How Looking Back Will Help Us Predict And Prepare For The Future

Chris Kutarna is a scholar at Oxford and the co-author of The Age of Discovery. His theses, that we are in a period of renaissance, is one that he touched on during his recent keynote at Data61’s recent LIVE event in Melbourne. I spoke to him later about this and how it would affect the future of technology.

Kutarna said it is important to look outside our own domains and comfort zones for ideas and insights into how to solve problems. How do we do what we are doing today by learning from examples in our past?

“The world is changing so fast we can’t make sense of it – but I think that’s a lazy notion” he said. “It’s giving ourselves a pass. I think we need to hold ourselves to a higher intellectual standard. It might be hard but I think we can make sense of it”.

Kutarna said there are many ways to find perspective and context for what is happening today. He uses history as a lens and believes it is a “conceit” to say what is happening today is so new that there is nothing in the human record that can offer us wisdom. It may be a common view that the present is so unlike the past, because of the pace of change, we need to resist the idea that we can’t make sense of things.

“We need to invest some intellectual horsepower into this. Reality is messy but we can always model reality in some ways, that might be imperfect, but help us”.

One of the examples Kutarna used was cartography. The perfect map of Australia, he said, would be the size of Australia. But we simplify a map to make it useful. It’s good enough for navigation. He says we need to create mental maps for managing complexity that simplify things into terms we can handle. And history is a place we can visit to find perspective.

In paraphrasing Machiavelli, Kutarna said that while technology changes and situations change, one thing remains constant – people. That’s why we can look at how we did things in the past, during periods of rapid change and have some predictive power into how we will respond to those changes. That should be obvious as the human condition is constant. It’s why, he said, we can read Shakespeare and relate to the characters.

But during times of extreme change, such as those we see today with more and more tech disruption, there are some things we do to manage our way through the change. Kutarna said we can look at neuroscience to help us understand people deal with the deluge of information they are faced with today.

“They can focus and delete. I’ve got a narrow range of attention and I delete everything on the periphery. And we develop heuristics – rules of thumb. If A, then B so we don’t have to think from first principles each time we are faced with a situation”.

It’s these tools that we use to form our mental maps. However, the world is changing every day so our mental maps become a little less accurate. So we need ways to assess and modify our maps in order to accommodate changing scenarios. For example, when new trade routes opened in Europe during the Renaissance, Venice’s position of power as a critical port was diminished. Their map of the world was changed. But rather than collapse, the city changed its focus and rules to become a centre for commerce and finance – creating a new era of prosperity that lasted almost another century.

That kind of business change is very much that we see today with technology changing the nature of customer and supplier interactions. With old business models threatened, only businesses that can refocus and change how they see the world will continue to prosper.

One of the triggers that is powering rapid change today is continued, exponential growth in computing power that makes it possible to complete tasks faster than before. But there is a historical precedent for this. In the 1800s, the French mathematician Laplace said logarithms had doubled the life expectancy of astronomers by simplifying their methods of calculation. It can be argued that modern computing, particularly the ability to cluster pools of power using the cloud, is doing a similar thing.

“The tools we have take away so much of the complexity for us,” he said.

One of the things these rapid changes are driving is the idea of life-long learning. For many of us, the jobs our parents had no longer exist. But today’s graduates are trained for careers that will no longer exist, perhaps even in a decade. So we will need to adapt faster.

“The half-life of skills we have for jobs is getting shorter and shorter,” said Kutarna.

The challenge today is we are not just in a period of rapid incremental change but one of paradigm shifts. So maps and models we relied on just a few years ago no longer exist. Or the complexities we create to accommodate changes become overwhelming.

“Often, when we achieve a paradigm shift, complexity falls away,” said Kutarna.

Citing Copernicus, Kutarna says the maps of the universe, with the Earth as the centre worked because the orbits of all the other known celestial bodies were very complex with various loops that explained how they could be seen at particular times. But Copernicus’ model, which challenged the paradigm of the Earth as the centre of the known universe, simplified the map. It gave the planets and other bodies simpler, more elegant orbits.

An example of where Kutarna sees this today is the move from a linear economy that starts with the creation of something of value and ends with its disposal, to a circular economy where nothing is wasted. This is changing business models where products are reclaimed after they are used so they can be reused. Or the product can be recycled into a new product – which gives incentives in choosing particular materials and manufacturing methods.

We are living in a time of rapid technological change. But by looking back at how humans managed changes in the past and thinking about how our brains work during those periods it is possible to navigate the change by developing new maps.

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