Wild Cards: The Nature of Big Future Surprises

March 7, 2001 by John Petersen

In the coming years, the world could experience a series of massively transformative events, or “wild cards,” brought on by radical developments in areas such as AI and nanotechnology. Futurist John Petersen suggests strategies for dealing with them proactively.

Adapted from the book Out of the Blue: How to Anticipate Big Future Surprises, published January 2000. Published on KurzweilAI.net March 7, 2001.

“We are not made wise by recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”–George Bernard Shaw

Wild Cards are low-probability, extremely high-impact events that are social and technological developments or natural phenomena sharing four characteristics. Wild Cards are:

  • global in scope and directly effect the human condition;
  • potentially disruptive (negatively and/or positively);
  • intrinsically beyond the control of any single institution, group or individual; and
  • rapidly moving.

The unprecedented change occurring in almost every sector of life presents the significant likelihood that in the nearing years, the world could experience a series of massively transformative events–some of which will seemingly come out of the blue. At The Arlington Institute, we call such titanic-size surprises Wild Cards.

Conventional wisdom would say that Wild Cards are nearly impossible to anticipate. There are small surprises, both positive and negative that spring up in our daily lives–accidents, good fortune and personal revelations. And while those events can have tremendous personal significance, they don’t ripple out to the national or global stage. And then there are trends: continuously building patterns that wind their way through society, the environment and the economy. The nature of trends makes them relatively easier to monitor and predict.

To someone who is trying to make sense of what might be on the horizon, the broad sweeping surprises, Wild Cards, could have the most meaning.

Different people define big surprises in different ways, but we suggest that Wild Cards are low-probability, high-impact events that happen very quickly. Like a major hurricane devastating a town in a single day, the chance of these Wild Cards happening is very small indeed. However, if they do show up, they have huge, monumental consequences.

There are other large scale events–like world wars–that clearly have had global effects, but they are not entirely unanticipated–at least not by the aggressor. Wild Cards generally surprise everyone, in part because they materialize so quickly; so quickly that the underlying social systems cannot effectively respond to them.

Wild Cards strike fast, they aren’t what are usually called “unintended consequences.” Large numbers of women moving into the workforce in the 1950s was a major, unexpected surprise that had great impact on families and economies. But it came gradually enough for the social systems to reconfigure to the changes. Wild Cards, on the other hand, force the limits of human capabilities abruptly. Because they approach so quickly and reach so far, there is not a predetermined mechanism in place to effectively deal with the ensuing changes.

Human systems do not easily cope with rapid change. Dictatorships, theoretically the most efficient form of government, produce economies and social structures that, in this day and age, do not have the technological and educational underpinnings to move briskly and intelligently. Alternatively, democratic forms of government can be unruly and unwieldy institutions. Swift solutions get caught in the mire of bureaucracy and the customary search for consensus.

There is a general assumption that surprises are, well, surprises, and that there is nothing we can do about them. Perhaps that has been the case in the past, but we are entering an era where the scale of potentially transformative events is greater than ever–and therefore, they demand greater attention.

All That Came Before

The historical implications of past trends and Wild Cards have produced a human system that responds relatively well when events come at predictable rates. Trends and crosscutting effects have always been with us–we have generally learned how to adapt to them. We have a problem, though, when big surprises start to roll in.

In the past century there haven’t been many Wild Cards. The crash of the stock market in 1929 followed by the Great Depression was probably the last unanticipated, fast-moving event that rocked the world in a significant way. If the threat of a nuclear war had been realized, then that certainly would have qualified as a Wild Card event. Our current planetary environmental crisis could easily produce a variety of Wild Cards, but right now most people perceive it as gradual and regular in its development. We are now exiting the 500-year-long age of enlightenment and industry, transiting into the information era and accelerating toward a new world on the horizon that promises to be quite different from even the recent past.

We can get a sense of what is happening at the present time by examining how our actual understanding of human life has developed and progressed to this point. As each succeeding age of development has evolved, a regular relationship has emerged: each new era is about one-tenth of the length of its predecessor. Starting with single-celled life, moving to multiple-celled organisms and step-by-step through mammals, early man, and finally the age of enlightenment and industry, it seems as if time is accelerating. In fact, it is only the amount of knowledge that is exploding, lifting each succeeding period of time to a new, much more complex version of reality in shorter amounts of time.

