Recap: Big History – techniques for analyzing possible futures?

Big History – techniques for analyzing possible futures?

The study of history has always been pursued with the goal of gleaning insights that can help shape the future.  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Santayana is reputed to have said.  What can we learn from the past that enables us to find better paths, and avoid disastrous pitfalls – as we move into an inevitable future.

History is traditional studied and taught in relatively thin slices.  Whether it’s the Peloponnesian Wars or the US Election of 1968, the story begins from a base of a certain status quo – the results of history up to the point of the beginning of this bit of the story – and goes from there.  The base is assumed, given.  An almost infinite amount of complexity is embedded in that given base – but we accept it to get to the heart of the little story we want to explore.

But that thin slice of story selected from the totality of all the history that got us to that point – may not be as telling as it seems.  It may be an interesting story – but taken out of context, any lessons we may draw from it may very well be mis-directed or confused.

Some years ago an Australian professor, David Christian, got the idea that the only real way to capture all the context that gets us to the slices of story that we can understand – is to study the complete history of what we are – all the way back to the Big Bang.  Christian began publishing about the idea around 1989.  Some years ago, the idea caught the attention of Bill Gates, who decided to fund a program to spread the concept.  Thus began the saga of “Big History.”

Big History is a multidisciplinary approach that  begins with the the birth and evolution of the physical universe, then gradually resolves to the origins of life – which begets mammals and then humans – and then finally the social, artistic, political – “civilized” – epochs in which we have deeper details and information we see as relevant to our lives, and structuring a future.

However, a basic rule of the study of the future is that the past is an unreliable predictor of the future.  We may be able to extract trends and patterns, but specific events and results are out of our reach.  That’s perhaps the single lesson we can see in any study of the past.  Patterns that seem destined to continue forever are inevitably interrupted by statistically improbable events (“black swans”) that knock the pins out from under  the common wisdom, and a new pattern emerges – only ultimately to suffer the same fate.  Sometimes the change is slow – as in the decline of the Roman Empire.  Sometimes the end comes quickly – as in the downfall of IBM from its catbird seat in the 60’s and 70’s, or AOL in the 90’s.

In the classic story of a mathematically predicted future – the Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov – the meticulously described future foreseen and prepared for by protagonist Hari Selden, is thrown way off track by a mutant named the Mule.  In Asimov’s tale, the path of events ultimately winds its way back around to Selden’s vision.  In our experience, we never really seem to return to a pathway, always finding a new one.

So how can Big History help us get a handle on the future?  The proposition is that the structure that has developed for the organization of the evolution of our world – might in some way be applied to the study of possibility ahead.  But obviously, we can’t use specific events or personalities to speculate out much further than a generation or two.  To a large extent – looking forward is a lot like trying to assemble a puzzle turned face down, able only to see the shapes of the pieces, but having no way to put them into context with each other.

Big History divides the past into “thresholds,” gateways that mark a quantum leap in change that can be observed and understood.  So we wonder if that idea might be applied to the future.

What might the thresholds be that will shape future generations?  These must be large, wide concepts, not narrow ones.  Perhaps global political unification.  Perhaps the availability of immortality.  Perhaps the acquisition of limitless energy.  Perhaps the population of other planets and the expansions of humans across the solar system, galaxy, universe?  Perhaps any number of other possible thresholds which will change our species and our planet forever going forward.

One big difference, of course, is that we have the benefit – in look backward – to see the results of the conflicts at the thresholds – and understand what trends emerged the winner, what course dominated all evolution thereafter.  In studying the future, we can’t really determine what circumstances will carry the influence to make the Big Change.  All we can really do is look at two or more alternatives, choose among those possibilities, and create scenarios that might result from one choice winning over another.

So studying the future in this way will lead quickly to an array of bifurcating pathways, dividing at the threshold points, each with their own stories, their own implications for the next step.  The possible advantage of this approach is that it does help to structure a consideration of the future.  Instead of looking at an amorphous wave of events rushing forward – we can imagine the organization of related events into a choice of sufficient scale to qualify as a “threshold” – in the same way the considerable scale of circumstance allows the study of significant divergences in the past.

Maybe this approach is meaningful, perhaps not.  It might be that we artificially constrain ourselves so greatly that we ignore real influences that will change the future.  We won’t know until we have some experience with the idea – and that experience will take real time, substantial time, and probably considerable amounts of it.  So we may not see the results.  But we do get the pleasure of creating the exercise and launching it into the breeze of time, which will carry it forward unto some barely knowable reality.

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Another great discussion!.

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