Type “preparing our children for the future” into the Google, and you’ll be presented with prediction after prediction of what the future will hold and what policies and programs are needed to ensure our progeny will be able to function and survive. The intention of these writers comes from a caring place, I’m sure, and when their advice is simply placed out there for readers to adopt or discard as the reader pleases, there isn’t much harm in their predictive musing. However, when the prognosticators become educators or educational planners, discord begins to emerge. When “professionals” are tasked with designing educational frameworks based on a consensus view of future need, many young people are unknowingly pushed into a precarious position from which they may, sadly, never recover.
The costs of this kind of centralized design can long be hidden from view. For instance, it is difficult to identify and describe what industries or communities might have been naturally birthed had they not been forced to compete with well-funded universities for talent and interest. Organic and alternative business ecosystems can be fragile and have a hard time standing up to Universities which have fat marketing budgets funded through state-guaranteed loans. Would there be more entrepreneurial co-ops or collectives? More artists? More young people dreaming and tinkering and creating without the suffocating burden of ungodly amounts of debt? I can’t answer for sure. The reason I can’t answer for sure is because I understand, unlike most educational institutions and planners, that I am perfectly incapable of predicting the needs of the future with any degree of certainty.
How do I know I’m terrible at predicting the needs of the future? Well personal experience has informed me of that knowledge to some degree. After all, if the predictions I had made at 18 about my future profession had come true, I would be a clandestine spy in some dank, smoky cafe somewhere in the Middle East.
Beyond that, though, I’m aware that I’m terrible at making predictions because I belong to the same species that you do. Nostradamus and Dave Chappelle aside, even the best of us are are shooting in the dark when it comes to seeing what’s around the bend. Thomas Edison predicted that in the next millennium you would be able to fit hundreds of books in the palm of your hand, which seems like it might be analogous to a Kindle until you learn that he believed said books would be made of extremely fine pages of nickel.
Books of the coming century will all be printed leaves of nickel, so light to hold that the reader can enjoy a small library in a single volume. A book two inches thick will contain forty thousand pages, the equivalent of a hundred volumes; six inches in aggregate thickness, it would suffice for all the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And each volume would weigh less than a pound.
-The Miami Metropolis writing on Edison’s Predictions
Humans simply don’t have the context needed to understand, with a high degree of certainty, the needs of the future. We are consciousness moving through moments of present, and the future is just an abstraction that exists in our heads and our heads only. We can only project ideas based on our knowledge of current environments and the abstractions of the past.
It is true, though, that people, using the context of their own life, are capable of making accurate, narrow predictions of future events. However, these are usually rational individuals that have invested considerable time and resources towards the future they anticipate and are inherently forced to bear the cost of a bad prediction. Such a description may characterize a weathered venture capitalist or an decorated entrepreneur, however, I would argue it is less descriptive of most educational planners.
The artificially long timeline of most educational programs and the scarcity of valuable market feedback loops within those programs mean that enormous investments must be made by students long before they can realize the value of their investment, after which the institution bears little cost should the investment turn out to be a poor one. Typically, one would say that the cost to the university is one of bad publicity and decreasing future enrollment, and I would agree with you. That’s certainly the expected outcome. However, aggregate results are rarely very clear and it can take a long time for the law of large numbers to bear out the net value of these programs. Nassim Taleb describes a similar concept wonderfully in his observations on a concept he calls “skin in the game”:
in the “real world”, the law of large numbers works very slowly, or does not work at all in the time horizon for operators, hence statistical properties involving tail events are completely opaque to the observer.
When institutions or companies bear the risk of their ideas, the methods they use change. Robin Hanson, a big proponent of the concept of using markets to predict future events, has discussed how he believes the lack of ownership of outcomes on the part of academic thinkers leads to less accurate forecasting models.
I suggest prediction markets may be a better forum than academic journals for choosing forecasting methods. Maybe the world shouldn’t use a method just because academics say it’s great; maybe those impressed with a method should have to put their money where their mouth is and trade on that method’s forecasts in prediction markets.
-Prof. Robin Hanson
In such a crazy, uncertain world, who can we really trust to prepare us for what’s ahead? What if we trusted ourselves and held adaptability as a higher virtue than sterling foresight? When Robin Hanson talks about markets being better than academics at selecting forecasting methods, we have to remember that markets aren’t some monolithic “thing”. A market is the aggregate activity of thousands of individuals just like you selecting what they value and putting their blood, sweat and tears behind those values. Another way to look at it is this: With markets, action precedes prediction. With academics prediction precedes action. The former designs the future of the world in which it operates. The latter designs futures for a world in which others operate.
Don’t abdicate the prediction of the future to institutions who don’t care how your future turns out. The best way to predict the future is to toss out your crystal ball, pick up a hammer and build it.