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Marc Gerstein

“Flirting with disaster: why accidents are rarely accidental”
Union Square Press, London, 2008.

TITOLO: Future and mistakes: random thoughts

WRITTEN BY: Lorenzo Matteoli

DATE: April 30, 2003

Random
Thoughts about
the Future and about
Mistakes

 

 

 

 

The future

The English Dictionary of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives two definitions which are worth reporting and commenting on:
A. time that is to come
B. what is going to happen
The first one is crudely objective and is not particularly suggestive of anything else but "ineludibility".
Given our current experience and the perception that we have of "time" it is almost certain that, at least for a while, some "time" is due to come. By the way it is worthwhile to check the definition of time:
A period during which something exists or continues
If you consider the definitions of future together with the definition of time, you see that there is a puzzling tautology hidden there.
If the future is "time" and "time" is defined by events happening, the two definitions for "future" blend into one.
The future can only be understood as "what is going to happen", because time that is to come is practically an empty container.
So, in the great chaos of things and accidents we have a very loose certainty in our hands: The future is things that are going to happen.
Humankind has always been very keen in trying to know the future. Incredible amounts of money have been spent on fortune-tellers, soothsayers, clairvoyants, charlatans, palm readers and serious scientific institutions in order to get glimpses of the future, visions, scenarios, schedules. Religions and insurance companies have built solid fortunes on this human weakness, not to mention our weekly exercise with Lotto.
Socially the suggestion of some capability to tell the future is a sure bet on its short term deployment.
Some of the most interesting mathematical achievements are the result of this interest: probabilistic calculus and the mathematical intuitions of Giovanni Cardano and Galileo Galilei pressed by the Medicis passion for gambling for instance.
The future is a deceptive genius: it is always and repeatedly the most logical and banal development of the present situation, but the logic appears clearly only after the events have actually taken place.
It is probably true that even if we were given a precise sequence of future events by some divine entity or by an incredibly powerful computer, our perception of the future would not be any better than the perception we have now.
In fact, the perception we have of the future is dominated by the present and by personal contingencies. It is related to culture, to social conduct and individual behavioural patterns. Thus our behaviour will always be guided by the vision of the future that we can comprehend and by the reaction to it that our brain is capable of.
Our reaction capability is our effective ability to make consistent decisions and to act in order to control events and guide them within the scope of our vision.
Models and scenarios help our assessment of the vision, but they are not sufficient. Our ability to plan and make decisions is limited to the future that we are able to perceive, thus the reaction to events placed in a future beyond that range of perception is vague.
In some instances, the reactive capability of our brain is limited by our direct participation in an event and we remove from our mind events that imply our destruction.
What is true for individual behavioural patterns seems also to be true for collective patterns of conduct.
So, in order to be able to use/perceive/understand whatever future vision is supplied to us (I mean the most sophisticated computer model or the wondrous blabbing of a Gipsy Rose in the back alleys of Samarkanda) we must first work on our own "mindset.
With the wrong mindset you can dismiss both as irrelevant or you can take them both as absolute truths and plunge into the abyss.
So, let us wander a while among the uncharted territories of future telling or "visioning".
One would think that, given the fact that the future is the outcome of present reality, a good knowledge of present reality should yield, almost as a consequence of a reliable (almost reliable?) image of things to come. If we could actually know "all" the present reality and its inner intricacies that could be true. But….that knowledge is beyond our grasp, plus the fact that reality is not stable.