It is very valuable indeed to understand the dynamics of this change. There are long periods defined by one fundamental level of development (vertebrates, early man, etc.) that are rather suddenly displaced by the insertion of a radically new level of complexity, which in turn becomes the basis for the new era. In systems this is called punctuated equilibrium: periods of relative equilibrium punctuated by major changes to a higher level of development. The length of these periods of equilibrium are getting shorter and shorter while the jumps to new levels of knowledge are growing higher at an exponential rate.

The transition from one era to another is, in relative time terms, abrupt and discontinuous. Something new happens that is so different from the past that it redefines reality in a period of time that in historical terms is quite brief. During one of the last major transitions, humanity moved from the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, to the age of Enlightenment, and into the Industrial Age over an evolutionary period of about 300, made possible mostly by a simple, elegant invention: the printing press.

The saturation of the world by broadcast electronics happened much faster, and of course computers and the Internet have spread across the planet in less than two decades–the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of history.

We are now living in another period of significant transition–a foreshortened span of time, during which our surroundings and experiences will change more than during any era in history. Humanity has never lived through the convergence–and, in some cases, the collision–of global forces of such magnitude and diversity. Because they are so great and move so fast we have extraordinary difficulty with systematically considering what might happen and what the implications could be. One foreseeable outcome might be global instability; another, a planetary renaissance. In any case, during the next two decades, almost every aspect of life will be fundamentally reshaped.

Wild Cards worth considering…

Energy Revolution: clean, cheap and unlimited energy for the world A breakthrough in leading-edge science spawns the rapid emergence of new technologies that provide inexhaustible, inexpensive and non-polluting sources of energy.

Global Epidemic: the death toll soars An epidemic rages the planet decimating a major part of the population.

Rapid Africa Transition The African continent is in a make-or-break situation: poised for rapid transition, either via poverty and famine into anarchy and unrest, or via transformative solutions toward open and democratic institutions, economic well being and a leading role in world affairs.

There are several trends and scientific endeavors that could trigger a Wild Card event…

Water Scarcity: The increasing scarcity of potable water leads to the escalation of regional tension manifested either in military or economic turmoil.

Artificial Intelligence: The gap between humans and machines narrows, as computers, robots, and other technologies increasingly possess attributes of sentient beings.

Nanotechnology: “Engines of creation” that allow manipulation of matter at the molecular level become practical and widespread, marking a revolution in manufacturing, medicine, weaponry, and virtually every other human endeavor.

Contact: Irrefutable evidence of extraterrestrial and/or extraspatial life is discovered. Contact with a Non-Human Intelligence–either benign or hostile, is made.

How To Anticipate Big Future Surprises

“Everything should be made simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

The Character of Wild Cards

What are Wild Cards like? How do they behave? If we can begin to describe the characteristics of Wild Cards we are on our way to understanding how we might be able to effectively deal with them. Big surprises have a number of common attributes.

Wild Cards are complicated. Systems dynamics and the science of complexity are the best tools we have for understanding the behavior of “complex adaptive systems,” the term used to describe things like economies, ecosystems, societies, or even teenagers. All of us are complex systems of many interconnected nodes that behave in nonlinear ways. That is to say, after a certain level of complexity is reached, a rain forest, the human body, or a weather system does not exhibit linear, logical, predictable behavior. The unpredictable interaction between and among all of the parts and particles in the system guarantees that a small, seemingly insignificant occurrence in one place can start a chain reaction that results in huge shifts for the entire network, as illustrated in the now famous theory of the “Butterfly Effect.” A butterfly in Brazil flaps its wings, and starts a chain reaction of millions of gradually growing weather events that ultimately results in a Caribbean hurricane.

Wild Cards are punctuations in the systems. They disrupt the equilibrium. They cause major, rapid change. And sometimes, they are the result of a series of events that, in and of themselves have not produced any noticeable change–but suddenly, boom! A Wild Card emerges out of the blue.

Complex systems adapt in sometimes surprising new ways to their context. As the environment changes, the system adjusts to most effectively react to the new situation, often suddenly shifting to a new configuration exhibiting a behavior called punctuated equilibrium. Essentially, the system assimilates energy or other inputs over time, not making any gross changes (equilibrium), until rather suddenly it rapidly (punctuated) reconfigures to a new shape, form, or function. If you drop grains of sand one-by-one onto a pile, the overall shape will slowly change, but the change will be evolutionary. Suddenly, the addition of a single grain will cause the previously stable pyramid of sand to break and collapse, taking an entirely new shape.

