Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age
Bina Venkataraman: The Optimist’s Telescope. Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age. Riverhead, 2019

Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age

Journalist Bina Venkataraman outlines strategies to help people and societies keep a long-term picture in mind –especially amid uncertainty. Her main lesson: Learn how to cultivate – and act upon –  “foresight” as an individual, an organization and a society.

Journalist and professor Bina Venkataraman argues that “foresight” – the ability to anticipate future possibilities and to act to bring about the most desirable of them – springs from vivid, positive imagination. She warns that today’s destructive devotion to short-term calculations and impulses hamstrings individuals, businesses, communities, institutions and governments. Using examples from medicine, corporations, politics, and psychological and social research, Venkataraman outlines strategies to help people and societies keep a long-term picture in mind.

The author offers a fascinating combination of the practical and the lyrical to inspire you to reject the ever-seductive tendency to think only in the short term. Her credentials for the task are impeccable. Articulate and profound, Venkataraman teaches at MIT and is an editorial page editor at The Boston Globe. A former director of Global Policy Initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, she served as senior adviser for climate change during President Barrack Obama’s administration. She writes with professional ease and presents complex ideas with remarkable clarity.

Immediate Gratification

Venkataraman laments that 21st century life prioritizes immediate gratification and near-term results. She recognizes that acting with the future in mind entails living with uncertainty and that making a sacrifice now for an indeterminate outcome in the distant future is difficult. Yet she calls for discipline in the face of this truth. It’s not entirely clear to whom she is issuing this call to arms. Investors and politicians who should heed her advice likely will not. Ordinary citizens can and should.

We try too hard to know the exact future and do too little to be ready for its many possibilities…To correct course, we need to hone our foresight.

Bina Venkataraman

Venkataraman further illuminates the perversity of short-term thinking by noting that advances in science, technology and data analytics provide today’s thinkers with unprecedented insight into the future, yet awareness of likely scenarios seldom results in foresight about how best to address them. Her continual citing of similar paradoxes grants her work a tragic aspect – as if she knows that human nature conspires against you embracing her ideas.

Palpable Sensory Detail

To prompt action, a prediction must tie to the imagination. The more palpable sensory detail a future scenario contains, Venkataraman explains, the more real it seems and the more urgently you will respond to it. She suggests picturing yourself coping with challenges as you work toward a desired outcome. She urges you to contemplate the far future as if were already a memory. In these passages, Venkataraman merges ideas from various meditations with hard-nosed futurist advice.

Organizations in constant crisis neglect what is important over time. They create this culture, in part, by over-burdening workers and rewarding firefighting instead of the prevention of fires.

Bina Venkataraman

Emphasizing short-term, granular goals, the author asserts, can be counterproductive. Short-term measurements and objectives detract from the persistence and patience required to handle large-scale endeavors and obscure the long-tern impact of your choices. You need to develop and exercise foresight, but, Venkataraman reminds you, larger institutional and societal forces will impede your efforts. Her implicit advice is to think for yourself.

Calculate Value

In pursuit of that goal, Venkataraman teaches that you can apply three constructs to figure out what to value and measure: In a so-called “reverse stress test”, you determine which future event or outcome would make a choice look bad. In a “premortem”, you consider the likelihood of all the potential threats to a project before undertaking it. And third, in “prospective hindsight”, you assume an outcome and ask how it came about, shifting away from prediction and toward evaluating alternatives and their consequences.

Venkataraman cites Napoleon’s offer of 12,000 francs to anyone who could create a food preservation technique he could use to supply his military and Darpa’s million-dollar competition to invent a self-driving car, a contest that spurred investment and creativity and resulted in major successes in fields that had no immediate market demand.

Fate

Venkataraman restates her central proposition in various ways: fate isn’t inevitable – especially in a democracy – if people demand that leaders pay attention to the long-term consequences of their present-day choices.

It’s human nature to rely on mental shortcuts and gut feelings – more than gauges of the odds – to make decisions.

Bina Venkataraman

Every dollar spent preparing communities for hurricanes, earthquakes and floods saves six dollars that would otherwise go toward recovery. But incentives and preventative measures tend to encourage and reward short-term planning and thinking. Venkataraman insists that campaign finance reform that undercuts the influence of large donors would reduce corruption and would limit politicians’ motives to serve short-term interests.

She expounds on the counterintuitive effect of scenario planning, a supposedly worthwhile process. Scenario planning builds foresight, the author says, but multiple scenarios lead people to ignore the scenarios they dislike and to focus on a potential future they prefer. Worst-case scenarios prompt people to despair, to embrace to a “seize the moment” attitude about the present and to surrender hope.

Social Discounting

Social discounting is an economics tool that influences how people value the future. Venkataraman finds that it plays on the human tendency to value an immediate or near-term benefit more than the same benefit postponed to a later date. Social discounting assumes that people will stay the same, that the relative value of rewards will stay constant, and that economists can use a single number to factor in the changed circumstances people and communities will face in the future.

No one thinks, ‘I’m going to choose a myopic metric.’

Bina Venkataraman

This approach weighs immediate action as even more important than the needs and desires of future generations. She calls on members of modern society to “think and act as ancestors” and to institute stewardship policies to protect humankind’s shared cultural and environmental heirlooms.

Foresight

Venkataraman reports that small communities exercise foresight in the face of future problems; the challenge, she says, is to scale up those attitudes and strategies to deal with complex modern society. Again, she recommends extending society’s sight line beyond short-term results and instant gratification, creatively imagining a better future, and encouraging and implementing foresight at every level of society. This is, obviously, easier said than done, when most people worry only about “likes” or clicks and how to get more.

Venkataraman‘s theme is that personal, institutional, cultural or global recklessness isn’t an immutable trait of human nature. Accordingly, she remains optimistic, despite her worldly experience and her listing of all the forces arrayed against futurist thinking. It’s both curious and refreshing to read how she uses data, analytics and various studies in search of the most elusive goal there is: changing people’s minds. While Venkataraman writes with perhaps too much intelligence to reach a mass self-help market, her insights, guidance and passion make this a perfect textbook or, better yet, required reading for every investor and elected or appointed public servant. 

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