The reality is "malleable" is a "plasticky" stuff that you can mould or "sculpt" with ideas and behavioural patterns or choices. You can "sculpt" reality, thus changing it’s inherent potential of a "given" future.
So we have this rather unique ability: Even if we do not know the future, we can "change" it with our present actions.
Also, the consequences of our present actions belong to the category of "future" and so it is also true that we do not know them, or, what we do know about is limited.
We know that if we take a Ferry to go to Rottnest there are very good chances that we will in fact land in Rottnest. If we decide to buy a house there are fairly reliable possibilities that we will live in that house for a certain length of time.
It would be nice if our brain were like those chess playing softwares that once you move your "pawn" or your "knight" are capable of listing all the subsequent possible moves of both players. The real world is much more complex than a chess game. Our brain can "infer" just a few main possibilities and grasp some implications, but when we are in the domain of the implications of the implications we are already in a hyper dimension. Let alone the implications of the implications of the implications. We call that "uncertainty".
But, in fact, it is our limited brain power because if we were able to list all the implications and assess them in qualitative and quantitative terms we could have less uncertainty.
The question is: would we really be better off? Would that be really useful? Or would simple intuition and consequential behavioural patterns (choices, decisions) not give comparable results?
The problem as "decision makers" is how much (money and time) do we have to spend in order to list and assess implications of various order or how much do we have to risk on an intuitive path.
I have no ready answer to that question.
But it may be interesting to elaborate on the usefulness of trying to answer the question and on the effective reward that speculation on the future can yield.
Knowledge of the future is impossible but trying to know the future is useful. To the point that it is even useful to draft different plausible futures knowing that they are just merely possible.
Also the description of totally unrealistic future scenarios is useful and can be of great help in making present day decisions or in "sculpting" the present. That is because dealing with the future gives us a better understanding of the present. Even dealing with a totally unrealistic future can have that positive result.
One of the things that actually "drives" the future is our attitude towards it. Our culture, our "ideology", our mind set. Future scenarios and thinking in some systematic way about the future changes our attitude in the present and affects the way in which we approach things. This is precisely one of the means by which we induce changes in the behaviour of others and thus has an important inference on "implications".
The efficacy of horoscopes depends on that feedback mechanism.
There are many ways to set up "images of the future" and it is not the purpose of this short talk to go into the technicalities: Any manual of "futurology" can teach that.
One of the most interesting effects of predicting or projecting the future is the powerful feedback on the present that it can have. The feedback can be so strong as to actually induce or prevent the happening of the forecast. The tragic forecasting of Oedipus’ destiny was the very reason that set up the causes for it to come true. The population explosion projected for the year 2050 will probably induce behavioural changes in present day lifestyles that will prevent it from happening. A lot of economic forecasts are made deliberately to induce or to prevent some specific development and consequently support speculative financial deals. Opinion polls and their instrumental use is another good example of the many ways in which the Oedipus effect of future projection works.
Every future scenario is usually supplied with the limiting clause valid only in case of "surprise free development": Unfortunately there is no such a thing as a "surprise free development". Just think of the very recent events of the war in Iraq and the SARS virus!

