Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: scenarios

Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025

University of Wisconsin history professor Alfred McCoy is blogging about a project he and an international team of scholars has just completed, a series of scenarios on "the end of the American century." This is part of a larger project titled "U.S. Empire Project: Rise & Decline of American Global Power," which seems to be keeping alive Madison's rich tradition of radical scholarship.

It's not clear from the description of the project what kinds of methods they used to craft the four scenarios (or how they were chosen, etc.), but I hope to learn more about the project soon. From McCoy's post:

As a half-dozen European nations have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.

Available economic, educational, and military data indicate that, when it comes to U.S. global power, negative trends will aggregate rapidly by 2020 and are likely to reach a critical mass no later than 2030. The American Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II, will be tattered and fading by 2025, its eighth decade, and could be history by 2030….

Viewed historically, the question is not whether the United States will lose its unchallenged global power, but just how precipitous and wrenching the decline will be. In place of Washington's wishful thinking, let’s use the National Intelligence Council's own futuristic methodology to suggest four realistic scenarios for how, whether with a bang or a whimper, U.S. global power could reach its end in the 2020s (along with four accompanying assessments of just where we are today). The future scenarios include: economic decline, oil shock, military misadventure, and World War III. While these are hardly the only possibilities when it comes to American decline or even collapse, they offer a window into an onrushing future.

Architectural movements and their reinterpretation

Okay, here’s one for all my smart friends.

In my scenarios project, I’m taking an approach in which I treat scenarios not as texts to be read from start to finish, but as a combination– a package or portmanteau– of formal content, tacit knowledge, media of various types (reports, maps, rigorous analytical stuff, more imaginative stories, etc.), and even events or performances (e.g., workshops, client engagements). One of the things I’m interested in is following how scenarios get used in different contexts, and how the constituent parts of scenarios are sometimes carved off from the whole, repurposed and reused.

I think there’s a parallel here to architectural movements and their impacts. Something like neoclassicism or the International Style isn’t a single concept; it’s a whole package of ideas and forms, and while it can be influential worldwide, it’s not influential in the same way everywhere. Sometimes different elements are pulled out and emphasized in different parts of the world: think of how modern architecture in Brazil and Japan have played out, with the former being much more sculptural and sensual. Local materials may blunt the strangeness of a foreign style. Or guiding principles inspire very different kinds of works: Art Nouveau in Vienna and Aberdeen are pretty different creatures.

This is stock in trade in the history of architecture, but I’m a lot more familiar with specific periods in architectural history, or the works of particular architects, than I am with the historiography; so while I can point to lots of examples of this kind of localization and reinterpretation, I don’t know of anyone who’s written about the process in more general terms. Do such articles exist?

[To the tune of Joshua Rifkin: The Bach Ensemble, “Kyrie: Kyrie Eleison #2,” from the album Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) (a 4-star song, imo).]

Terrorism, scenarios, and fiction

An article in the New Republic takes a critical look at the growing use of writers and creative types in counterterrorism work. Authors and screenwriters are now a regular fixture in brainstorming exercises in which counterterrorism officials develop scenarios for everything from attacks on critical infrastructure to a 21st-century caliphate. I don’t know how common this really is– the Institute doesn’t do classified work– but the article does point out a couple challenges to using fiction in futures.

First, a bit of background:

Our adversaries, the thinking goes, are tougher to understand and predict than in conflicts past. During the cold war, for instance, it was relatively easy to gauge Soviet intentions and capabilities. Not only did we have better human intelligence, but there was a visible political-military apparatus to watch. We could see their missiles and know which ones were pointed at us. Beyond Pentagon red teams that tried to anticipate Soviet responses to U.S. moves, there wasn’t much need to speculate about the Soviet mind.

Radical Islam, by contrast, is a much shadier world. Although jihadists are prolific communicators, issuing videotapes and conversing in Internet chatrooms, it’s difficult to tap into the mind-sets and motives behind the propaganda. So policymakers have increasingly turned to fiction as a way to better understand the enemy, as well as to shake up the intelligence system and fill in knowledge gaps. As Jon Nowick, director of the DHS’s red team program, told The Washington Post, “We paint a picture where there are no dots to connect.” Or, in the more colorful language of the National Intelligence Council’s Robert Hutchings: “[L]inear analysis will get you a much-changed caterpillar, but it won’t get you a butterfly. For that, you need a leap of imagination.”

