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Predicting the Future of Side Effects

  • When we analyze the past, we frequently use a Darwinian (selectionist) approach
  • When we predict the future, we rarely use a Darwinian (selectionist) approach
  • That is one reason why predicting the future is so difficult
  • Selectionist thinking is about what went wrong: given that a system was programmed to perform a function and succeed, what went wrong that caused the system to change, adapt and evolve, and eventually become something else, which in turn was a system designed to succeed but, in turn, failed, and so forth?
  • When we design a system, it is not difficult to predict that the system will do well, and it is also relatively easy to predict the beneficial effects. It is difficult to predict what the negative consequences will be.
  • The history of human civilization is full of examples in which society was shaped not by the intended beneficial effects of an innovation, but by the unintended negative side-effects of that innovation.
  • Obviously, humans don't introduce innovations to harm their own societies. Therefore it is easy for them to predict the beneficial effects. Humans employ logical deduction to infer the beneficial effets. Unfortunately, the harmful side-effects cannot be inferred by deduction because the number of premises is infinite: it is impossible to calculate logically all the possible consequences of an action on the infinite set of the world's components. Therefore, the only strategy is "wait and see", or "trial and error".
  • For example, the car's beneficial effect is easy to calculate: it will reduce the time required to travel from here to there. The indirect beneficial effects are also easy to calculate: many more people will be able to reach a doctor in a shorter time in an emergency. However, now we know that there are "obvious" harmful side-effects (that became obvious only decades later), including air pollution, bumper-to-bumper traffic, noise, environmental devastation to build roads, and thousands of casualties of car accidents.
  • The most challenging task is precisely to predict the harmful side-effects. Whenever an innovation is introduced (whether a social networking platform or a digital music player), the "critics" try to imagine what the future will be "beyond" the immediate purpose of the innovation. The more they think, the more apocalyptic the scenarios they imagine.
  • What is intriguing is that very few critics are proven right by the future: the apocalypse never quite seems like the many that were predicted, no matter how smart and knowledgeable the fortune tellers. Watch an old science-fiction movie, and try to find a trace of any digital music player or videogame. The apocalypse in the movie is an extraterrestrial invasion or a nuclear holocaust (that never happened). It is not the reduction in music quality or the degradation of human friendship.
  • Predicting the future is a science, but we use the wrong science. Therefore we obtain predictions that are as accurate as the medicines prescribed by shamans.
  • Each innovation is a Trojan horse, a parasite, an antigen and a UFO introduced in an existing society and it will have harmful side-effects. It is important to understand it as much as possible the same way that it is important to isolate and analyze a virus when it first appears.
Proof-edited by Alexander Altaras