Mistakes

First of all let me supply you with a whole burden of common sense, daily wit and paradoxical truisms about mistakes:

 

Do not fear mistakes. There are none. Miles Davis
The only mistake I ever made was not listening to my gut. Lee Iacocca
A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines. Frank Lloyd Wright
The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one. Elbert Hubbard
A mistake is not a failure. It is something that goes wrong... and then you fix it. You never fail until you stop trying. Suzie Heyman
If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner. Tallulah Bankhead
A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional, and are the portals of discovery. James Joyce
An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field. Niels Bohr
A man who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it, is committing another mistake. Confucius
There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth -- not going all the way, and not starting. The Buddha
A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing. George Bernard Shaw
Mistakes show us what we need to learn. Peter McWilliams
Mistakes live in the neighbourhood of truth and therefore delude us. Rabindranath Tagore
Our 'mistakes' become our crucial parts, sometimes our best parts, of the lives we have made. Ellen Goodman
A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
Albert Einstein.
When I make a mistake everyone can see it, but not when I lie. Johann von Goethe
Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes. Mahatma Gandhi
When I have listened to my mistakes, I have grown. Hugh Prather
A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which has not yet been turned to your advantage. Edwin Land
I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge. Igor Stravinsky
A just cause is not ruined by a few mistakes. Fyodor Dostoevsky
Every calamity is a spur and valuable hint. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Do not be embarrassed by your mistakes. Nothing can teach us better than our understanding of them. This is one of the best ways of self-education. Thomas Carlyle
I'd rather make a mistake than do nothing. Harry Chapin
Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life. Sophia Loren
The person interested in success has to learn to view failure as a healthy, inevitable part of the process of getting to the top. Dr. Joyce Brothers
Some of the best lessons we ever learn we learn from our mistakes and failures. The error of the past is the wisdom and success of the future. Tyron Edwards
Not many people are willing to give failure a second opportunity. They fail once and it is all over. The bitter pill of failure is often more than most people can handle. If you are willing to accept failure and learn from it, if you are willing to consider failure as a blessing in disguise and bounce back, you have got the essential of harnessing one of the most powerful success forces. Joseph Sugarman
Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. Winston Churchill
A series of failures may culminate in the best possible result. Gisela Richter
Error is discipline through which we advance. William E. Channing
You always pass failure on the way to success. Mickey Rooney
Weinberg's Principle: An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.
What looks like a loss may be the very event which is subsequently responsible for helping to produce the major achievement of your life. Srully Blotnick
It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. Herman Melville
Best men are often moulded out of faults. Shakespeare
Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I'll show you a failure. Thomas A. Edison
I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to please everyone. Bill Cosby
My play was a complete success. The audience was a failure. Ashleigh Brilliant
Learning is never done without errors and defeat. Vladimir Lenin
I want to suggest to you today, that unless we have a tolerant attitude toward mistakes - I might almost say "a positive attitude toward them" - we shall be behaving irrationally, unscientifically, and unsuccessfully. Now, of course, if you now say to me, "Look here, you weird Limey, are you seriously advocating relaunching the Edsel?" I will reply, "No." There are mistakes - and mistakes. There are true, copper-bottom mistakes like spelling the word "rabbit" with three Ms; wearing e black bra under a white shirt; or, to take a more masculine example, starting a land war in Asia. These are the kind of mistakes described by Mr. David Letterman as Brushes With Stupidity, because they have no reasonable chance of success. John Cleese

 

