Steven Johnson's new book about decision-making is, true to its title, farsighted—providing a set of tools and techniques that can help lead to better choices for our individual lives, and the future of life on Earth.
Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 256 pages, Hardcover, September 2018, ISBN 9781594488214
In addition to being one of the great storytellers working in nonfiction today, Steven Johnson is intellectually ambitious. That has been apparent in his previous books, largely concerned with the history of science and innovation. But his new book, Farsighted, is of a slightly different breed. It is more about the future than the past, concerned more about how we make deliberative, long-term decisions that leave life on Earth to a better place than, well, How We Got to Now. It is predicated on one of the most memorable quotes in literature, Prince Andrei’s question to the generals in Tolstoy’s War and Peace about the supposed science of war they believed they’d mastered: “What theory or science is possible where the conditions and circumstances are unknown, and the active forces cannot be ascertained?”
One might argue that the circumstances of our own existence being unknown, the fact that the active forces upon it are largely unable to be ascertained, is the very reason theory and science exist in the first place. But Steven Johnson isn’t going to bother you with such an immediate, simple, smart-aleck response—which we can all be grateful for. “Tolstoy intended the question to be a rhetorical one,” Johnson writes, “but you can think of this book as an attempt to give it a proper answer.”
The book can be read, in part (though it's about so much more), as the tale of three New York City parks—the High Line, Collect Pond Park, and Meadow Lake—one recently built, one that was never built, and one lately improved. The High Line illustrates the power of encompassing diverse perspectives and novel alternatives, Meadow Lake the power of an entirely new way of thinking, but more on those later. Johnson begins the book with the story of Collect Pond, which was once Manhattan’s primary source of fresh water, the island being surrounded as it is by two rivers that are, in reality, “tidal estuaries, with extremely low concentrations of fresh water.” Collect Pond sat at the foot of an “imposing bluff—sometimes called Bayard’s Mount, sometimes Bunker Hill.” Regardless of what it was once called, the hill, once the tallest in lower Manhattan, is now gone—flattened in the early 1800s and used to fill the pond at its base. A more detailed history of that decision and of the neighborhood built on top of it, which I’ll leave you to discover in Johnson’s delightful prose, is fascinatingly entertaining. Sufficient for our purposes here is the knowledge that the pond became so polluted by commercial development and dumping around it that—though some citizens suggested it be turned into a public park designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the designer of Washington, DC—the city decided to fill it in and build on top of it. In comparison to the fouled, early 1800s version of the pond…
Today, the land … hosts a more wholesome, but not exactly lively, collection of government buildings and quotidian office buildings office towers. But imagine a lower Manhattan that harbored a green Oasis, perhaps the size of Boston Common, featuring a picturesque pond bordered by a rocky bluff that rivaled the heights of the man-made structures around it.
“If L’Enfant’s plan had been put in place,” Johnson argues, “it’s entirely likely that Collect Pond Park would today stand as one of the great urban idylls in the world.” As we know from other urban green spaces and “urban idylls,” the quality of life and commercial value of the neighborhood around it would also now be significantly greater had the plan for a park won out. It is a classic example of a shortsighted decision.
The L’Enfant plan collapsed not because the citizens didn’t want to see their pond preserved, but because a handful of speculators were fantastically shortsighted about the future growth of Manhattan.
Luckily, as Johnson points out, we have much better tools to make such a decision today. Unfortunately, they are not the usual fodder for books on decision-making, which tend to focus more on the work of behavioral and social psychologists, whose experiments—while informative and helpful in uncovering hidden bias and unhelpful heuristics—focus more on snap judgments rather than the kind of deliberative, long-term decisions we have to make about our future, whether it’s the future of our family or business, of our community, country, or planet. And those decisions, argues Johnson, require an entirely different way of thinking than that demonstrated in popular books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.
What a “decider” … needs in those circumstances is not a talent for decision-making. Instead, what he or she needs is a routine or a practice—a specific set of of steps for confronting the problem, exploring its unique properties, weighing the options.
