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Why it's worth reading crazy-sounding scenarios about the future


Speculating about the future can make it easier to respond to unexpected events


Predicting the future is hard. But preparing for its uncertainties, while you lie on the beach, can at least be entertaining. It can also broaden the mind and subtly change your understanding of the present. Rather than the Great American Novel or a tall stack of chick-lit bonkbusters (see our Obituary on Judith Krantz), we propose a different sort of summer reading. Speculating about the future, even if it is far-fetched, can help people and institutions cope with what comes next. For the best material, here are three places to look.


The first is scenario planning. This originated in the armed forces during the second world war and was pioneered in industry by Royal Dutch Shell, enabling it to react more quickly and effectively than rival oil firms to the oil shock of 1973. The central idea was to avoid betting everything on a single forecast and instead to test future projects and plans against a set of plausible scenarios. Mapping out several futures, deciding how to respond to them and identifying the early signs that they might be coming about has been widely adopted by multinational firms, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. In that spirit, we publish our own annual set of speculative scenarios, “The World If”, in this week’s edition. What if America leaves nato, or antibiotics stop working, or Facebook switches itself off in Europe? These things may never happen, but it is mind-stretching to think about what you should do if they did.


Science fiction, a second realm of speculation, is perhaps a more familiar beach read. It is wrong to see sci-fi as chiefly predictive, however. Its contemplation of the future is often a commentary on the present: many sci-fi authors take current concerns, from robots to climate chaos to gender politics, to the logical extremes and consider their implications. As a result, sci-fi can play a useful role as a forward-scanning radar for technological, social and political trends. But sci-fi does directly shape the future in one concrete way: the tech industry is full of people trying to make it come true. Amazon’s Alexa voice-assistant is the talking computer from “Star Trek”; SpaceX lands its rockets on drone ships whose names are borrowed from Iain M. Banks’s “Culture” novels; an entire industry is trying to bring to life the virtual world of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”. Beyond these familiar tropes, Chinese sci-fi and Afrofuturism offer refreshingly different perspectives and possibilities.

第二类是科幻小说,它可能是更为常见的沙滩读物了。但将其视为纯预测性读本是不对的。它对未来的构想是对当下的评论:很多写科幻小说的作家都着眼于目前的热点问题,从机器人到气候混乱,再到性别政治,然后对其进行合理设想,将这些问题带向极端,再分析其可能带来的影响。这就让科幻小说能在检测科技、社会及政策未来发展方面发挥功用。然而,科幻小说的确以一种具体的方法塑造了未来发展,因为科技界的人们都在努力实现科幻小说中的情节。亚马逊的语音助手Alexa就是以《星际迷航》里会说话的电脑为原型的;SpaceX用来降落火箭的无人机名称都来源于伊恩·M.班克斯(Iain M. Banks)的《文明》系列小说;整个科技界都想要将尼尔·斯蒂芬森(Neal Stephenson)《雪崩》一书中的虚拟世界变成现实。除了那些常见的科幻情形,中国科幻小说与非洲未来主义则给人全新的角度和各种可能,令人耳目一新。

The last speculative category is corporate anthropology and trendspotting. Many large companies employ roving anthropologists to seek out “edge cases”: examples of emerging technologies and behaviour that have yet to become widely adopted, but have the potential to go global. As the sci-fi novelist William Gibson once put it, “the future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed.” Two decades ago, Japanese schoolgirls led the way with modern smartphones, capable of taking pictures and downloading apps; we are all Japanese schoolgirls now. What’s next: the death of cash? Clothes made of mushrooms? Artificial meat? Trendspotters often get it wrong. But it is worth paying attention to what they think might be coming, just in case they are right.


The rewards of speculation


Pierre Wack, one of the gurus of scenario planning at Shell, once likened dealing with the future to shooting the rapids in a boat. You know the general direction of travel, but not the exact path, and the trick is to be able to respond quickly. Reading about possible futures can shift your perception of the present and help you understand what might be around the corner. It can also be fun. So why not give it a try, starting with the speculative scenarios in this issue: who knows what might happen?

壳牌有限公司的一位情景规划专家,皮埃尔·瓦克(Pierre Wack),曾经将应对未来比作劈波斩浪。如果你知道航行的大致方向却不清楚确切路线,那此行圆满的窍门就是拥有迅速的反应力。了解未来的种种可能不仅可以改变你对现在的看法,帮助你认识到未来可能发生的事,还大有乐趣。试试吧,先从阅读预测场景——“未来会发生什么”开始!



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