Playing the Long Game

One of the qualities that truly distinguishes human beings from every other species is our ability to anticipate and plan days, weeks, even years ahead. This capacity gave us tremendous advantage as our species competed for its place in the world. It allowed us to anticipate animal migrations, to grasp and plan for seasonal changes, to use periods of abundance to prepare for times of scarcity.

As our social institutions developed from tribal to national to global, they expanded on this ability, developing programs, infrastructure and safety nets that sought to meet societal needs that were often decades away. Recognizing the importance of such foresight, professional futurists have taken this further, formalizing these processes in futures methodologies for over half a century.

Of course, such a focus on the future has to be balanced with our need to live in the present and to remember the past. It’s basically a three legged stool – without any one of its supports, it won’t remain stable for long.

But in modern life we face an ongoing situation that threatens to kick the legs out from beneath this stool. Simply put, there exist so many conduits, channels, messages and activities that constantly vie for our immediate attention, it becomes increasingly difficult to extend our thinking beyond the present. Too often our talent for long-term thinking is being undermined by short-term behavior.

With the advent of the Industrial Age, human time was made to mesh with machine time and later corporation time. As employers seek to squeeze ever more productivity from employees, workers have to give additional attention to immediate problems. They’re continually “putting out fires” as the colloquialism goes.

This behavior extends into our personal lives. Rampant consumerism exploits foraging-based reward circuits in our brains, perpetuating a cycle that keeps us firmly planted in short-term planning and thinking. At the same time, the rise of disposable income and leisure time has increased the frequency and regularity of social and recreational activities, as well as the use of consciousness-altering substances, such as alcohol, caffeine, and prescription and recreational drugs. Most of these activities promote immediate gratification behavior, sometimes to an extreme degree.

Then there are the virtual drugs. Twenty-four hour news channels, hot and cold running soap operas, multiplex cinemas and 3-D IMAX extravaganzas, manufactured reality shows, nonstop sports networks, fantasy everything leagues, highly immersive computer games, and so much more, create an environment that could easily be described as one giant time hole.

All of this perpetuates a shallowness of thought that impacts our decision making in so many spheres. Too often, our political system is hobbled by thinking that expects simplistic, slogan-ready solutions to increasingly complex problems in an increasingly complex world. Higher education teaches yesterday’s skills for jobs that soon won’t exist, instead of developing critical thinking and other adaptive skills in anticipating the needs of tomorrow. In short, all this living for the moment makes us forget there is a world that lies beyond the fifteen minute horizon and we are suffering for it.

If unabated, this is a problem that may only get worse with the rise of transhumanism. Advances such as physical augmentation, cognitive enhancement and significant life extension can all be undermined by a mindset that sees them only for their ability to provide immediate distraction and gratification. But that’s not the worst of it.

It’s been surmised that what we’re facing is actually a filter every planetary civilization has to pass through. One of the many speculated explanations for the Fermi Paradox – “If advanced alien civilizations exist, then where are they?” – is that such civilizations too often succumb to just this sort of behavior. They transform themselves into technology-enabled lotus eaters, turning ever inward until they either completely decay or destroy themselves. What a waste it would be to achieve everything our species has, only to lose ourselves to such a self-inflicted mortal wound.

The world is faced with huge challenges, few of which are likely to resolve themselves. A number of these are potentially existential in nature. Nuclear war, extreme climate change, bioterrorism, nanotechnological weapons and asteroid collisions are but a few of the threats we may have to deal with during this coming century. If we want to ensure the future of humanity, we have to start playing the long game, thinking much further ahead than is fostered by our current way of life. It’s critical we strive to rebalance our focus as individuals and as institutions, giving equal consideration to the past from which we learn, to the present in which we live and to the future, where if we’re very, very lucky, we’ll spend many long and fulfilling years.

Richard Yonck is a foresight analyst with Intelligent Future LLC. Writing and speaking about future technology and it’s potential impacts on society, Richard is especially interested in the evolving relationship between technology and intelligence.

6 Comments

  1. Interesting article – I’ve recently also asked myself if the human species is losing its ability to plan ahead. Are we multi-tasking or is that just ADD?

    This inability to connect present moment actions with delayed consequences seems to be everywhere: cars over-taking just to slam on the brakes 5 seconds later when they realize you were slowing for a red light, choosing sex over long-term relationships, putting out “fires” at work instead of planning ahead to prevent them, buying something on credit now instead of saving up and buying it later at half the cost, winning the debate now instead of compromising to solve the problem in the long run, etc. The more I think about it the more examples come to mind.

    Everybody is so busy doing what seems urgent, that nobody does what’s important. And the really ironic thing is that while we are in such a hurry to get to the “end” in everything we do, we still all want to progress towards our life’s end as slowly as possible.

    • I suspect you are mistaken about the selfish nature of most humans, and how future discounting plays rationally into it once you realize the inherent instability and unpredictability of long-term success. The repeating desaster new on the financial markets are just one example. Probabilities of early deaths by accidents or illness are other ones.

      In plague-ridden historical times, resorting to orgies of instant gratification was a rational strategy. Realizing my current work life led to negative experience value of my life overall has led me to quit my job, burn bridges, enjoy months of freedom instead of seeking a long and completely uncertain career – and buy a gun just in case.

      The problem with long-term visions is not just that the pay-offs are delayed. The real problem is that success probabilities drop significantly in an environment of inevitable chaos.

  2. evolution of biological entities is driven by drives and motivations. they evolve in geological slowness. primarily by mistakes in genetics.

    the driving force of evolution is to predict the future. the power to predict is the answer to domination of prey and predators. to continue the evolution “to our benefit” is to direct the evolution of the machine mind. that is what we have done and that is what we must continue to do untill we find a specific reason to do otherwise. in the meantime if you want a companion there are tons of them out there. probably cant buy one garranteed to be your friend or sex partner though.

  3. “If we want to ensure the future of humanity…”

    And that may be the point where you go wrong. Hardly anyone is actually motivated by that goal to do hard things.

    And then there’s the thought: Why should we even want to?

    So much suffering, so little meaning. Life is a self-perpetuating pattern without purpose. It makes sense to burn it quickly, brightly, pleasurably, and then salt the earth.

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