Archive for January, 2010

I  thought I’d kick off my futurology blog with a look at my own theory of the inverted pyramid, which examines the underlying assumptions made in any body of knowledge and asks whether they are sufficiently stable to support the structure above. We’ll consider the applications for futurology in a little while, but before we proceed any further a little more explanation as to exactly what I mean is required.

As with most explanations, it is probably easier to demonstrate by example than to undergo a delineation of the theory in abstract terms, so I’ll start by looking at how the inverted pyramid applies to a practical subject – namely to that most contentious of issues – religion – and, more specifically, Christianity.

With over 2000 years of history behind it, and with innumerable subtly (and in some cases, not so subtly) different denominations, Christianity is comprised of an extraordinarily broad mix of pseudo-historical facts, articles of faith and much-debated interpretations of scripture. Yet whilst the notion of, say, original sin, or the transubstantiation of the mass, may have resulted in centuries of disagreement between the religion’s sects, the body of knowledge over which they both agree and disagree is, without exception, predicated on a single premise – that God exists. Remove the premise – that which is represented as the inverted point of the pyramid that forms the foundations – and the entire body of knowledge (that represented by the pyramid itself), with all of its attendant mythology and debate, crumbles.

Whilst there have been many attempts to prove the existence of God over the years – there have been ontological and teleological arguments (the latter resurrected in recent years by the intelligent design brigade) – none is what we could call a proof in the empirical or logical sense of the word. It is, thus,  a thin and not entirely robust premise that is upholding the inverted pyramid that is the religion’s belief system. Of course, Christianity is not alone in this;  all of the world’s major religions are susceptible to the same flaw in their reasoning.

One could conclude then, that if a body of knowledge predicated on a single premise is to be robust enough to undergo rigorous scrutiny and still maintain its form, then that premise needs to be one that is exceptionally stable; one that, despite its solitary nature, is strong enough to support the broadening weight above it. The problem, of course, is that an inverted pyramid is inherently unstable, and that no matter how strong the initial premise is, the spreading weight above will almost always result in an eventual collapse.

You may, by now, have started to see how this theory can be applied to futurology. The futurologist is concerned, more than anything, with the strength of the atoms of fact gleaned from the present, through which he or she will extrapolate future scenarios. Should the futurologist rely too heavily on too small a number of premises, or choose ones that are insufficiently robust, then the likelihood of their future scenarios being accurate is heavily reduced.

Let’s take a look, then, at the inverted pyramid in action, in the realm of that great exponent of futurology – science fiction – and, more specifically, the 1970s UK TV series, Space: 1999. It is, perhaps, a little misleading to choose such a programme to illustrate my point, given that it was produced purely as entertainment and not as a means of providing a serious vision of mankind’s future development, but I have decided to include it simply because I can think of no other example that demonstrates so succinctly the link between a weak initial premise and poor predictions of future scenarios.

As you would expect, Space: 1999  is indeed set in space, and the year really is 1999. And whilst 1999 in the actual world was the year of the dotcom explosion, the millenium bug and  the iBook, in the fictional world of Space:1999, mankind has established a permanent base and a nuclear waste dump on the moon, and computers are multi-coloured flashing objects with tiny monochrome screens. Had the writers and producers been given marks for the accuracy of their depiction of a world only 25 years forward in time from their own, it is probable that an Iceland-in-the -Eurovision Song-Contest-like nul points would have been the resounding chorus.

It is important to remember, though, that Space:1999 was produced at a time when manned lunar landings were still fresh in the collective memory, and when space travel seemed to many to be the ‘next big leap for mankind’. Given this background, it is easy to see why the show might extrapolate from the success of the Apollo missions, a world, a quarter of a century in the future, in which mankind had begun to colonise the moon. Where the show’s creators went wrong was not to test this assumption; if they had done so they would have understood that the costs and physical requirements of such a venture would have precluded it from happening, certainly at any point before the middle of the following century. With this key premise removed, much of the imagined world of the series  – the inverted pyramid itself  – collapses.

So, where does this leave the futurologist? The answer is: with a need to build his future scenarios on multiple, tested and robust assumptions. In other words, we must ensure not only that the foundations of our pyramid are stable, but that it is also supported at as many points as possible – the pyramid should actually more resemble a square. In reality, this means examining each assumption carefully, then cross-checking the effects of each assumption against the others. Assumptions can be assigned a score, based on their robustness, and only the highest scoring ones, provided that they are sufficient in number and agreement, can be used as the founding premises of our future scenarios.

We’ll examine some examples of this technique in operation in a future posting.


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