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‘After Shock’ Review: The Future of Forecasting

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‘After Shock’ Review: The Future of Forecasting

The Wall Street Journal April 2, 2020
OtherCulture & Society

Futurists have tended to focus on trends in technology and less on pandemics and health care. That will now change.

The future looks very different today than it did before Jan. 31, the day President Trump closed travel with China in reaction to the Covid-19 outbreak. As the world struggles through this crisis, one thing that will follow is a massive reset in how businesses and governments plan and forecast. For those without a role on the front lines of the immediate battle, thinking about the future starts now.

For lessons on the utility of forecasts and forecasters, we turn to “After Shock,” a tome timed to the 50th anniversary of “Future Shock,” Alvin Toffler’s 1970 megahit. Edited by the media entrepreneur John Schroeter, “After Shock” is a collection of 116 essays promising the “extraordinary insights of the world’s foremost thought leaders,” from the inventor Ray Kurzweil to the Stanford University futurist Paul Saffo and Fast Company magazine’s editor-in-chief, Stephanie Mehta. The book is less of a retrospective on what Toffler got right or wrong and more a collection of predictions for the next 50 years.

Every book about the future is unavoidably a Rorschach test of the anxieties and events of the present. That’s why so many predictions fail; they miss the markers of what is truly new. Forecasters extrapolate, in effect, based on yesterday’s technologies, or on what they think should happen to address today’s troubles. Thus “After Shock” has a lot to say about pre-Jan. 31 problems, from climate change and energy to transportation, and an array of digital and social issues that have occupied the popular media in recent years. Barely a half-dozen of those 116 contributors have anything to say about health care or pandemics. In the wake of Covid-19, let’s focus on that handful.

Start with the observation from Wolfgang Fengler, a leading economist at the World Bank: “One of the big successes of development since 1970 has been the sharp decline in communicable diseases,” Mr. Fengler tells us. “They represent only 30 percent of all deaths . . . and affect mostly Africa and Asia.” While that’s true, and is monumental progress, what we are now discovering is that Western society has a far lower tolerance for far lower levels of contagion than those that have long afflicted humanity. Mr. Fengler notes that beyond delaying noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, the “next frontier” requires that we “eliminate communicable diseases.”

Few doubt that conquering the serial occurrences of epidemics will require finding technologies that can radically improve diagnostics and therapeutics. And it will require better science, which also requires new technologies.

Elsewhere, the health futurist and medical economist Jeffrey Bauer observes that Toffler was wildly off base about the medical progress he (and others) forecast in 1970, from cyborgs to growing organs. Whether we have reason to be more optimistic now is the big question, since, as John M. Smart, the president of Acceleration Studies Foundation, notes, “half as many drugs have been approved by the U.S. FDA, per billion dollars spent, roughly every nine years since the 1950s.” This trend has been coined Eroom’s Law, an inversion of Moore’s Law projecting the near-magical regular doubling of computing power with declining costs.

But Moore’s Law has given salience to the expression “this time it’s different.” As the physician Helen Messier observes: “We have the technology to quickly collect every single bit of data about a patient,” a potential to “know everything.” She continues: “There will be growing pains and a fairly long learning curve, both for the system itself and the practitioners deploying it. But once it’s there? The sky is the limit.”

For one thing, we could certainly use a lot more automation and artificial intelligence in the medical domains right now. As doctors Sanjiv Chopra and Pankaj K. Vij write: “Machines and algorithms will enable doctors to reclaim their place as true healers by enabling them to spend time and energy empathetically connecting with the people who need their help.”

Radical gains in medical science and health technologies are now far more realistic than when Toffler wrote in 1970, principally because of what he missed. Timothy Chou, a former president of Oracle, notes: “The word ‘computer’ appears only 54 times [in ‘Future Shock’], the word ‘software’ appears only once, and ‘artificial intelligence’ never appears.” Never mind that by the time of “Future Shock” the term “artificial intelligence” had already been around for 15 years. Or that it had been four years since the ideas that launched Arpanet, the precursor to the internet, were framed. But according to Joel Garreau, a professor of culture, values and emerging technology at Arizona State University, Toffler “focused on the humans,” not the gear.

Thus it bears noting that Toffler was right when he forecast that companies would increasingly focus on producing “experiences,” including simulated ones. Since 1970 the world has seen the emergence of an entirely new $120 billion-a-year video-game industry, and a 10-fold rise in the number of tourists world-wide. That tourism was the first sector hit by Covid-19, while all things online boomed, may tell us something about the world to come.

The widespread fallout from the new coronavirus outbreak will be long felt, not least in the next round of forecasting nostrums. But forecasting is useful, in no small part because much about the future is still determined by what we choose to do. For the discerning, there is thus one overarching pattern that emerges from books like “After Shock.” It’s that there are three classes of forecasters: those who are paid to entertain, those who are paid to be right and those who have an agenda.

We should expect that many of today’s forecasters will not easily relinquish preoccupations with the fact that, as one contributor to “After Shock” notes, Toffler “missed sounding the warnings” about global warming and climate disasters, among other similar themes of the pre-Covid-19 era. Those issues will ultimately look small in the rearview mirror of history. Meanwhile, “After Shock” shows that at least a few perspicacious forecasters are focusing on what matters for our future: our physical and economic well-being.

This piece first appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)

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Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, and author of the new book, Digital Cathedrals.

Photo by jamesteohart/iStock

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