Futurism is a richly metaphorical body of thought. It has to be; much of what we talk about is on the verge of unimaginable, so we have to resort to metaphors for it to make any kind of sense. Not all of the metaphors we use are complex: It struck me recently that there are several common futurist metaphors that take a relatively simple animal shape: the Dragon; the Black Swan; and the Mule.
The Dragon is the one that most people will find familiar. There’s a popular myth that the phrase “Here Be Dragons” can be found on medieval or ancient maps as an indication of uncharted regions. That this myth is untrue is somewhat beside the point. These days, “here be dragons” is a broadly-understood metaphor for something both dangerous and uncertain. And it seems that the future is full of dragons, considering how frequently I’ve heard the term.
That said, it’s been my experience that most of the times a futurist uses “here be dragons,” it’s to indicate a topic area in a forecast that is uncertain and dangerous to even think about, at least for the client. There’s something about a particular issue that makes people within an organization steer clear, even if it’s a potentially important problem. So the dragon–as in “here be dragons”–is a sign of something we don’t know much about, but really should.
Of course, you won’t get very far as a Serious Business Foresight Strategist casually throwing around phrases like “here be dragons,” so our linguistic zoo also includes the “Black Swan,” a term popularized by the economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a 2007 book of the same name. Generally speaking, a Black Swan event is one that is outside of what we’d consider plausible, outside “our reasonable expectations,” yet is critically important when it happens. The term itself comes from the 16th century European belief that swans were only white, so a “black swan” indicated an impossibility; in the late 17th century, of course, Europeans found actual living black swans in Australia, and the meaning of the term flipped.
The problem with the Black Swan concept is that it’s highly subjective. After all, swans with black feathers were by no means unknown to Indigenous Australians. And many of the events Taleb offers as Black Swans (the emergence of the Internet, the fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11) may well have been outside of reasonable expectation for the general public, but they were identifiable for at least some of the people paying attention to those particular dynamics. In many ways, the actual Black Swan problem isn’t the difficulty in predicting the future, it’s the difficulty in deciding who to listen to. Every “black swan” is an “annoying bird digging up my garden” to somebody. The “black swan” is a sign of something that we don’t know much about, but probably could.
If you’ve read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, you know which Mule I’m talking about. If you haven’t, here’s a quick recap (and a spoiler for a set of novels published in the early 1950s): a brilliant “psychohistorian” named Hari Seldon–essentially a futurist with above-average math skills–successfully plots out a way for the dying galactic empire to get through a dark age much more quickly than it otherwise would. But after a couple of hundred years, Seldon’s predictions, which all along had been completely accurate, suddenly start going wrong. The reason? The emergence of a mutant able to control human minds, a mutant who called himself the Mule.
The Mule is more than a Black Swan event; his appearance is something that could not have been identified beforehand, because his existence is outside the realm of what had been considered possible. Nobody in the thousands of years of history of the galactic empire had ever developed psychic powers; there was no way for Hari Seldon to even imagine including something like him in his predictions.
Through diligent work, the heroes of the Foundation stories manage to get the future back on track, and that suggests the metaphorical role of the bestiary’s Mule. For futurists, the Mule is a sign of something that we don’t know much about, and really can’t–and will require us to redouble our efforts to get things going the right direction.
Here’s the thing: It’s easy to assume any surprise is a Mule. It’s much harder–ultimately more valuable–to recognize when you are looking in the wrong direction (a Black Swan) or refusing to open your eyes (a Dragon). The task for the futurist is to be able to tell these three animals apart. Good luck.