The Misuse of Foresight
Imagine you had an accurate picture of the future. Then imagine that the future threatened your interests. What would you do?
You might re-invent yourself, your business, or your country. You might also keep it secret. Or Fight it. Manipulate it, ignore it, or create a web of deception.
Welcome to a world in which much is known about the long-term future. A world in which foresight and predictive systems continue to improve, yet continue to be misused.
The best foresight explores extreme possible futures, drawing on evidence and inspired by imagination. It asks the question ‘what might happen?’
For each possible future, however extreme, there will be a portfolio of options that answer the question ‘what might we do, in each scenario. The next step is to put the options in play, navigating the world as it changes.
Foresight inspires long-term vision, creates a shared sense of purpose, sets out strategies and shapes culture. It can drive ‘vision-led innovation’, mergers and acquisitions, investment and capital management. Yet only the best leadership teams put it into practice.
Good Foresight, Bad Company
There are, however, less benign uses of foresight. Take tobacco, known to be carcinogenic from the 1950s. Since then, systematic public relations campaigns, advertising and legal defences all designed to sell cigarettes, blurred the picture.
Smoking still causes about seven million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is projected to rise to ten million by 2030, with 80% of the deaths in the developing world. Second-hand smoke kills in restaurants, offices and enclosed spaces, spreading the 250 chemicals known to be harmful and the 50 that cause cancer.
Tobacco is not an isolated case. The long-term health impacts of environmental pollution, such as microplastics, have risen to the top of the news agenda. Agricultural fertilisers and synthetic pollution have been known to create risks for decades, poisoning water supplies and pervading urban environments. Synthetic clothing contaminates the atmosphere. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), though banned, remain in the environment indefinitely, transmitted between species and permeating food and water supplies. Once again, the manufacturers, such as DuPont and 3M, resorted to legal protection and public relations, while knowing the risks. According to Rebecca Altman in her essay “Time-bombing the future”, local communities were kept in the dark for 15 years.
Fossil Fuels: toxic legacy
The history of the fossil fuel industry tells a similar story. Bill McKibben, writing in the New Yorker last year, reminds us that Exxon understood that its product was contributing to climate change forty years ago. This was a decade before James Hansen’s pivotal testimony to Congress. Amongst many documents, in 1978, James Black, one of Exxon’s senior scientists, as McKibben reported, “estimated that a doubling of the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by between two and three degrees Celsius and as much as ten degrees at the poles”. From 2019, this estimate looks uncannily accurate.
Subsequent research by Exxon, none released to the public at the time, illustrated that the issue was taken seriously by their leadership teams.
Yet according to McKibben and other critics, armed with foresight about the long-term impact, Exxon set out to undermine their own work, cover up the results and embark on a programme designed to “emphasize the uncertainty”. Exxon, Shell, Chevron and Amoco set up the Global Climate Coalition, which subsequently consolidated the industry’s strategic response through lobbying George W Bush. A key memo, written by an advisor to Bush and obtained by the Environmental Working Group was explicit:
“Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”
The strategy has driven one of the dominant narratives ever since. Most recently, The Economist reported that “ExxonMobil may not prove an outlier in committing to business as usual. Even firms investing more in renewables are loath to give up fossil fuels”.  The major oil and gas companies are investing in growth. The argument rests on projections of rising demand. “According to ExxonMobil’s own projections, global oil demand will rise from about 150 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTU) in 2000 to more than 200 quadrillion in 2040.”
ExxonMobil Continues the Battle
Rising demand, in other words, is part of a deeply embedded narrative, hidden in plain sight, that has long underpinned the industry’s position. Explicitly or implicitly, it has been supported by complacent, short-termist political leaders, hamstrung by the ideology that action is only justified on the basis of certainty. The flawed ideology contributes to the cautionary science dominates IPCC reporting.
Contrast this with a key strategic principle: on critical issues and existential risks, decisions should be based on judgment and taken without full knowledge, recognising that uncertainty is irreducible.
The ‘agenda-setting foresight’ in Exxon’s case reads as a set of options designed to create a false picture, denying the scientific consensus to mislead investors, regulators, governments and above all the public about the risks of fossil fuels. The battle continues. According to Carroll Muffett even geoengineering amounts to a fossil fuel backed campaign, locking in fossil fuel infrastructure “for decades or even centuries to come”. ExxonMobil is “trying to prevent an investor proposal on setting targets for greenhouse gas emissions from coming up for a vote at its annual meeting in May”, according to a recent FT report.
