A time machine to the future? It's all in your head and could save your life.
Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything―Even Things that Seem Impossible Today
Jane McGonigal 2022
Let's face it- we're terrible at predicting the future. We're even worse at dealing with unexpected changes in the present. If there's anything that we learned about the Coronavirus epidemic it's that American society doesn't do well with surprises and out-of-the-ordinary events. Most of us like to think that in the future, things will be pretty much like they've past, only a bit faster and shinier (or hotter and deadlier if you're a pessimist). Predicting the future is, of course, impossible, but preparing for the future is essential. So the best we can do is to look for trends and be open-minded enough that we're willing to change course when necessary.
Imaginable is a new book by Jane McGonigal that tries to show us how to think like a futurist and not get left behind as time rushes onward. McGonigal is a game designer and author who has penned two popular books about how to use game theory to improve your life- Superbetter and Reality is Broken. A member of the Institute for the Future, she has lately been using her game designs to help come up with future scenarios that help those in the present think about how to prepare for likely future scenarios.
We are all victims of normalcy bias- the tendency to look away from approaching dangers and cling to normalcy and the past no matter what. It's why the first lifeboats of the Titanic were half empty. It's why so many refused to wear masks or get vaccinated during the most recent pandemic. And it's why we stubbornly refuse to confront the causes of the world's changing climate even as evidence piles up year after year. Most of us like predictability and security, and any threat to that becomes too hard to even think about, so we shut it down. And for those who dare to think the unthinkable, the tendency sometimes is to give up, and say there's nothing you can do about it, so why even try.
This book should be given to every CEO, politician and thought leader to open their minds to where we are all headed, which is kind of their job. The rest of us can benefit from this knowledge as well, because in a democracy, we supposedly have agency over how our institutions handle the crises of the future.
McGonigal goes through important concepts that she uses in constructing her futuristic scenarios, and then uses hypothetical future events to illustrate them. This book will open up your thinking and force you to confront things, so be prepared. This is not light reading and might change the way you see the world going forward.
Here are some of her key concepts:
1- Try to open up a ten year window into the future. Ten years is far enough away that many changes are likely, but not so far away as to be unthinkable. Most of us are lucky if we have one year plans, but looking at your ten year goals and desires is a real stretch and can pay off in the long run.
2- Use your mind's eye. What will the physical environment of the future look like? What will you be doing on a typical day? Who will you be interacting with? Forcing your brain to imagine the future is what the author calls Episodic Future Thinking (EFT), and by pre-experiencing things you can uncover emotions, learn things you didn't know, and discover opportunities that will lead you closer to your desired future.
3- Play with future scenarios. Change the times, places, and people and look for ideas of how things could evolve. Suspend disbelief and truly open your mind to different scenarios, using internet research or books about the future to fuel your ideas.
4- Don't be afraid to be ridiculous. Futurist Jim Dator said that "any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous." Challenge todays norms. Past assumptions don't always work in the future. No one predicted how central the internet would be today fifty years ago. The I-phone, streaming entertainment, and gluten free foods were unthinkable back then. There's no way to know what inventions and challenges the 21st century might provide, so a playful openness to the weird and new is essential.
5- Turn the world upside down. This is great advice for creativity in general. Take any statement that is assumed to be true today and state the opposite. For instance- change "the sky is blue" to "the sky is NOT blue". In the future, if geoengineering is used to combat climate change, scientists believe that the sky could change color to mostly white.
6- Look for clues about the future. What are trends that look likely to continue? What new things have popped up on your radar in the past few years? Drones are one thing that the author points to. They were unheard of not that long ago, and now they are expanding in usage everywhere. Network with others to get their sense of the trends. Read, listen, and strengthen your change radar to be aware of things before they become omnipresent.
7- Look at the big picture for the future forces that will change everybody's lives. This was my favorite part of the book. The World Economic Forum puts out a Global Risk Report every year detailing the biggest threats to society. Being global, it cuts through the usual BS that corporations and governments put out, and lays it all out there as threats that need to be dealt with. Here are some risks from the latest report that the author covers:
- Extremes in weather and climate change, including increasing needs for migration from affected areas.
- New and deadly infectious diseases
- Weapons of mass destruction (nukes)
- Increasing inequality and resulting social unrest and instability
- Cyberattacks and increasing dependence on digital technology
- Mental health deterioration
Mind you, this report can be depressing, but each discussion of each threat comes with reasonable steps to try to fix them. If you're curious- here's a link to the 2022 report.
8- Don't discount the good things that can happen in the near future! Obsessing over the threats and risks of the 21st century is a sure ticket to depression and paralysis. There are millions of people all over the globe working on solutions that will make our lives better, including:
- mRNA vaccines like the Covid vaccine.
- cheap solar and wind energy
- better social safety nets and guaranteed basic income
- bioprinting tech that can create replacement human organs
- living concrete from bacteria, gelatin and sand that can absorb CO2
- cultured meat that will be more ethical and carbon-friendly
- efforts to fight social isolation and mental illness
- free or low-cost learning for life
- anti-aging biotech
There are about 15 lengthy futuristic scenarios scattered through this book, and they are fascinating. Tick-born diseases make most of society allergic to meat. Geoengineers create a ten year winter globally to reset the climate. Asteroids become more common and threat levels become a part of life. Healthy fruits and vegetables are given out for free. The Internet goes down everywhere for one week. Paper dollars are replaced by digidollars. In each case she examines what might happen and how people would adapt, which is the entire point of future gaming scenarios.
In 2010, McGonigal debuted an online game called Evoke that challenged thousands of young people all over the world into a game that encouraged them to come up with creative solutions for solving hunger, poverty, climate change, and more. She also came up with a toolkit, Ethical OS, for tech workers to see the ethical issues that might result from their creations. At the age of 45, she has become a world leader in forward thinking, and I wish there were a lot more like her. Actually there is- Jane has a twin sister Kelly who is also a best-selling author of books on psychology and neuroscience, and the books of hers that I've read are equally inspiring.
At its core, this is a hopeful, optimistic book. It says that by taking more agency in creating a positive future for humanity, things don't necessarily need to turn out as bleak as many of us currently imagine. Our normalcy bias can be overcome, but it won't be easy. By expanding our brains and thinking about future scenarios as if they already happened, we open up ideas that will help us deal with the future as it comes and even before.
Here is McGonigal's most popular Ted talk on gaming, seen now by over 7 million people.