This “predictable unpredictability” can be seen in every major era of history of life on Earth. It maintained its general configuration for a given period of time, and then rapidly shifted to a new epoch centered on a new defining characteristic. Complex systems behave like this: social systems, weather systems, political systems, and the global economy. The advent of the World Wide Web is a great example of punctuated equilibrium: out of the blue came a new technology that in five short years revolutionizes global communication and the fundamental structure of the world’s economic system.

Wild Cards can originate anywhere. In terms of their initiation, Wild Cards are neutral. They can be “acts of God” or human produced–or combinations of both.

Wild Cards can be driven by perception. At The Arlington Institute, our central interest is with human behavior, and this is where perception comes on par with reality. Particularly with social events, the big surprise can be precipitated by how people perceive the problem, not what actually comes from the problem. The discovery of an “Ebola-like” disease could be bad for Africa (or wherever it started), but the rapidly spreading news of a virus could have a more dramatic effect on people’s perceptions than from the actual threat of exposure to the disease.

Wild Cards can be both positive and negative. Although it may seem that most Wild Cards are negative, there are many that could be positive, such as an energy revolution that produces non-polluting electricity. If progress in genetic engineering continues, there will be a time within the next two decades when most major diseases, like cancer, could be curable–a very positive effect. Some Wild Cards contain both positive and negative potentiality. For instance, the collapse of the sperm count could be absolutely positive, in that it decreases population growth, thereby relieving human pressure on natural resources. However, the effects would be clearly negative if a specific portion of the population or race experiences a dramatic drop in fertility.

One Wild Card can set off more Wild Cards. Because there are so many systems within the huge system that makes up human activity, one big event can spark a chain of events that exponentially magnifies the impact of the initial Wild Card. An event that might be manageable in isolation can, in concert with other factors, create a cascading effect that is chaotic, unpredictable, and intrinsically out of control. The first event makes the second one more likely, and the snowball starts rolling. For example, a major environmental disaster could seed a global epidemic that results in quarantines of nations, leading to greatly reduced air travel, which in turn causes the collapse of the global airline industry. Each event builds on the other, creating unmanageable implications.

Unrelated Wild Cards can have synergistic effects. Timing is everything. Two or more unrelated Wild Cards might show up in close time proximity and even though one did not directly effect or precipitate the other, their net effect will be much greater than if they happened in isolation. Since by definition Wild Cards shake the underlying social systems, if the system has been upset by one big event, a second one would have a larger than usual impact because the social institutions are already greatly taxed. A great earthquake on the West Coast of the United States, followed closely by the explosion of a terrorist nuclear device in the U.S. would produce a heightened sense of chaos, as the nation fought fires on two fronts with a support system already damaged by the initial earthquake.

We are inventing the possibility of new Wild Cards. One thing that makes this era unique is the global information system that is rapidly being put in place–and this evolution has only just begun. As many as seven communication satellite “constellations,” each with hundreds of individual satellites, will be circling the earth soon after the turn of the century. This will make it possible to send and receive any kind of information from any location on the planet to any other. The result will be something very much like a planetary nervous system. It will make no difference whether you are in the Sahara Desert or the heart of Wall Street; with a small, inexpensive device, you’ll be in touch.

The increasing level of complexity–and dependency–introduces new kinds of human-oriented big surprises that did not exist before such as the failure of the Internet from a particularly virulent “worm” program or a deliberate attempt by an individual or group to destroy the workings of this global nervous system. The possibilities of this information revolution are not just negative but could also spell the ultimate end to institutions like authoritarian governments, as they lose the ability to control the information that is received by their citizens. Global information delivery systems will act as powerful enablers, carrying big ideas everywhere–thus making any globally significant event that much more acute.

Some Wild Cards are “too big to let happen.” The exponentially growing scientific and economic development of the human race is producing a new class of Wild Cards that threaten the very ability of the planet to support advanced life. In the past, big human surprises did little more than cause regional social or physical disruptions. Saddam Hussein’s torching of the Kuwaiti oil wells, or the defoliating of the Vietnamese jungles despoiled vast geographic areas but did not threaten the entire world. Great plagues of the past were limited to Europe or other areas, never reaching throughout the whole planet.

