Steven Johnson is one of those rare authors who can take advanced scientific research and turn it into prose that non-scientific readers can understand and then use in their own lives. He can pull that off because he not only has the training to read the scientific literature, but he is a master story teller.
He has done it again in Farighted.
In it, he helps us see some old and some new tools that help us make decisions on matters that will affect our lives far into the future–hence the title.
Those decisions matter more and more these days because of issues he has taken up in earlier books. Change is happening at an accelerating pace in most areas of our lives. We have to think about the indirect as well as the direct impact of our actions, because the “nth order effects” could well ripple out for centuries if not forever. Unexpected events are more likely to happen more often and have a greater impact than in the past.
Johnson suggests that our traditional ways of making such decisions aren’t likely to be all that helpful. We can’t simply make lists and likely benefits and costs of our decisions and make our decisions accordingly. That is, of course, better than acting rashly or not making those kinds of calculations, but we aren’t likely to get very far if that is all we do.
Instead, he draws on the idea of bounded rationality first popularized by Herbert Simon included in his Nobel Prize speech. Terms like bounded rationality drive normal readers nuts, and this is where Johnson’s genius comes into play–even if it isn’t likely to get him his own Nobel.
The key is to not focus on a single outcome. Instead, consider as many possible outcomes and as many factors that would determine whether or not we can get to each of them as you can. If you do that, you are less likely to act impulsively and more likely to see multiple options while surfacing theor longer term implications,It also makes sense to get as much input from as many different kinds of people as possible before making such a decision–which is why diversity is so important in any organization making any kind of major decision.
That leads him to suggest lots of different tools that I had already thought about. That, in turn, led me to think that Farsighted might not have been as good as some of his earlier books. In fact, this is one of his best books precisely because he has included so many key ideas in one place–ideas that took me years to find and that I could not convey anywhere near this succinctly. These include:
- Expanding the number of alternatives you consider
- Scenario planning
- Collective forecasting
- Red teaming
- Design charrettes
And, of course, Johnson pulls all this off with grace and artistry, weaving together wideranging stories including some dumb decisions made long ago in New York and his own family’s decision to move from the west coast back to New York.
In short, yet another masterpiece by Steven Johnson that make you think–a lot.