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The Futures We Deserve or, Even Bankers Might Have Uses - Edmund Harriss

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.

My son often asks me "Which do you like best?" before going on to list two things that are (to my mind) simply not comparable. As a mathematician, I would describe this sort of thing as a partial ordering. I can easily say which I prefer out of, say, Rachmaninov and Britney Spears; however, ask me to compare Rachmaninov to Leonard Cohen, or Britney Spears to Christina Aguilera, and I would be stumped. Essentially, a partial ordering lets you order some things but not everything. This is in contrast to a total ordering — numbers, for example. If you give me two different numbers, one will always be greater than the other (for maths geeks, I am talking about real numbers here).

What has this got to do with the future? It comes down to the stories that we tell each other; in particular, that we deserve the best. At first glance this seems obvious, maybe even moral if you take into account the effects on other people. We also want to know that we are doing well, not just by our own standards but by the standards of the community. As communities and individuals, therefore, we seek to impose a total ordering on everything in society, even though many things cannot be compared. As everyone wants the best car, house, and job, we are pulled into a trap where most people have the same things.

For other reasons, the banks in the early 21st century were doing the same. They had one model of risk. They justified this, saying that everyone would be safe as they used the same model. This did not end well, and we all saw the consequences when the model broke.[1]

Finally, we are always encouraged to seek efficiency and best practice. This trend is shown clearly in the spread of Walmart, who makes just three-and-a-half cents profit on every dollar spent[2], or, alternatively, Dilbert's boss insisting we should "work smarter not harder".[3]

What can we do instead? The potato farmers in the Andes have a solution. They do not grow a single type of potato; they grow hundreds. The wild plants in their hedges add even more to the genetic mix. Each year, their crop gets a variety of weather conditions, and some varieties do well. Other varieties do badly. These can switch from year to year. There are even some varieties that do poorly in all conditions but always give something. Only considering those plants would ensure poverty, yet when the conditions are really bad they can be essential, helping survival to the next year.[4]

To flourish in all the possible futures we need the diversity of humanity. This is easy to see. To actually embrace it as individuals is harder. The idea of best, the idea of safety by not standing out, and a worship of efficiency are harder than you would think to break. This is because when something is truly diverse there are many things that you might consider bad, as well as those that are just good for other people.

The first step is to cultivate different friendships. When you meet people who you can get on with but fundamentally disagree with, do not write them off. Argue with them, perhaps, but cultivate the friendship. Understand that any one of us is wrong about many things. This helps you to become more diverse as an individual. Also recognise that something that seems useless, or even evil, can have a purpose in some situations. Not understanding how that might be is not a justification to reject it. Of course, there are some fundamental rules that you might consider sacred, but question even those. On the other hand, this is not passive acceptance of everything. When certain things start to dominate, you should work against them. Easy when you disagree, but sometimes you have to move against things you actually love.

In conclusion, do not pin your hopes on one future. We do not know what might be 'round the corner — good, bad or simply transformative. Whatever happens, different people will experience the same future differently. By keeping our options as wide as possible we can maximise humanity's greatest asset: to adapt.

  1. Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street Wired Magazine 23 February 2009. Article on the Gaussian Cupola, the risk model that the banks went for. A little harsh on the mathematics, rather than the greed of those who used it.
  2. Walmart's Operating and Profit margins
  3. Original (I think) Dilbert comic with "Work smarter not harder"
  4. The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan, 2002. In a chapter on agricultural monoculture, especially for the potato, Michael Pollan discusses the different approach of Andean farmers.