There are more recent examples. As Shoshana Zuboff writes in ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Google, whilst going by the phrase ‘do no evil’, embarked on developing a revenue model based on using methods designed to “find data that users had opted to keep private and to infer extensive personal information that users did not provide”. These methods “were designed to bypass user awareness and therefore, eliminate any possible ‘friction’. From the start, Google depended on surveillance and until 2004, when the company went public, the methods were “held in strict secrecy”.
Even now, Google operates a “one-way mirror”, a surveillance system based on knowing everything about the public, while the public knows little about them. There is little doubt that Google, Facebook and many more have the foresight to know that if the public fully understands their methods, there will be a backlash. So they cultivate legal barriers and public relations campaigns, presenting the idea that services are free and that communities benefit. Magicians are well known for distraction. The same secrecy and obfuscation policy of keeping the public, regulators and even shareholders from the underlying realities echoes decades of corporate practice.
The sequence in each of these cases illustrates that the future is a contest conducted in secret, the underlying realities hidden from the glare of publicity. There is little or no transparency. Futures research and foresight may even be backed by conclusive evidence and yet manipulated. The sequence reads: identify the weak signal; describe the long-term, imagined future; write the narrative, or scenario; realise the existential threat to the business; contest the research, manufacturing uncertainty; create confusion.
From Imagined Future to Denial
Tobacco, synthetic PCBs and PFOS, fossil fuels and social media companies continue to “time-bomb” the future.
These behavioural patterns are not limited to corporate leaders. Nor are they always characterised by elaborate cover-ups. In 2004, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on prospects for Iraq was presented to George W Bush. Three scenarios, each one bleak, talked about the risks of insurgencies . At worst, civil war. At best, long-term instability. The scenarios were leaked to the New York Times and reported extensively. When asked by the media, Bush referred to the scenarios as ‘guestimates’: this was at a time when the administration was trying to play down risks. The reality was that the administration failed to understand it had upset the ethnic balance in Iraq and given Sunni forces little reason not to rebel.
Short-term political expediency prevented long-term policy action that might have saved millions of lives.
Similar political failures surround US policy to climate change. The NIE report on climate change, in 2007, was denounced. Since then, climate change has been a consistent theme in intelligence assessments.
Manipulating Imagined Futures
These examples share essential characteristics. The short-term is more important in the corporate and political calculus then the long-term. Above all, imagined futures are pervasive but often kept secret. Even rigorously developed intelligence assessments and judgments are often ignored. Cover-ups about future existential risks are common. There are established methods designed to create confusion, question evidence and undermine expert opinion. They are used extensively by powerful groups concerned about maintaining the status quo and the interests of the few, rather than the long-term interests of the majority.
The revelations that have emerged in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal illustrate how corporate wealth can operate secretly to undermine political systems. The indictments of the Internet Research Agency and Russian nationals by Robert Mueller, the US special council, show that engines of extreme propaganda and manipulation are part of the new normal. As we explored in News Futures, machines, linked to surveillance systems and secret personal profiling will lead to exponential growth in the ability of corporates and states to shape behaviour for commercial gain, or to achieve a level of mind control:
“If propaganda goes undetected and robots are talking to robots, the news and political discourse is a world of mirrors. Machines may appear to understand language and meaning, but they do not. Nor will they, any time soon.
In other words, the risk to political stability is that output can be mistaken for ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ (see link to Politics and Machine Language). It is one thing to know that a particular news organisation has a political bias, or point of view, but no-one, least of all the software developers, understands how their algorithms work or how their ‘news’ might be interpreted and re-broadcast.”
We may only be at the beginning of what we called a ‘Dark Media’ scenario in which the media ecosystem remains vulnerable both to machine-driven manipulation and deliberate propaganda, undermining political systems.
As we put it in Politics and Machine Language, “Machines and those behind them will not only change what we mean by ‘sincerity’ in the language of politics, they will change emotional landscapes and with that, the world order.”
While ‘fake news’ has all the attention, the battle to manipulate thinking about the long-term future is more damaging. Future generations are being robbed of their rights by the short-term interests of the few. If the current sources of power and influence see their near-term prospects and self-interest under threat, they act. The legacy: climate change; inequality; entrenched power; betrayal of the young; betrayal of humanity,
Why is this important? Because the long-term survival of civilisation and the lives of billions depend on transparency about the more extreme scenarios now emerging. In some cases, in plain sight. There is growing evidence that as climate change takes hold on the public imagination and the beneficiaries of a new age of industrial renewal are seen to represent established interests, there will be social chaos.
State of the art foresight is not only about what might happen if companies and governments behave in predictable ways, but how they may spin webs of deception.
- The Economist: “Bigger Oil”, February 2019 ↑
- https://www.ft.com/content/800fb008-3853-11e9-b72b-2c7f526ca5d0 ↑
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