The speed of light is 299 792 458 m/s. The speed of sound is a mere 343 m/s. One consequence of this difference is that during extreme weather conditions, we tend to see lightning before we hear the thunder.
There is an analogy here that we can use to understand how events in a chain of causes and effects play out. Generally speaking, when it comes to the big things that affect the world, this line moving from cause to effect isn’t always clear. Most consequential events, especially large-scale and complex events, have many causes. The expression nexus causality tells us that rather than one thing leading to another, most things take effect at the intersection of many different causes, none clearly responsible alone.
World War II, for example, had economic causes, political causes, and philosophical causes — all mixed together. In retrospect, it’s easy to draw a line from there to here, to fill in gaps as best as we can with the narrative we find the most satisfying. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if someone other than Hitler had been in power at the time. Or maybe it still would have because the economic and political realities were such that it was perhaps inevitable at the time. We don’t know, and we can’t know.
That said, although we can never paint a clear line of cause and effect when looking at the past or trying to predict the future due to nexus causality, what we can do is spot the patterns that come together to tell us that something is about to happen, even if we don’t know exactly what.
When we see lightning, we can usually be sure that there is thunder to be heard very soon. In this case, there is a clearer causality. But even so, we have no way of knowing where the thunder will strike. Even then, we might not hear it because it’s too far away. But the pattern itself tells us to prepare for something even if that preparation might not be necessary.
“History,” it is often said, “doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes.” And in order to predict the future in an uncertain world, in order to recognize the pattern of the lightning before the thunder strikes, we have to ask a question that transcends the notions of past, present, and future. That question is simply: What doesn’t change across the dimension of time?
This can be illuminated with something that Jeff Bezos wrote in one of his shareholder’s letters for Amazon. Given that much of Amazon’s success is based on the power of technology, and technology these days changes so fast that every year and decade brings with it new ways of doing things, new ways of gaining advantages, Bezos would naturally get asked what it is he believes will change in the years ahead. His answer? He simply doesn’t know.
What he does know, however, is what is not going to change. He can’t tell you whether AI or IoT or something else will be the next big thing because these things are fundamentally unpredictable. What he does know is that customers are still going to want a better product tomorrow, that they are going to want faster deliveries tomorrow, and this consistent and repeatable pattern of behavior in the customer is something they can build a business around, and make decisions around, and if that means AI or IoT, so be it.
The reason that history doesn’t repeat itself is that every individual place and every individual person is different, and those slight differences add up to the kind of nexus causality that ensures that no moment will ever be exactly the same. The reason that history rhymes, however, is that even if individual places or individual people are never exactly the same, many types of places and many types of people are similar enough that they act in consistent ways across time, even accounting for individual differences.
One place might not be like another, but the laws of nature are consistent. One person might not be like another, but the patterns of human behavior are consistent. These two things — natural laws and human nature — are predictable no matter what time in history we find ourselves in. And because these things don’t change, even if our environments and our incentives are different, we can expect things even if we can’t predict them.
Take the recent coronavirus epidemic. No one knows how it’s going to turn out quite yet. Maybe it will be fine. Maybe it won’t. But one thing that was clear quite early to anyone who has ever looked at power laws and exponentials was that this is very contagious, and if left unchecked, it could hypothetically infect the world faster than we could contain it. This was as clear when there were 10,000 to 20,000 cases as it is now. This is a pattern that repeats itself in nature. The context might be different in this particular case, or another case, but it was possible to see the lightning.
Here is another case: No matter where you look in history, any time the wealth gap between the rich and the poor has gotten too large, we begin to see patterns of populism and extreme politics play out. Historically, war or disease or redistribution or a revolution has almost always followed. Now you can have whatever opinions you want in regards to capitalism and socialism, what is earned and what is not, how with progress even the poor today aren’t all that poor by historical standards, and onwards. But what you can’t ignore is that human nature is consistent, and inequality breeds distrust, and distrust means that society tends to break down.
The computer scientist Alan Kay has a saying that goes something like: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” And that brings us to the second part of this: Consistent patterns that transcend time and history, like natural laws and human nature, can point us in the general direction if we pay attention, but the exact outcome always depends on human agency, or lack thereof. On a general level, history is biased towards certain cyclical patterns that come up again and again, but the details are always determined by how we respond to those patterns. This means that the future can’t be predicted, but it can be anticipated in broad strokes, and then created in detail.
In this sense, if history is a rhyme across time, then humans set the pace based on how they respond to the familiar with novelty. But to do that, we don’t predict anything with certainty in an uncertain world. The causes and the effects and the way they mix with each other are too muddled for that. We can study the past, we can study the laws of nature, and we can study human behavior, but we can’t fully anticipate what has yet to be.
If we look beyond prediction with certainty, however, there is something we can do. We can see the lightning. We can see the patterns around us. In doing that, we can ride those patterns to push towards a future that didn’t exist until we used our individual or collective agency to bring it into existence.
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