Future Literacy: The Adaptability Problem
It’s hard to know how future generations will look back at us. What are we doing right? What problems are we missing, right in front of our eyes? Where are our global blind spots? Will we get credit for saving the planet or blamed for destroying it?
On a societal and evolutionary scale, we have just begun the Age of self-directed evolution — We are increasingly able to improve our biological and cognitive abilities by programming our genes, bodies and software. Despite how advanced we may think we are in today’s world, we are in fact stuck in the Paleolithic Age of our cognitive evolution. Given our relative caveman-like state, might future generations look back on us and wonder: How did they do so much, with so little?
We use the brains that nature gave us, inefficiencies and all. Bodies, too. A fascinating paper recently argued that an ancient genetic variant likely helped people retain heat and prevent frostbite by reducing their physical size — a genetic variant that was adaptable for the Ice Age but is, unfortunately, still around and contributing, the researchers believe, to an uptick in modern arthritis. It is almost certain that similar genes and traits exist which control our cognition. Adapted for hundreds of thousands of years ago, but not for today. We should be immensely grateful to our evolutionary past, but we are also tethered to it. At least for now. How do we move into the next Age? How do we escape the cognitive Paleolithic?
Because I run Kernel, my thoughts are focused on understanding how to improve our cognitive abilities. Of all our cognitive capacities, I see our ability to predict and act according to future goals as perhaps the most important to focus on.
Why? In particular, we seem remarkably challenged at imagining and adapting to the future.
“The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed” -William Gibson
In my last article, I focused on one future-distorting bias in particular —
The Familiarity Bias — where I argued that our imagination is shaped by what it finds knowable. Imagination is one of our most useful and pleasurable cognitive tools, but it is not perfect. It extends our reach away from the present, away from the past, and into the future, but it can be frequently and disastrously wrong at times.
How do we lessen or eliminate future-oriented biases and train our imaginations to reach beyond the familiar? If we could do this, we would improve the chances of creating futures that we care to live in.
An Example of a Future-Literate Tool: The Human Hand
There is one tool that seems to be perfectly well suited to adapting to an unknown and immediate future. It got us out of the Ice Age. Actually, you’re probably using it right now: the human hand.
Think about something as simple as picking up a pencil from your desk.
When we reach for an object, the complexity of the feat is enormous but this complexity is almost entirely hidden from us. It starts, usually, as a shift in visual attention towards the pencil. Next, your hand takes a specific, preplanned shape and orients properly. Entire swaths of your brain then incorporate sensorimotor and visual feedback as your arm reaches out, making sure it maintains its path given a stable but not entirely certain environment. And then, at the end, a coordinated grasping of the fingers is cued by a predictable and mostly regular (in your long history with pencils) set of tactile, visual, or expected input.
One of the most stunning things about the human hand, though, is the adaptability during the reach. If the pencil had fallen or rolled away; if the table had collapsed; or if your hand had been lightly pushed, the course correction would be immediate.
Is it a coincidence that the human hand is the most dextrous in the animal world, and that we are also thought to be the only long-term planning species? (We get great pleasure from this adaptability. Half a trillion dollars per year is spent in the global sports market, mostly just to watch how well people track objects — i.e balls — and deal with sensorimotor uncertainty — i.e. the other team.)
Now, what does this have to do with the future?
At a recent dinner, some friends — Daniel Schmachtenberger, Jordan Greenhall, and Forrest Landry, all of Neurohacker Collective — introduced me to a concept in military and industrial thinking known as an OODA loop, a four-step process key to how to behave optimally in a complex and unpredictable future: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. I immediately thought of what a perfect analogy this was to the human hand!
No matter what happens, your mental and physical model of the future needs to be able to handle, prepare and plan for all the world’s moving parts. Most importantly, you need to be vigilant and aware that objects might appear which you’ve never seen or grasped before. A shortened OODA loop — i.e. the ability to go from observation to action as quickly as possible — is important. Technology, social forces, practice, mindset and planning can all shorten the loops.
During reach, the OODA loop of the human hand has a frequency in the milliseconds. What is the frequency of our global loop? Can we shorten it, and integrate many, interacting loops, to better prepare for the increasingly complex world we face?
One last thing. During a “simple” reach, preparation to the unknown starts early, during the orientation and attention phase. A proper plan — OODA, hand, or otherwise — will nest future actions within its plans. This doesn’t start when the black swan event occurs, but rather long before. For the mammalian brain, it is a massive cognitive effort to pre-plan many different reaches for the near infinite physical possibilities that objects might find themselves in. But it is worth it.
And as we get better and better at using our Future Literate brain, the world today will begin to look different to us. In a rather telling study, after using a stick to reach an object otherwise out of reach, people estimated it as closer than if they planned to reach for it without a stick. In other words, when we imagine a future, it suddenly and mysteriously seems closer than it actually is.
The future has never seemed closer. This is, perhaps, exactly why the greatest minds of our generation should work not on particular solutions, but rather on the tools that will enable us to thrive in the coming era.