The High Line highlights the importance of having a diversity of options and a diversity of people—of bringing in outsiders—in the decision-making process. Urban planners and the business owners around the abandoned train line saw it as an eyesore, much like Collect Pond. It was, in fact, those local business owners that “sued the line’s owner, Conrail, to have the viaduct removed.” For a half-decade, the only question anyone considered was who was responsible for its demolition—Conrail or the city. It was the more diverse population that lived around it, that had already explored it for various reasons, that were the first to perceive another possibility:
The first people to realize that the High Line might have a second act as a recreational space were not the establishment decision-makers of urban planning and local business groups. They were people living—and playing—at the margins of society: graffiti artists, trespassers looking for the thrill of partying in a forbidden space, urban adventurers seeking a different view of the city. In a very literal sense, those first High Line explorers occupied an extreme position in the debate over the High Line’s future, in that they were occupying a space above the above the streets that almost no one else had bothered to experience. They were extreme and marginal both in the sense of their social identities and lifestyle choices, and in the sense of where they were standing. And even when the idea for a park emerged among more traditional sources, it was not a city planner or business leader who first proposed it—it was instead a writer, a painter, and a photographer.
It is now one of the most celebrated urban parks constructed in the last quarter century.
We humans spend a lot of time thinking about our future, even as the unpredictability of complex systems—like life itself—makes it hard to predict it. But science has given us tools to make better determinations about what lies ahead. Randomized controlled trials, first introduced in their current form in 1948, give us a way to gauge the efficacy of medical treatments, for example. It’s now unthinkable that we would resort to treatments like arsenic, mercury, and leaching—so common just a few generations ago. And it wasn’t long ago that the idea of predicting the weather was itself unthinkable.
When a member of Parliament suggested in 1854 that it might be scientifically possible to predict London’s weather twenty-four hours in advance he was greeted with howls of laughter.
Now, we plan our days and weeks according to the weather reports we find on the personal computers we carry with us in our pockets. These are not perfect tools, but they allow us to forecast with more accuracy what is likely to occur in complex systems like the human body and the Earth’s atmosphere. The pertinent point here:
We have strategies and technologies that extend our view into the future. The question is, can we apply those tools to other kinds of decisions?
The example he seeds in the beginning, and keeps coming back to throughout the book with more drops of detail and insight until a full picture of the decision grows into view, is the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. There have been numerous books and movies produced about the operation itself, but little about the decision making process that led to it—which Johnson argues is the one thing we can actually apply to our own lives. After all, most of us aren’t ever going to embark on such a mission, where we’ll have to make snap judgments in hostile terrain, but we all have to make decisions in a complex, often uncertain world.
He explains how President Obama pushed for a wider set of options than he was originally given, the various simulations they built, from a tabletop scale model of bin Laden’s compound to “a real-life structure built to the exact dimensions of the Abbottabad building and grounds” at Fort Bragg, and then running a similar simulation at a base in Nevada (without the full scale model) to mimic how the blackhawk helicopters would perform at an altitude similar to that in which they’d actually be operating. All of that and more is just the work that occurred before the president even made his decision.
In the months and years that followed the raid, most of the coverage focused on those perilous moments in Pakistan, and the courage and quick thinking of the men who brought bin Laden to justice. But behind the scenes, the Obama administration was not just running simulations of the raid itself. They were also exploring the long-term scenarios—the downstream effects of each option on the table.
So they had to consider what would happen if they destroyed the compound entirely with a B-52 bombing raid or drone strike, whether to capture or kill bin Laden, bring him to trial or bury him at sea. They had to consider what would happen to relations with Pakistan, whose air space the U.S. would be invading to conduct the raid, and whether they should try to partner with that country to carry it out.
What that example and others in the book attest to is that rather than leading with our gut, it is important to “escape your initial gut reactions,” to “keep our mind open to new possibilities—starting with the possibility that our instinctive response to a situation is quite likely the wrong one.” Most of the initial reaction to the intelligence on the compound, when they weren’t sure who lived there but were simply alerted to its presence by the unusual amount of security around it, was that there was little likelihood bin Laden would be hiding out in a well-populated city less than a mile away from the Pakistan Military Academy. It was a long, deliberative process that led them to believe it was, in fact, bin Laden living there, and that led to the decision for a night raid by Navy Seals. “That process,” Johnson asserts, “mattered every bit as much as the actual execution of the raid.”
