
- Fast Future Publishing seeks contributions for its new book, tentatively titled Aftershocks and Opportunities—Futurists Envision our Post-Pandemic Future. The book seeks to “portray diverse perspectives on economic, cultural, organisational, political, social, scientific, technological, commercial, and ecological evolution over the coming two to five years” to guide individuals and leaders on what may lie ahead after the COVID-19 pandemic, says Fast Future CEO Rohit Talwar. The deadline for submissions of 1,000-word chapters is April 19, 2020, with a tentative publication date of June 1. [Learn more]
- Talwar has also created group pages for futurists discussing COVID-19 on Facebook and LinkedIn. “The groups are resources intended to provide dedicated places to find and share scenarios, projections, visions, and discussions of what our post-pandemic world could look like in the near, medium, and longer term,” he says.
- Members of the Association for Professional Futurists may submit news about their COVID-19 crisis-related projects to the APF site. “APF members have been helping the public take decisive action to mitigate this global pandemic. Catch our growing APF page that highlights our collective work and submit your news there so we can feature you,” writes Chair Jay Gary.
- Futurist Gerd Leonhard has added a post-coronavirus resource page at his site. In his article “A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” (posted March 24), a backcast from the immediate postpandemic future, Leonhard writes: “Global GDP growth was unimaginably negative for 2020. … The U.S. fared the worst, while China jockeyed to reposition itself for a new world order. Yet, 2020 was the first year in industrial-age history where global CO2 emissions have declined.” [Read more]
- Pero Micic, founder and CEO of Future Management Group, offers a series of scenarios for 2021: Blue scenarios (assumption scenarios): Quick Recovery, Long Crisis, Mega-Crisis, System-Change. Red scenarios (surprises), e.g., Joe Biden withdraws from the presidential election due to illness. Green scenarios (opportunities for organizational leaders to preserve key assets): e.g., health, solvency, relations, and operability. [Read more]
- Leah Zaidi of Multiverse Design has created a 10-page guide to Post Covid-19 Reorganization Scenarios, “a comprehensive look at what might emerge post-Covid-19 as the fabric of our reality changes.” [Learn more]
Thanks also to Jerry Glenn and members of The Millennium Project’s listserv for sharing their work and thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dealing with Deepfakes: Event Report
The tools to create “deepfakes”—manipulated images, sounds, and other information—are increasingly being used (and misused) by more people, according to panelists at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation’s March 12 forum, “Responding to the Deepfakes Challenge.”
The AI-generated “adversarial networks” that can both detect and improve on deepfakes are democratizing, said panelist Michael Clauser of Access Partnership. The average person on the street can use them with apps developed in China, and the rate of innovation means it’s something kids will eventually be able to use, he said.
Even as the forum was taking place, mainstream media were calling out the use of manipulated media in the presidential campaign. (“Biden ad manipulates video to slam Trump” by Meg Kelly, Washington Post, March 13, 2020.)
These technologies pose a threat to democracy beyond election security, said Lindsay Gorman of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. Citizens become less able to tell if something is real or not, and politicians become less able to refute the fakes. Trust will be broken, she said.
But should governments regulate the technologies?
Victims of deepfake technologies already have recourse through existing laws, such as defamation, fraud, and infliction of emotional distress, noted Ben Sheffner of the Motion Picture Association.
Regulating the technology’s developers would also inhibit innovation for good, such as cancer detection, Clauser said. And, ironically, it takes deepfakes-level technology to identify and fight deepfakes, he observed.
Facebook’s cybersecurity policy lead, Saleela Salahuddin, outlined several of Facebook’s initiatives to address the deepfakes challenge, such as employing third-party fact checkers and establishing community standards to reject manipulated videos (other than parody and satire). Facebook also launched a million-dollar Deepfake Detection Challenge (ending March 31) to develop tools to detect manipulated content.
Read “Event Report: Responding to the Deepfakes Challenge” by Cindy Wagner, Foresight Signals Blog, March 18, 2020.
Futurism’s Pioneering Women
Forbes magazine recently published a list of the world’s 50 leading female futurists, including the article’s author, customer experience futurist Blake Morgan.
Women have always been active in futures work, whether as practitioners, scholars, imagineers, or promoters of the field as a community. Here are a dozen you should know about:
- Elise M. Boulding (1920-2010), sociologist, author, and peace researcher who advocated building a “global civic culture” to solve international conflicts.
- Audrey Clayton (1928-2014), senior evaluator for the U.S. General Accounting Office and co-editor of the World Future Society’s professional journal, Futures Research Quarterly.
- Vary T. Coates (1930- ), policy analyst and project director for the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.
- Sally Woodhull Cornish (1927-1992), journalist; co-founder and program director for the World Future Society.
- Hazel Henderson (1933- ), evolutionary economist and founder of Ethical Markets Media.
- Jean Houston (1937- ) pioneered the human potential movement and co-founded the Foundation for Mind Research.
- Barbara Marx Hubbard (1929-2019) led the Foundation for Conscious Evolution and was a founding board member of the World Future Society.
- Jessica Lipnack (1947- ), co-founder of NetAge, co-author of The Age of the Network (1994) and Virtual Teams (1997).
- Magda Cordell McHale (1921-2008), futurist, educator, and artist.
- Donella H. Meadows (1941-2001), lead researcher and co-author of The Limits to Growth (1972).
- Heidi Toffler (1929-2019), writer, editor, and futures consultant.
- Edie Weiner (1948- ), president and CEO of The Future Hunters (Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc.).
Read “Futurism’s Pioneering Women” by Cindy Wagner, Foresight Signals Blog, March 25, 2020.
A Personal Note
A wild card doesn’t have to be a global event to be devastating, and if pandemic isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to you so far this year, it puts things in perspective. The wild card that hit my family in February, my 33-year-old nephew’s death in a stupid car crash, is about as crushing as anything we could have imagined.
Certainly no one planned for this wild card; as a newlywed, Daniel had not even changed his “in case of emergency” contact information from his father to his wife, creating even more chaos that day.
With an unexpected virus upon us all, it wouldn’t hurt to take some time to also think about and plan for some of the more personal unthinkables.
In the meantime, be kind and play fair. Stay well, stay strong, stay connected, and stay forward-looking. —CGW