Foresight Competency

In a world filled with fear, uncertainty, and doubt, and a state willing to encourage this, how does one look ahead?

In high school, my senior year, I took a class called “Future Studies”— this was going to be a course about understanding the requisite literacy in turning historical understanding of an event into a coherent forecast, but because the teacher was a JFK Assasination conspiracy theorist, he used this world event as the framing. Our textbook was the abridged Whitewash: The Report on the Warren Report— an example of how to evaluate truth from speculation from outright projection when you’re confronted with a seemingly validating example where the government acts in broad daylight to conceal something from the public without challenging the validity of the conspiracies, leaving any and all skepticism to be litigating in the incredibly conservative court of public opinion.

More than half a century later, we have conspiracies about every major event in the time since; this reaction by the government, successfully, pushed the Overton Window further open than it ever had, whether or not they actually concealed anything at all, they succeeded in convincing the public a higher tolerance was normal.

The purpose of such conduct is pretty straight-forward, for example: in the case of the 2016 election, Russiagate conspiracies (for which there’s compelling evidence for any number of theories) are not being challenged/resolved meaningfully because, if they were, we’d have to confront that as recently as earlier this month the US interefered in Venezuela, and Joe Biden is running on a promise to force Cuba to enter a proxy conflict with Venezuela on our behalf if Maduro can’t be stopped, but this goes back decades for our own interfering in foreign governments and democratic processes— Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the list goes on.

In the 2010 book Fatal System Error, journalist Joseph Menn details a joint US-Russian-UK coalition to defeat an Eastern European cybercrime bureau which had been interfering in European elections on behalf of, they suspected, organized crime figures, but this all branches out from the cybersecurity analyst contracted to assist being involved in US-based racketeering (indirectly) in Latin American, while the tactics mirror those purportedly used in Russiagate conspiracies, and suddenly the motivation becomes clear— the subterfuge is the point, creating narratives, to call on later, and package for re-use as, either, an op for the US intelligence community, or as an anecdote for a conspiratorial things, but realistically is just “a thing that happened” and it’s crucial that this context not be stripped:

The parallel between these events is that they all suddenly make a lot more sense when you consider a geopolitical lens to seemingly localized datapoints on the timeline: no event in history exists in a vacuum, yet historians and journalists struggle to move beyond things like a class interpretation of something hypernational that absolutely applies to other nations for the same reasons, and responding to the same impetuses. Labor protests across the US and the EU are a good example of this, often the circumstances are being exacerbated, if not by the same multi-national corporations, then the same type of policymaking that creates the issue at hand. However, because we, as a culture, have successfully decontextualized that our politics are deeply geopolitically influenced, these events in, say, France or Egypt, have minimal relevance (or so it would seem) to someone in Madison, Wisconsin.

The above is an example of where one begins competency testing a forecast— are the similarities really all that similar? Are they, in fact, the same factor (say, Facebook privacy violations in the EU and the US, but only being adjudicated in one because the other does not have a populace demanding action coupled with a government willing to hold a corporation accountable)? Or, do they just seem similar?

Consider the “rise of fascism” argument regarding Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and Scott Morrison—you can see this descent into right-wing authoritarianism in all cases, however, what this means for each relative to the US is drastically different, just as many historical axes of power have been more complex than they were unified. Australian right-wingers would, for example, consider the US right-wing’s health care agenda barbaric, the UK might even cringe a little at the idea of something like our insurance providers stepping in as a potential replacement for the NHS, while Brazilians might salivate over such a thing. The behavior is the same, but even the trope of a “strong man” charismatic leader means different things in each of these cultures— the comparison has to end there.

However, if you zoom out, where are the lines actually connecting? Well, in the case of the US and the UK, it’s white nationalism, a chronic issue for both over the last several hundred years. With Bolsonaro, it’s similar to Trump in that there’s a leader of questionable legitimacy weaponizing a cooperative media against itself to gain favor with already skeptical voters, to achieve autocratic ends. But the reduction is intentional on the part of those responsible for writing the history, and in the world of a 24 hour news cycle, not only can they do this in real-time, there’s time to spare to apply this to our understanding of historical events as well.

Fortunately, because we have access to unprecedented amounts of information in the form of the Internet, and while much of the academic work is highly gatekept by institutions (and thus requires access the average citizen may not have— be it a university enrollment, or employment at such an institution), there is a lot to work with, and while critical thinking is highly important, I’d argue access to the information to do one’s own review of highly commoditzed prepackaged media is just as crucial as how one consumes it.

So, how does one combine the awareness of a world historical event, a hypothesis why that event is being framed the way it is, and what the competing interpretations of that event are and why it occurred into a competent forecast? Well, the answer is underwhelming: this is an ongoing, living process, and perhaps disappointingly, we’ll likely be relitigating the extremely recent past, in particular, for a long time. We are, for example, still debating the correctness of how long historical primary sources are being interpreted, through various lenses to understand how this impacts today; there’s no surprise that a geopolitical lens is where these competing interpretation begins to reconcile the differences.

In a world where we’re forced to, as we did recently, relitigate the presidency of George W. Bush, as liberals long for the days of his “leadership” while also lamenting the existence of Ralph Nader in “giving us Bush”, it should be clear how these transformations occur; there’s always a reason, and with this abundance of data at our fingertips, it’s more important than ever that we continue being critical of the competing interpretations before acting on them— this debate is being used to attempt to make the ongoing election cycle consumable by the media for repackaging. This is not conspiratorial thinking, it is happening in real time, however, it breeds conspiratorial thinking in the form of, for example, the trope recently deceased public figures having had “information that would lead to the arrest of Hillary Clinton” to (incorrectly) imply a culture of extrajudicial killing by the elite.

This occurs while, societally, we ignore the willful, malicious murder of black people by the police, people of color overseas in two (to 6) imperialist military occupations we’re participating in at a given time, while the federal government is stealing PPE from shipments transiting US-adjacent ports bound for places like Cuba, to re-route them to the US, while also refusing to provide for US territories like Puerto Rico; there’s always a bigger fish than the big fish we’re being asked to consider.

So, taking all of this into consideration, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to say a conclusion can be drawn from the sheer volume of factors to consider, but clear trends exist to tell us our environmental forecasts are bleak (to say the least), political ones are more uncertain than ever before as we reach legitimacy-crisis-level disparities on multiples axes, while the potential for humans to come together post-collapse probably, ironically, remains the highest it has in decades.

There’s an excellent Carl Sagan quote that I think articulates what makes this mental calculus so difficult, and something many of us rarely do master, but that this is a process all of us are engaging in at all times, unless summarily homogenizing one’s consumption of information:

“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas … If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you … On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.”

The point of a forecast isn’t to be right, but to anticipate— punditry often confuses the two, and corrupts the ability to critically think in a lot of ways when advanced as an exact science the way statistics or probability might be, and these have to be applied with a critical eye to the data, the timeline, an expontentionally growing number of blips in a dependency graph of the universe.


Here are the books I referenced in this piece:

Whitewash, Vol. 1 - Harold Weisberg

Fatal System Error - Joseph Menn

Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:

The Boys Club

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - Richard Feynman

World Party - When You Come Back to Me

Algorithms of Oppression - Safiya Umoja Noble

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