But there are two big problems with such exercises. First,

they assume a level of organization and strategy that may not exist. Fawaz Gerges, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy, says his interviews with convicted terrorists reveal a surprising lack of strategic sophistication…. It’s possible to strategize as your enemy would when it’s one military analyzing another and there’s a fixed chain of command. Terrorism, though, is not like that. The bumbling, the spontaneity, the role of chance aren’t easily captured by red-teaming.

But a bigger problem is not

that a lack of creativity will produce bad fiction; it’s that an excess of creativity will yield unrealistic scenarios…. Former Clinton National Security Council staffer Steve Simon, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, concurs. “These exercises are like Rorschach tests,” he says. “Somebody shows you a blot, and you project onto it all your anxieties and all your fevered dreams and fears.” This points to a logical flaw in the idea that the less we understand about our enemies, the more we should use our imagination. In fact, the fewer facts we have to work with, the more likely it is that our imagination will take us in the wrong direction. And there’s a real possibility that wrong direction will attract the attention of policymakers and draw resources away from bigger risks.

One thing that’s made the Institute an exciting place to work in the last few years– and I think, a more interesting place for clients– is that our work has become increasingly visual and interactive. Rather than producing big white papers, we create a mix of shorter articles, maps, interactive CDs, and wikis.

But we don’t do very much fiction. Why?

Artifacts and maps have been useful both as research tools and communications media: they’re instruments that help us both think about the future in a more systematic way, and share those ideas with audiences in ways that will offer something at once compelling and useful. But while fiction may be helpful as a way of communicating ideas about the future, it hasn’t been that useful as a thinking tool. Further, I’ve often seen workshops that stumbled when participants have been asked to do something obviously fictional, and came up with things that were too funny or frivolous, often because they extrapolated some current trend to an amusing extreme.

Art Kleiner on “Scenario Practice”

Being a futurist is a bit like majoring in something obscure in college: you end up having to spend a lot of time explaining to people just what it is that you do, and why other people should care. So I was gload to have recently run across an online copy of Art Kleiner's essay "Doing Scenario Work" (originally published in the Whole Earth Review in 1999), as it does a good job of explaining what scenarios are– both as a form of reasoning and as kind of practice— and why they're valuable.

Scenarios are imaginative pictures of potential futures, but the future is just a means to an end. These conversations, at once free-flowing and rigorously constrained, are designed to help a group of people trick themselves to see past their own blind spots. Herman Kahn, one of the founding innovators of the practice, developed scenarios to see past the cultural blind spot that thermonuclear war must never happen. What if it did happen? asked Kahn. What sort of world might the survivors face? One dismayed critic, Gerard Piel of Scientific American, coined the phrase "thinking the unthinkable" to describe Kahn's approach, but Kahn gleefully embraced the phrase. Thinking the unthinkable, he argued, was the only way to keep one's strategic vision from getting stale.

Pierre Wack, who refined Kahn's methods at Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1970s and early 1980s, also focused on unthinkable possibilities. When he described the coming oil crisis of the 1970s, in advance, to Shell executives (and national leaders), he wasn't telling them a surprise; everyone in the oil business could see the OPEC cartel coalescing, ready to dictate shortages to an oil-addicted world. But Wack made it clear that the long-standing oil company assumption– "Whatever crisis crosses our path, we'll handle it as we always have" – would not save them this time. They could not meet the turbulence of the economy around them with their old stolid complacency.

Wack used to talk of future study as an analogue to Zen archery, a way to hone ones' senses until you could see the world as it really is, not as you would like it to be. But most of the oil executives never got his message, in part because they never took part, themselves, in the scenario creation sessions. That's why scenario planning is valuable. It forces us – not just corporate people, but activists, artists, non-profit staffers, and just about anyone – to learn to see more clearly the possible worlds in which the unimaginable, the unthinkable, the ungodly, and the unpredictable, actually come to pass. If we can imagine such worlds, and feel our way around them in our imaginations for a while, then we can prepare ourselves for whatever future does come to pass.

© 2019 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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