Outsourcing the human toolkit to machines is a mistake

Written before we knew what a ‘coronavirus’ was, long before we had entered the dramatic and tragic worldwide pandemic that unfolded during 2020, Uncharted is actually all the better for being Covid-blind – and one of the few books that hasn’t become outdated overnight. Its basic premise is that the future is unknowable; it hasn’t yet happened, so can’t be predicted. Obvious? Yes. Overlooked and ignored? Totally. What better way for Margaret Heffernan’s thesis to be proved right than for her to write this book in 2019, when no one would have believed that 2020 would be one of lockdowns, social distancing and Zoom.

Heffernan – a former media executive and author of five previous books – starts by taking the reader on a journey through the follies that flow from a belief that the future can be predicted, highlighting the misguidedness of society’s desire to believe the ‘expert’. She details the stories of three American forecasters who lived through the time of the Great Depression – Roger Babson, Irving Fisher and Warren Persons – and tells how that financial catastrophe tore the wind from their sails. They didn’t see it coming, didn’t understand it, and were too fixated on their own interests to allow sufficient objective thinking. Candid and forthright, Heffernan doesn’t mince her words. She doesn’t need to, when she writes with such sense.

But Uncharted is not a history book. It is forward-looking and hopeful, with a positive message which emphasizes the importance of being ‘active’ in exploring our unwritten future, rather than falling into the trap of prediction which leads to passivity.

Technology promises much but it often deceives us (or leads us to deceive ourselves). We have to build preparedness for the unknown future. By preparing for various possibilities, we develop the skills and confidence to tackle what life will inevitably throw at us, giving us far greater potential to enjoy what is still to come.

Heffernan uses the examples of scenario planning and experimentation as ways in which we can prepare for the future. They are the sort of activities for which we so often fail to make time. She makes a superb case for the necessity of an open mind and open-minded programmes and projects – CERN and the Large Hadron Collider are stand-out examples – if we are to make great leaps forward in our understanding and thinking, unconstrained by pre-planned outcomes and strictly defined objectives.

Running through the narrative is a theme that Heffernan sometimes brings into plain sight: the threat that technology poses whilst pretending to offer efficiency, security and predictability. The best way to predict behaviour is to coerce – and the most common form of modern coercion is the ‘choice architecture’ built into technology. It is a polite term for the abuse of power.

We are often blind, Heffernan argues, to the inadequacies of technology – and the more we delegate tasks to technology, the more we lose our ability to do those tasks for ourselves, and the more reliant on technology we become. Unfortunately, this is the fastest way to destabilize systems – from small (consider the rise of GPS navigation systems vs the use of our eyes and memories to find our way), to large (just-in-time supply chains which rely on 100% precision to function). A robust system is one that has flexibility, with different means of achieving the same ends. A successful team – or business, or even democracy – is one that has planned, can adapt, and can select from a wide variety of options to maximize its chances of success at any given time.

Uncharted is a timely reminder that we can’t predict the future: it isn’t written. We may be seeing light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, in the form of approved vaccines and their mass rollout, but we shouldn’t be surprised by future setbacks. Further new variants of the disease, and different diseases that we haven’t yet discovered, are significant possibilities. We should be prepared, both in principle – “Can we see our way through?” – and in practice: “How will we navigate our way through?”

Heffernan’s message is clear: technology isn’t necessarily the answer to those questions, and can’t be the answer in isolation. Whether in medicine, business or our home lives, digital technology is neither a panacea nor a replacement for personal relationships. If coronavirus has anything positive to teach us, it is that experimentation, horizon-scanning and scenario-planning are a vital part of the human toolkit. We need to nurture those abilities, not outsource them to machine efficiency. Only in that way can technology be an aid to human progress, not its substitute.

Andrew Gunn is an opinion research expert and partner at Jericho Chambers