The statistician will scoff at my naive, innumerate device, a five-year old’s forecasting examples; he knows so much better that the world is given and we are mere spectators of the great laws at work. However, with or without mathematics, when you look at the past and the scenery feels already familiar, the same story often repeated, or you when look at the present and the event, the action in progress, has an air of something you saw before, it is normal to guess that maybe, the future will follow the trend.
My challenge is to give bold form to such seeming trends, in a way that leads to understanding and to action. Certainly, you will keep alert to improve the guess as it hits the road.
When change looms and concerted action needs direction, I found often useful to hint the future in a simple image; this gives a fulcrum in the middle of disorder, confidence and focus to many in high moments; but beware, you must avoid blind faith in such metaphors while you use them, better keep your eyes open; change happens. The value is that you start somewhere instead of remaining in the middle of nowhere; subsequently, work towards reality, the Bayesian way if I may say so*...
The precision of such shapes of the future is doubtful, let me insist; while you guess keep your eyes open for continuous correction. The continuous process of reality check and correction is another story however, one well known; the role of the shapes presented to a public is for now to structure the unknown, to give meaning and to organize action for a while; simple means helping important ends. It may also happen that you are able to use such a "shape-scenario" as a self-fulfilling prophesy; if people are convinced by your projection, they may make it true.
As I am a visual person, I use visual shapes of the kind I describe here. There are, no doubt, many other shapes I do not represent. Auditive people will observe configurations essential in music, with the same guiding value; some individuals recognise shapes in the feel of their own movement, be it action or dance or in touching things. I met people who think amazingly, understand and solve problems with their hands, by handling and doing; they too seem to represent what will happen. And of course, the masters of words find forms in the constructions of language spinning logic, grammar and meaning to deduce from the past what will be in the future. I am certain that the mathematicians, those mysterious wizards who know how the universe must be see wonderfully useful shapes which we could apply if they deigned to explain us. These are some shapes I know that I do not know but there are certainly other forms which I ignore that I do not know, beyond my horizon.
Here are a few examples I know from endlessly many; if you use the principle with intuition and common sense you will no doubt build your own collection:
Something that went on and on, right ahead may keep following a straight line. Or suddenly stop, if there is some foreseeable or unforeseeable reason for it; that is a future which has a shape of a line. Dare to draw consequences, do not be lazy or too weak to do it and also to consider what could alter the line if that is needed.
"What was before will be again, and what is was before…there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9-11.
Even the straight line of no surprise is supported by some effort to keep course. When some important change is in view you can bet that it will not be followed by a straight line as usual; after any notable event there will be a dip and later - with some effort - a rise; accordingly you are well advised to provide reserves for that gap instead of complaining hardship...
With this image you can explain things normal and avoid panic. Do you see the usefulness of foreseeing a future which has the shape of a dip-curve?
If instead of mere effort to maintain the status-quo, there is some pressure building up beneath the line, or if – which is similar – the line is just too silent, with no blips and no feedback, you have good reason to be prudent for some outburst.
This may be a future heading for an explosion. Be forewarned.
One of my favourite shapes to consider is symmetry; it helps a lot to know that where there is a wing there is a second one, where there is a right hand there is a left hand too;
you reckon the whole from seeing a part; you see the ears and you know there will be a whole donkey under them.
When people only see the part, hint to them the whole.
The bell-shaped curve of the unexceptional is how things are in numbers and how normal things happen in crowds – we are born, we grow, we peak, we age down and die, and so do careers, projects, institutions, nations and species; observe that I look at this line as a journey rather than as a distribution. Elementary and well studied.
Few people rise above the segment where they are now – which looks like a straight line. When needed, only when needed, show the bigger picture, dust to dust.
Exponential growth: something is beyond expectations or out of control like human population growth, viruses, a Ponzi scheme or nuclear chain reaction.
Most of the time you wish this to happen to evil enemies: to grow until they burst, as we all know, don’t we, that when you want to diminish something you must first grow it.
The S-shaped curve, the curse of success, shows pointedly what lies ahead when you seem to be about to conquer the world; “carpe diem!” it says.
Prepare now for the time when growth will be exhausted and the niche filled to the brim.
Prepare to cash-in, retire or invent transition now, to ride another S-curve, to find the next world to conquer.
Yet other things, some of which we use to only see in limited segments, belong, as we all know in theory, to wider shapes of cycles;
Some are circles, "revolutions" which mean going all the way to come back where all things started; or seasons;
it is time to draw the conclusion that the same will come to pass again and again; a good image inviting to do better next time or to step out of form if needed.
Some cycles are spirals, opening into endlessness circling forever higher; there is much learning possible from the previous lower levels; this reminds History to me, always higher, “progress” and still, always similar.
There are environments where you observe the tendency to scatter, for better or for worse;
it is useful to imagine a viral tendency of populations, to spread until they conquer in S-shape the whole space available... or they cool down in dispersed energy:
Disorder is the best place to hide and the richest place to seek new things.
Formlessness is a form, the mother of all forms.
“In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.
Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.” (Tao Te Ching, 78)
* Sharon Bertsch Mcgraine, "The Theory that Would not Die", Yale UP., New Haven.., 2011