Alex Soojung-Kim Pang of Relevant History has an interesting think piece about futurism gone awry, arguing that the discipline suffers because it is so easy to be a huckster. “Evil futurists” intimately know how to exploit the human psyche in order to market ambitious (and fallacious) “big think” ideas:
“One simple idea may be one too many. The future is complex, but you shouldn’t be. Philip Tetlock explained in Expert Political Judgment that there are two kinds of forecasting personalities: foxes, who tend to appreciate contingency and don’t make big claims, and hedgehogs, who have a hammer and see the whole world as a giant nail. Guess who wins. Having a single big theory, even if it’s totally outrageous, makes you sound more credible. Having a Great Idea also makes it easier for you to seem like a Great Visionary, capable of seeing things that others cannot.”
Even if this big idea fails, Pang explains, you can still survive as long as you appear certain enough and come up with a semi-convincing explanation of why the error was an exceedingly minor false externality. Bruce Sterling points out that the “evil futurist” that Pang is talking about is a kind of religious prophet: “[Pang’s] ‘evil futurist’ is a morally-certain holy prophet with a scripture. Social figures of this sort carry out practically every tactic that Pang describes, and that scheme’s been working grandly for millennia.”
Yet, as Sterling points out, these religious (and secular) evangelists often serve the necessary function of forcing change: “I’m trying to imagine a human society that has survived without any holy prophets dominating from the sainted woodwork somewhere.”
Unfortunately, nuanced ideas are usually drowned out by shallow “big think.” Often times they must be marketed as part of a popular intellectual trend. The broader revival of 60’s counterinsurgency theory has provided an atmosphere conducive to more granular and alternative theories of irregular warfare–even if some of those theories directly challenge the tenets of neoclassical counterinsurgency theory. But most often times, the bandwagon effect produces half-baked ideas that blatantly try to exploit the bandwagon effect. How else can you explain a popular business “manifesto” that argues that Shigeru Miyamoto, Steve Jobs, Twitter, Flickr, and Google comprise a “movement” that is going to change the world?
The post-Cold War world’s lack of comfortable binaries seems to have increased the demand for “theory of everything” books. These books attempt to use a single anecdote or metaphor to encompass a totality of differing phenomena. Sometimes they can be useful. Malcolm Gladwell’s books, often derided by subject-matter experts, often summarize and contextualize a breathtaking range of scientific and sociological research. But more often than not they are facile and shallow, packed with buzzwords designed to catapult their authors directly to the speaking circuit and business consulting gigs. Unfortunately, as much as subject-matter experts may protest about the shallowness and sometimes outright falsity of some “big think” ideas, they are going to have to learn to package their own expertise in a similar manner in order to be heard.