American Outlook

Choosing a Perspective on the Future

Hudson Institute's late founder discusses how to think about the future.

Herman Kahn lecturing
Herman Kahn lecturing
Founder, Hudson Institute

While in principle the facts should speak for themselves, initially at least, it is typical in studying or speculating about the future to choose a relatively narrow perspective or theory and to fit everything within the given framework as much as possible. This also usually happens in the conclusionary stage. The big change in perspective usually occurs, if at all, at some intermediate stage of investigation. We have suggested the need to choose between the neo-Malthusian and postindustrial perspectives (or some in-between or mixed position) and will argue later that data and analysis can help in making this choice.

A number of other themes can be emphasized; thus, a very common concept in the past was that the future is static, and that a number of traditional ideas and themes are repeated many times. Almost as common in the past was a pessimistic view: that culture and society have shown a process of decay, with an emphasis on a lost golden age, a tragic view of history (often involving nostalgic and conservative concepts), or a feeling that a particular society is no longer competitive or otherwise viable. Just as common was a Malthusian (or neo-Malthusian) belief in an approaching catastrophe because of an assumed or demonstrated inability of nature or society to supply important physical needs; because economic, technological, or other growth turns out to be counterproductive; or perhaps because of some kind of decadence, members of the society can no longer cope with the problem.

In the last two hundred years, first Western culture and then most of the world have held a basic perspective that is progressive and optimistic. There has been a worldwide revolution of rising expectations: a view of the future as an enormous improvement over the present or the past, at least so far as material aspects and standard of living are concerned. A further implication has been that most people will share in that improvement and be entitled to do so. Traditional liberal thinking has sustained this concept of progress, as have both the Marxist and postindustrial scenarios of the future. These perspectives have often included considerable utopian or chiliastic thinking.

Cycles of Change
A common perspective, certainly for many macrohistorians, emphasizes relatively cyclical phenomena. Great emphasis is placed on the rise and fall of a culture, or on concepts of growth, maturity, and decay. This basic viewpoint has been common to Chinese thinkers for the last 2000 years, and was developed in our own culture by the ancient Greeks to describe both their city-states and their culture as a whole. Thus, for example, Aristotle studied the constitutions of 158 Greek cities and concluded that any form of government tended to decay or change into another form in a cyclical or circular fashion. Rather than searching for the best form of government, he preferred an interpretation of history that argued that good forms would degenerate into bad ones but that these bad ones would in turn generate new, good forms. Many modern writers, including Sorokin, Quigley, Toynbee, Spengler, Berdyaev, and Vico, have also observed in history some rise and fall or cyclic pattern of events.

These philosophers often think of civilization in terms of three phases of experience: an early phase in which the crucial issues involve man's relationship to God, to other supernatural concepts, or to ethics; a second, heroic and dynamic, phase that mixes these early ideational religious concepts with increasing pragmatism, materialism, and secularism; and, finally, a third phase producing almost a complete, indeed excessive, secularization of culture that ends up in either an anarchic collapse or a polarization, pitting egoistic-hedonistic attitudes in competition with the revival of old religious and ethical attitudes—or sometimes both collapse and polarization.

All these perspectives and theories hold the future to be more or less unitary and coherent—or at least to have a thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure. However, there is also a basic view that emphasizes discontinuity, inconsistency, arbitrariness, disorder, and chance; that is, unpredictability or the specificity and uniqueness of actual events and conditions. In this case, an emphasis may be placed on probabilistic events, with a calculation of odds for and against these occurrences. A more agnostic attitude may be adopted: that the future is more like an unexplored continent, a terra incognita that is intrinsically unknowable. Such arguments can be sophisticated or naive. They can emphasize the uncertainty of the future but include the concept that much of this uncertainty is basic and not governable by either objective or subjective probabilities, or indeed any serious analysis; or they can emphasize that the future is uncertain but governed by probabilistic or statistical laws.

The two types of uncertainty are very different—the uncertainties of the terra incognita concept are very different from those involved in a throw of fair dice or the running of a horse race, in which one can calculate or intuit reasonable and credible odds. In an extreme case of terra incognita, the observer may not only be ignorant about the fairness of the dice or the track record of the horses but also may not know how many dice are being thrown or which horses are competing, or even how winning and losing are defined. [A good example of this perspective is the modern vogue of deconstructionism. -Ed.] These limitations make calculations about future possibilities basically irrelevant. In such situations, even subjective probabilities can be largely meaningless, except for describing the beliefs and behavior of individuals who hold these subjective probabilities; in other situations or perspectives, one may have some respect for the intuitive judgment of certain individuals. Sometimes, in this last case, about all that can be usefully done by the analyst is to poll the subjective probabilities of those observers who are believed to be expert, insightful, or of good judgment.

