Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

You Cannot Design The Future: Humbly Release Butterflies

Written by: James Gee

If you could create the Guide, what would be in it?  What would be important elements to be included?

“… but that’s the basic human instinct, to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you.” I asked Ahmetašević if people had ultimately been happier during the war. “We were the happiest,” Ahmetašević said. Then she added: “And we laughed more.” - Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

No one can predict or design the future.  The future is a complex outcome of interactions among many complex systems.  So, by the rules of physics, let alone humility, the future is not predictable and would never happen the same way twice if we could run the clock again. 

The situation is worse than ever today because human stupidity has put a number of complex systems into dangerous interactive overdrive.  We have let loose in the world a large flock of Black Swans and, thereby, helped create a world where the probabilities on which we have heretofore based our societies and institutions no longer apply.

 While people cannot design the future, they might be able to design for the future; they could, for instance, resource people to cope with a given future.  But this is likely to be a fool’s game, because, beyond preparing people to deal with unprepared futures, the designer is quite unlikely to pick the right future to prepare people for.

And, then, there is humility.  It is presumptuous to think that you know what future everyone else ought to prepare for and live in.  It is not even clear that all people should live in the same future.  You might say, “Can’t we give people the tools to design their own futures?”.  No, because they cannot design the outcomes of complex systems any better than you can, and you cannot possibly know which tools they will need for a future none of us can predict. 

Social engineering—the old term for designing the future—has a bad historical reputation.  It has often turned out to be an act of hubris replete with unintended bad consequences.  So that’s the bad news: the future is a complex system.  Here’s the good news: it’s a complex system so, with humility, you can float a butterfly in the wind.

While you cannot predict or determine the future, anything you do can potentially change the future in small or large ways.  That’s the butterfly effect and is part of the very nature of complex systems.  Unfortunately, you cannot, in most cases, know what effect your butterfly of an effort will have. 

Techno utopians often believe that new technologies will have magical effects for good.  But technologies, new and old, only supplement and enhance human capacities (skills, values, orientations, desires, and so forth) that are already in place.  So, if you want real change, you must be sure good capacities are in place or new good ones arise before you hope that your favored technology will really do any good.

So, what can you do?  I have a farm and I want my donkeys’ futures to be good.  I cannot predict their futures, but I know that as donkeys they are particular kinds of creatures.  I know, given the kinds of creatures they are, what would make then deeply unhappy, dangerous, or dead.  The same goes for humans.  Though we do not like to think so, we humans are a particular kind of creature (yes animal), not infinitely flexible and adaptable.

Lots of research clearly shows what will make humans very unhappy, dangerous (to themselves and others), and dead (even by their own hands).  So, a humble designer would seed the present with seeds that can grow in many different soils (futures) and become waystations where human unhappiness, danger, and death can be forestalled.  Given the foreboding nature of what seems like the coming future (though who really knows), it is best to plant these seeds soon.  They take time to sprout and grow.

So, what are the conditions that make humans happy and good and not miserable and dangerous?  Humans are the sort of creatures who need—cannot live well without—a deep feeling that they count to others; that what they do matters, can make a difference; and that they belong.  When they get these things, they are healthy in mind and soul, even under very adverse conditions.  When they don’t get them, they wither and die, even when they are well fed and not in a war zone.

The problem is this: Humans will find belonging and meaning in bad causes with bad people if they cannot find them in good causes with good people.  They will find them in narrow silos of sameness, if they cannot find them in fields of diversity.  Whether they find meaning in bad narrowness or good wideness depends on this: Who they TALK to in person and where and how they do it.  Technology can supplement and enhance here, but it cannot replace. 

The design of face-to-face spaces that allow people to find counting, mattering, belonging, and meaning among good and diverse people with good and diverse perspectives will ensure that humans will be at their best even if their future is miserable; it will ensure that they are more likely to make better futures with each other step by step if it is possible; and it will ensure that, if it is not possible, they will pass from this world as a species with dignity.  This is just the way humans are.  So face-to-face spaces of diversity (not in terms of just race, class, and gender alone, but in terms of different lived experiences, of differently lived lives) are your best-chance butterflies for the future.


About Jim Gee

Jim Gee is ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies and Regents' Professor. He is a member of the National Academy of Education.   His most recent books deal with video games, language, and learning. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy argues that good video games are designed to enhance learning.   Women as Gamers: The Sims and 21st-Century Learning and Language and Learning in the Digital Age, both written with Elisabeth Hayes (now known as Elisabeth Gee), continue his earlier work.   Gee's newest book, Reconceiving Teaching, Learning, Literacy, and Development in our High-Risk High-Tech World Before It’s Too Late, places human development in the context of the serious problems we face in today's high-risk, fast-changing, and highly polarized world.