But now, with the advent of nuclear weapons, global industrial development that has geometrically increased environmental pollution, an unprecedented population explosion, and potential scientific discoveries that could result in the manipulation of life itself, the implications of human activity have taken on a new, potentially ominous scale. There are also externally initiated events, such as a comet or asteroid strike that have dire global implications

We believe that there are ways to get in front of some of these big changes and position ourselves to be proactive, rather than reactive. So again, we arrive at this unique historical period of time where thinking about big surprises in creative new ways becomes an imperative, not just an interesting, sideline.

Dealing with Wild Cards

“An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.”–Friedrich Engels

Something can indeed be done about Wild Cards, if we look at them as discontinuities that require unconventional thought and analysis processes. Discontinuities have been problematic from a mathematical point of view. The legendary mathematicians, Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, between them invented the brilliant mathematical tool we call calculus, which allows us to track things that gradually wax and wane, increase and decrease, without any sudden jumps and breaks.

This teaches us a great deal about “functions” that are continuous. But it leaves us at a loss to understand sudden breaks and discontinuities. It’s as though we can understand and do a reasonable job of predicting the ways the Stock Market will work–assuming there isn’t a “Black Tuesday” crash like the one in 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression. But the crash itself?–discontinuous and therefore impossible to predict.

Until, that is, the French mathematician Rene Thom devised a new form of calculus that he called “Catastrophe Theory”–a calculus of discontinuities–described in his 1975 book, Structural Stability and Morphogenesis. Thom’s work involves the visualization or computer simulation of some very complex higher-dimensional shapes, including such things as “periodic folds,” “pinching bifurcations,” and “saddle connection catastrophes.” It allows us to begin to understand the nature of sudden change with the same mathematical rigor that we presently employ to understand gradual change.

Discontinuities and surprises, then, like chaos and complexity, have an internal order to them. Nonlinear and “out of the box” thinking, systems thinking, creativity training, intuition, associative thinking, even dreamwork–these are all techniques for shaking up old assumptions and allowing new ideas to emerge.

When the best information is available, a new understanding of the potential problem is much more likely to suggest a new direction of action. This in turn will help defuse the Wild Card before it erupts–or it will give one a head start on adjusting to the big changes that a Wild Card may bring. There are occurrences and realities that our societies now handle routinely that, just a few years ago, would have been unmanageable surprises.

We can learn a great deal from thinking about these events. We figure out how they work, and we put in place the necessary means to ameliorate them. But it is important to understand that most of these answers and indicators will not be found in the usual places.

A systematic, open-minded approach to Wild Cards will revolve around at least three basic rules. The first and most fundamental rule is:

RULE I: If you don’t think about Wild Cards before they happen, all of the value in thinking about them is lost. If one accepts that there will be an increasing number of Wild Cards in the near future, then the only effective defense is to begin to systematically think about them now. The more that is known about a potential future event, the less threatening it becomes because the solutions become obvious.

In every case, no matter the potential Wild Card:

RULE II: Accessing and understanding information is key.Whether identifying early warning signs of a Wild Card, understanding its structure, or developing a response, a sophisticated, effective information gathering and analysis process is needed. This process requires input from experts in systems behavior, the Internet, and complexity theory and other “new sciences,” as well as from many traditional disciplines. Access to a robust network of resources is a must. Constant outreach through conferences, conventions, and other professional meetings provide links to other individuals and ideas that would otherwise escape one’s field of view.

Because we are moving into a new period where potential events outstrip our existing capabilities for understanding and dealing with them, it is also true that:

RULE III. Extraordinary events require extraordinary approaches. Some of these potential events look so big, strange, and scary because our typical methods of problem solving are incongruent with events of this magnitude and character. If we are to deal with them effectively before they occur, we will need a new mindset. We have to look at potential problems in a different light. Often, the most commonly used tools–political, economic, and military influence, to name a few–will not be equal to the task.

This era of global transition will result in the redesign of the fundamentals of human activity. People and organizations that look for ways to deal with unprecedented events will be better prepared to survive and prosper. To be part of that group, you must first unleash yourself from the past and be willing to take risks. You must objectively search for novel tools and perspectives.

Many of the solutions we seek will not come from conventional sources. Otherwise, they would already be obvious to us. New answers will come from unexpected places. They will originate from individuals who look at the world in novel ways and who see solutions where others do not. These people are not usually found in the mainstream.

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