Reading all these truisms, witty remarks and opinions about mistakes one cannot but feel good: the general attitude towards mistakes seems to be a positive one.
However, an important part of the drama is missing here: none of the witty thoughts or one-liners shows any concern for the sacrifice and sorrow that our mistakes may cause to others. It looks as if we were the only ones to suffer or to learn from the consequences of our mistakes: Regrettably it is not so.
Even if it seems that mistakes are a very common occurrence, they are not the subject of any training. The whole awesome monument of knowledge and education has the grand goal of avoiding mistakes by teaching how to do the right things, but no theoretical information is supplied about the very conceptual texture of mistakes. What are they made of, where do they come from, how do they happen? One would think that the best way to avoid something is to have a good knowledge of it.
Anyway, after having received our positive education and training we go into the real world and start from scratch "learning by our own mistakes". But still we know nothing about them, their "structure", their conceptual form, their environment and habitat, the recurring dynamics of their occurrence, their intimate relationship with our way of thinking and with our "culture". It is only later in life that we start thinking: Why did I do that?
I will make an attempt to fill this gap with an exploratory note. The matter is certainly worth an in depth treatise, but this is just a cursory perusal that I hope will induce further thinking by interested parties.
A preliminary check from the dictionary is always useful:
Mistake: a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgement, misunderstanding of the meaning or of the implication of something;
A wrong choice derived from ignorance or from faulty information, a deviation from a coded practice or from accepted behavioural paradigm.
I am not happy at all with these definitions: the idea that a mistake is necessarily and immediately "wrong" is arguable and the idea that it is due to "faulty information" or "misunderstanding" is also an unacceptable limit in a general definition.
Moreover to introduce the concept of "wrong" is extremely dangerous given the moralistic ambiguity of it. What is "wrong" and what is "right" is matter for another debate. Wrong compared to what? And right compare to what? For whom? Even utilitarian ethics may find it hard to negotiate this area, under a rigorous "darwinist" assumption. I will simply dismiss the problem with a warning against any "teleological" interpretation of whatever. The whole process (whichever process) has no "goal" it’s not finalised to anytihing specific. The presumption of a "goal" is the entrance to a world of obscurity.
There can be mistakes made on perfectly correct information or competent assumptions: there are always many options supported by the same solid evidence and exact information.
I would define mistakes in a different way:
The decision or the choice to do something or to proceed in some way that "later" turns out not to be the best thing to do or the best way to proceed in the given circumstance.
By this definition of mine the mistake is actually a mistake only when you can see or prove that a different decision or choice would have been better. Lacking such proof there is no mistake.
When a decision is made it is usually justifiable or understandable: it becomes a mistake only afterwards and only if a better alternative can be shown to have been available in the same circumstance. It can be years or just seconds after the decision is made. You may have the sudden vision of the mistake you are maing in the same moment in which you pull the trigger and shoot, or you may be lucky enough never to know. Again there is a problem hidden in the term "better": define "better!…
It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time…
If mistakes were the outcome of "wrong or faulty information" "mistakeology" would be an easy science: faulty information? OK mistake! Game over, end of story.
Unfortunately mistakes are made even when we have the competence and the right information. Which makes the matter more complicated and more challenging.
Decisions are usually made on the assessment of the alternatives: I would say that decisions made on a 99 to 1 chance are not difficult, but the real world is very seldom like that. Your options come usually at a rate of 48/52, 49/51. To put it bluntly it does not take a rocket scientist to chose between muck and honey. Unfortunately though mucky honey, or muck with some amount of honey are the common occurrence.
There must be a generating "matrix" of mistakes that is more subtle and more suggestive than ignorance or faulty information. Or, better, let us say that mistakes generated by ignorance or faulty information are not interesting: they can be detected easily and responsibilities may be easily identified. I think that the true "matrix" is a cultural paradigm: A code that is rooted in our culture or in the values that drive our behavioural pattern in an implicit, subliminal, unconscious way.
If my assumption is true our mistakes are "typical" of our personality/character. This also means that we always make the "same" mistake or that our mistakes are always of a similar "genre".
It could be a useful process of cultural hygiene to list our mistakes (we are the only ones who know them) and find their generating "matrix", or the general set of "values" that induce them. Which does not mean that we will be able to prevent them and avoid them. It only means that we may be able to identify the specific situations and behave with more caution while negotiating through them.
Dammit: I have done it again!
Elements of "generating matrixes".
Gender, race, nationality, language, education, profession, physical appearance & condition, political beliefs, social status, hierarchical level, income, greed, compassion, ethical values, religion, wealth, age, Zodiac sign, environmental background & context, health, panic, fear, serendipity …… For the same individual these "elements" may play a different role in different moments of life or in different circumstances, but the general "pattern" of the matrix over the years will have a specific individual identity.
It’s like the weather: the set of elements is the same: temperature, radiation, relative humidity, wind velocity, barometric pressure…but for a given place the "pattern" of their combination yields a specific climatic identity. It will never snow in Scarborough and the chances of having a fresh South-Westerly wind setting in at 11.30 are pretty high every day, in the summer.

 

Note added on June 6th, 2008
Some of the ideas sketched in this essay, and a lot more, have been widely developed and dealt with by Marc Gerstein in his book:

“Flirting with disaster: why accidents are rarely accidental”
Union Square Press, London, 2008.

I particularly agree with the assumption that “accidents” happen because of mistakes which are deeply rooted in the “culture” of the person or organization responsible for them.

So if we want to reduce the chance of accidents happening we have to closely study and control the "culture" where they breed.