radical Insights.

Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

Unlock Your Past to Define Your Future.

Feb 13, 2024

Since my time at Singularity University, I have been discussing the concept of “exponential deception” – the straightforward yet profound observation that humans, as a rule, struggle to grasp exponential trends. Few have articulated this as effectively as Professor Albert Allen “Al” Bartlett, who famously stated:

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

(If you’re curious - his seminal talk on “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy” is well worth watching.)

I contend that today, with nearly six decades of Moore’s Law, a global pandemic (which happens to spread exponentially), and numerous discussions of exponentiality in the realms of technology spanning from computers and artificial intelligence to synthetic biology and renewable energy, we have gained a solid comprehension of the ramifications of exponential growth. (To be precise, exponentials seldom adhere strictly to exponential growth but rather follow S-curves that level off after an initial period of rapid expansion.)

During my presentations, I often evoke Ernest Hemingway’s insight from his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, where he observes that change (in his novel’s case, bankruptcy) occurs “gradually, then suddenly,” a principle we have dubbed “Hemingway’s Law of Motion.” Decades later, Roy Amara, president of the Institute for the Future, encapsulated this notion in an adage about forecasting technology’s impacts: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

In this context, commentators frequently highlight the common pitfall of falling prey to the fallacy Amara identified, as we tend to extrapolate from the past, which often appears flat and linear, leading us to underestimate the magnitude of change we will encounter in a particular field.

Here’s where it becomes intriguing: to understand why we consistently make this error, one must delve into the workings of the human brain. The hippocampus, a key component of the brain, is primarily associated with memory. It furnishes vivid memories, both short-term and long-term, as well as spatial memory, housing and granting access to the repository of past experiences in one’s life. Additionally (and much lesser known), it plays a crucial role in envisioning the future.

This dual function contributes to the challenge of envisioning a tomorrow vastly different from today - our future visions are rooted in our past experiences. Overcoming this limitation requires actively engaging divergent parts of the brain - a concept akin to Daniel Kahneman’s insights on System 1 and 2 in his bestselling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

And there’s another layer to this insight: if you aim to inspire people to envision the future, it is beneficial to connect the future to your audience’s lived experiences by stimulating their hippocampus.

The next time your work involves envisioning potential futures and/or conveying them to others, keep in mind (notice the subtle nod?) that your past and future are inherently intertwined in your brain. @Pascal