But the process tends to get lost in the pubic memory of the event, because the heroism and the spectacular violence of a moonlit raid naturally overwhelm the subtleties of the months and months spent probing the decisions itself. We should want our leaders—in government, in civic life, in corporate boardrooms, on planning commissions—to show the same willingness to slow down the decision, approach it from multiple angles, and challenge their instincts. If we are going to learn from triumphs like the Abbottabad raid, the raid itself is less important than the decision process that made it possible.
That sentiment goes against the grain of so much management thinking today, which stresses the need for speed and quick action. But, in a world that is revving up and getting more complex, perhaps the proper thing to do is to slow down, to take a moment to assess it all, maybe even read a book to help gain new knowledge and perspective. I’d suggest Steven Johnson’s Farsighted would be a great choice—the way he ties history together (like the trajectory from the moral philosophy of Jeremy Bentham to how Google’s self-driving car makes its calculations) is insightful, informative, and entertaining—but Johnson has other ideas for you (which I’ll come to in a moment).
But, beyond slowing down (and reading), there are a number of decision-making tools Johnson discusses. Scenario planning, red-teaming, premortoms (in which you imagine a plan has already failed, and you have to explain what you think went wrong), regulatory impact analysis, linear value modeling, and the Drake equation are all explained. He also describes land use and environmental impact studies, viewed in some circles as impeding progress, as the very definition of progress. They are all examples of the kind of deliberate decision-making and long term thinking that we need right now. The future, simply put, is uncertain.
What scenario planning—and simulations in general—offer us is a way of rehearsing for that uncertainty. That doesn’t always give you a definite path, but it does prepare you for the many ways that the future might unexpectedly veer from its current trajectory.
The largest lake in New York City is Meadow Lake. It had, in recent years, formed algae blooms during warmer months, “depleting oxygen levels and posing health risks to both fish and humans interacting with the water.” City and state agencies reacted by studying the problem, finding the underlying cause (runoff of the phosphate added to the water supply to reduce lead levels was effectively fertilizing the algae bloom), and restored the lake by adding wetlands on the Eastern shore that naturally filter out the phosphates before they reach they reach the lake. And this, despite the damage we’ve always done and are doing to the environment around us, represents something new.
People have been burying the pond since the Stone Age gave them tools to dig to dig with. But contemplating the impacts of nitrogen runoff on an algae bloom and how that bloom might starve the fish of oxygen—that is a new way of thinking.
Pulling it back out to the global choices we are making, Johnson offers this assessment:
So far, the Paris Agreement story is really the story of two distinct decisions: 198 nations signing the accord itself, and one temperamental leader promising to withdraw in a huff. Approached from the long view, which one looks more impressive? We’ve had impetuous leaders since the birth of agriculture; truly global accords with real consequences for everyday life are a new concoction.
Johnson also discusses some other decisions of global importance that we are currently making that sound like the realm of science fiction, like whether we should be trying to contact alien civilizations or attempting to "cure" death, but it is a different genre he comes back to in the end—the novel. The last chapter, on personal choice, is essentially a 34-page rumination on the nature of decisions as seen through George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It is about the power of the arts and fictional narrative, and why reading novels, in particular, enhances our decision-making skills. “Cinema and photography can take you to other worlds with more fidelity; music can excite our bodies and our emotions,” Johnson writes. “But no form rivals the novel’s ability to project us into the interior landscape of other minds.”
The epilogue, in which Johnson discusses his desire to see decision-making added to the educational pedagogy as a “multidisciplinary sweep” that bridges the humanities and sciences while offering students real-world techniques they can apply to the own lives and careers—and potentially, to the problems we face in the world—is a great call to action. It would be a course that could use Farsighted as a guide.