Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Kuhn on future?

Brand’s Asymmetry, which I ran across yesterday, got me mulling over the paradox of being a futurist.

The Asymmetry, which Brand submitted to The Edge’s What’s Your Law contest, put it, “The past can only be known, not changed. The future can only be changed, not known.” It’s a nice summary of the challenge that futurists face– just the sort of thing you expect from Stewart Brand, who I’ve come to believe is one of the most elegant, sparse writers alive.

But while it’s impossible to know the future, it strikes me that the value of trying to make sense of it increases with the difficulty of the enterprise. Here’s what I mean. In a world that doesn’t change, the future is easier to know: it’s going to be like the past. Hence knowledge about the future holds little surprise, and has little value. In a world that changes very rapidly and is increasingly chaotic– like our own– knowing the future is very difficult, and very valuable.

Arguably, if done well even the process of thinking about the future can be of use, even if you don’t end up with specific predictions (which futurists avoid like the plague), or end up with a set of scenarios that aren’t completely wrong. (Futurists like the argue that you can be useful without being right, but no one crows about their mistakes– missing the importance World Wide Web, say.)

For some reason, today Kuhn’s notion of normal science as puzzle-solving popped into my head, and the question of whether futures constitutes a form of puzzle-solving as Kuhn described it. For those whose copy of Structure of Scientific Revolutions is not easily to hand, Kuhn argued that “normal science” is a kind of puzzle-solving. What he meant is that scientists choose problems that they believe actually have answers, and avoid problems that don’t have clear solutions. (It doesn’t mean that science is just logic, or easy, or a game.)

Futures work, it seems to me, isn’t a kind of puzzle-solving in the Kuhnian sense. Sure, you can wait and see if things you predict come to pass; but futurists appear willing to live with a degree of incompleteness, and exist in a state of perpetual epistemological uncertainty– and learn to treat it as normal. This isn’t to say that the field is worthless, just that at a deep level, it’s way different from other forms of knowledge.

3 Comments

  1. Do you really believe this asymmetry? If the past cannot be changed why do we do history? The past doesn’t exist separate from our knowledge of it and hence as our knowledge of the past changes so does the past. Or is this simply wrong? Given that the past is all that requires reconstruction I am not sure that the asymmetry exists. But I could be wrong.

  2. DO I believe in the asymmetry? Yes and no. I take Brand to mean that the events that constitute the past can’t be changed, as opposed to our knowledge of it. But I’ve never thought that I could rewrite the past, as it were. The distinction between the events, and our understanding of them, has seemed pretty clear to me.

    And likewise it’s not entirely true that we can’t know things about the future, or reasonably predict some stuff. The problem is that certainty correlates to triviality: people will want, even need, to eat food in the future. (Boy, if we could all just photosynthesize, that would change a lot of things!) What people (or clients) want futurists to do is tell them what unexpected things are going to happen– which of course is where things get tough.

  3. hey you got a nice article bout kuhn and the future. it’s worth reading and reflecting.

    thanks

    jeff

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