Because I frequently travel across cultures and try to spend some time, each time, walking streets I am not familiar with and listening to tongues I do not understand, I come across situations which drive home to me the overlap between where we are and where we came from and then, the historical similarities between these two points of reference.
A few months back in what was a quick business trip to Istanbul I found myself having to explain to a well-meaning gypsy why I wasn’t interested in having my fortune told. I was just leaving the Topkapi having got there on my own and walking on foot in an area that draws tens of thousands of tourists and is packed with hawkers of every description had resulted in my capturing the attention of one of them.
“You won’t always travel alone” she said in pretty good English and at the time I had to smile and also recognize the temptation to read personal meaning into a general description which is recognized by psychologists as the Barnum Effect. As humans we live such short lives that any means through which we can guess the future still enamor us. In the ancient world nothing of great importance would ever be undertaken without prior consultation with the Delphic Oracle which was, when you come to think about it a little, like the polls of today and about as accurate.
Even the most rational amongst us still read horoscopes indicating that there is an emotional part of us that still hopes the underpinning of what they represent (i.e. invisible forces preordaining part of our lives) is something we can uncover (or discover) and somehow be able to take advantage of.
And that is truly the whole point of trying to predict the future. Faced with a potential infinity of available paths we try to navigate the one that will give us the most certainty balancing on a delicate tightrope of practicality and the self-serving desire to know what’s coming so we can best prepare for it (or take advantage of it).
As someone who frequently looks at weather forecasts days ahead (and understands the chaotic nature of the weather) I still hope that I might be able to better plan my time if I know how to structure some of my activities around what will happen in the physical world I inhabit. Some of our desire to know what’s lying ahead is entirely natural. It is driven by our need to develop sufficient trust in ourselves and others to be able to navigate the world while making the most efficient possible use of the resources available to us.
In that sense, each of us, is hardwired to be a future-predictive machine, harnessing our cognitive functions in a way that allows us to take the next step forward. Wanting to know what lies further ahead, then is a natural extension of that which is why we listen to those who say that their unique perspective, position in life, understanding, somehow allows them to see things better than us.
There is an inherent irony here. As someone who is often hired to run predictions on future trends (a kind of modern day Pythia) I know fully well the pitfalls of doing so and the psychological mechanism that almost make them irrelevant. There is a direct, cultural link, between the Dephic Oracle, the gypsy girl who talked to me in Turkey and the more scientific approaches we employ when it comes to predicting the future.
Yet, as one researcher aptly put it, “It’s not about the business of prophecy – it’s the business of clarity,” and that’s really what it should be all about. Arguably the heads of state and leaders of armies consulting the Delphic Oracle (Alexander the Great was one of them and he heard exactly what he wanted to hear) had already made up their minds and were simply looking for reassurance. Those who hire my services and those of others like me are, hopefully, looking for the same thing.
In seeking to understand the future we also want to reassure ourselves about stability. We want to know that the sun is always going to rise from the east and that things will turn out to be alright. That too is a better management of our inner resources. It means we don’t have to worry too much about these things as we grapple with the details that make up our lives.
Abraham Lincoln said that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Unwittingly adding a quantum mechanical spin to what is already a tricky issue. Maybe, the future does create the past. From our perspective that still means very little. We are still here, responsible for the choices we make and the paths we take and our grasp at guessing what comes next, while understandable, are still no more than guesswork whose ultimate truth will be revealed only when we take the steps that lead us to the future we are looking towards.
I hope you accurately predicted the need for coffee, donuts, croissants, cookies, chocolate cake and, because it’s that time of the year, some Christmas treats. Have an awesome Sunday wherever you are.