Eight Approaches to Futuribles
Three basic choices must be made in the construction of basic contexts, alternative futures, and scenarios. The first is to choose between the extrapolative approach and the goal-seeking (or goal-avoiding), normative approach. In the extrapolative technique one examines an existing situation, selects certain tendencies that seem important or relevant, and then extrapolates these tendencies in a more or less sophisticated fashion. Various policy measures that might affect these projections and change the trends or results can then be examined.

The normative (or goal-oriented) approach, by contrast, involves first setting up some future context or scenario that is either desirable to achieve or avoid, and then asking what sequence of events might lead to the realization of this objective. In many cases, a relatively implausible goal is examined, such as the achievement of a world government or total arms control, and then this goal is compared with the current situation and its most likely extrapolation. To connect the present and the postulated goal, it may be necessary to modify the image of the current world and that of the future world, and perhaps to use relatively implausible scenarios. These distortions are justified because the aim is to focus attention or discussion on some unlikely but absolutely important event or educational dimension.

In principle, the normative and extrapolative approaches may lead eventually to the same results if carried through rigorously and in detail. Usually, though, the analyst has no intention of being detailed and rigorous, nor has he the ability to be so if he wishes to. Then it is usually more convenient to apply one approach than the other. The results will, of course, depend on which approach is used.

A second basic choice must be made, between a synthetic approach and a morphological approach. In the synthetic technique, separate themes or issues are chosen to be examined and then put together into a whole. In the morphological technique, a general description of the whole is first chosen and then detailed issues and themes are specified to fit within the chosen whole. In other words, the synthetic approach begins with actors and situations and then creates a suitable environment for them; the morphological approach begins with the environment itself and then seeks the most appropriate actors and situations.

Third, it is necessary to choose whether to work with intuitive and empirical concepts and images taken from the existing real world, or to apply fairly abstract and theoretical archetypes, concepts, and other generalizations. The intuitive, empirical approach is most natural to either the amateur or the area expert, usually in combination with one of the extrapolative techniques. In this method, the concrete aspects of the familiar everyday world are first identified and explicated, and then used to construct a picture of the future. In the alternative approach, the emphasis is usually on theories, or abstract formulations and general hypotheses. An abstract model of the real situation is first constructed, and then the variables of the model are examined. The model may be quite primitive and intuitive so long as the variables can be defined and specified.

The side bar illustrates that, according to how these three basic choices are approached, it is possible to employ eight different techniques for constructing future scenarios. All eight combinations have their own various uses. Actually, these dichotomies are not rigid "go/no go" or yes/no choices, but are really continuous questions of mixture and degree and allow for a continuity and variety of choices. Therefore, much more freedom exists than is indicated in the sidebar. In the end, all these approaches may lead to much the same result, but since analyses are rarely carried to the limit, the approaches are often quite different in practice. Theoretically, the use of any one technique does not seem a priori to have overwhelming or general advantages. In any case, the opposite is often true; it all depends on the individual researcher and the issues on which he chooses to focus.

In extrapolating some system of events, whether it is the world as a whole or as a very small segment, it is possible to apply the eight basic types of extrapolation shown in the sidebar, which are characterized as being synthetic or morphological, extrapolative or goal-seeking, empirical or theoretical and abstract.

The analyst could first consider the degree to which it is desirable to describe a situation by showing its gross characteristics and working out the components that would be reasonably consistent with these overall characteristics. Alternatively, the analyst may describe the components and then synthesize the whole from the components, working out the inconsistencies and the tensions between them. For example, if future technologies are extrapolated by simply providing future cost and performance but not initially describing how these costs and performance are to be attained, we would describe that method as being morphological—or more directly as "working in performance/cost space."

On the other hand, the details of how a system operates might be provided, including all the components which, when specified, make it possible, at least in principle, to calculate later the cost and performance. This would be the synthetic method of specifying a future system or systems, sometimes described as "operating in engineering, tactical, or operational space." (But it should be noted that the same example could be used as illustrative of the difference between theoretical and abstract on the one hand and intuitive and empirical on the other.)

Except for the possibility, when appropriate, of working in performance/cost space, my own usual preference is for the synthetic, extrapolative, and empirical approaches, but many other professional futurologists favor being morphological, abstract, and/or goal seeking.