Social events CAN be predicted

Social events don’t just “happen”; there is a structure and pattern to the unfolding of collective human social phenomena. As a mathematician, Professor John L. Casti  believes these patterns can be identified, understood, and used to give insight into what might happen next. The best sociometer to measure social moods which turn into social events are financial market averages.

John, you are mathematician. We perceive mathematics as a precise science –contrary to futures studies. However, is it true that you are convinced to be able to predict the future of human behaviour on a mathematical formula?

Mathematics is about recognition of patterns, be they in numbers, geometrical objects, abstract higher-dimensional spaces of whatever. So is historical analysis. And the record is clear on the point that events don’t just “happen”; there is a structure and pattern to the unfolding of collective human social phenomena. So as a mathematician, I believe these patterns can be identified, understood, and used to give insight into what might happen next.

Of course, this is not the kind of prediction you have in, say, celestial mechanics, where we can forecast with great precision where planetary objects will be located centuries in advance. Rather, it is more like weather forecasting, where almost any type of meteorological pattern might turn up in Lucerne tomorrow. But given the time of year, recent measurements on temperature, wind speed, humidity and so forth, some types of weather are simply much more likely to turn up than others. It is the same with historical processes. Under a particular set of circumstances, some types of activities and events are simply much more likely to unfold than others. Our job is to identify the various patterns that lead to different types of events, and to create a theory relating circumstances today with the most likely events tomorrow.

You will make us familiar with a new theory to do foresight. It is called Socionomics. What are the basic assumptions of Socionomics?

Socionomics is based upon the simple idea that the collective mood in a population or group today gives rise to certain types of collective social phenomena in the future. Now the particular type of collective events we will see–the type of music that will be popular, the outcome of an election, the outbreak of war, or the rise or fall of a civilization–unfold over radically different time scales. So exactly how and when the mood gets translated into visible events unfolds over very different periods of time. As a result, we need a kind of “sociometer” by which to measure this mood. As it turns out, a very good sociometer are the financial market averages, which happen to unfold in precisely the same pattern on all time scales from minutes to decades.

So if you want to understand what may turn up next in, say, popular culture, which is a very short timescale process, you would look at the pattern of change in market averages over, say, a few weeks to months and forecast what the mood is doing and the implications of the mood for what type of clothes will be in vogue or the sort of books that people will want to read. For longer-term events like the outcome of elections, that unfold over years, a chart of the market averages over this period of time would be more appropriate for looking into the most likely outcomes.

And what are its implication for the future of businesses?

It’s manifestly evident, I think, that the successful management of any type of business hinges critically upon being able to foresee that kind of world that the business will have to operate within over some appropriate timeframe, generally a few months to a few decades. Socionomics can help enormously in this regard by providing a kind of long-term “weather forecast” for whether the social climate will be cloudy or sunny in the period of interest.

Your latest book Destiny’s Design will be released in 2007. What kind of human events are predictable?

No type of human event is “predictable” with certainty, or even at the level of accuracy we associate with events in Newtonian physics. And I would view with grave suspicion anyone who claims to be able to do this on a systematic basis. But as I noted above, the patterns of collective human events can be forecast, and these forecasts can be used to weight your bets as to what is or is not likely to turn up next.

You will be keynote speaker at the 2nd European Futurists Conference Lucerne. It is scary to hear, that you predict the fall of globalisation. What will we learn from you?

This is a tricky question. I’m not at all sure what you will actually learn from my presentation. But what you will see is evidence in support of the idea that the process of what Thomas Friedman of The New York Times calls the “flattening” of the world, at least economically speaking, is in the early stages of decline. This idea of “globalization”, in which the world is seen as one gigantic marketplace is simply a passing phenomenon, which began around 1975 in Davos and is now moving offstage, just like all other long-term social phenomena. My claim is that the world of the relatively near-term future, say the next few years to a couple of decades, will see a growing trend toward fragmentation, not unification, toward xenophobia, not merging of cultures, toward economic decline, not growth. The collapse of the Doha round of trade talks, the dissatisfaction with the European Union, and the paranoia over terrorism in the western world are just some of the distant-early-warning signs of this process. The world of the next decade or so will be a very different world than the one people like Friedman advocate, and those governments and businesses that do not start now to anticipate this world will end up the losers in economic, political, and sociological worlds of the next twenty years.

John L. Casti received his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Southern California in 1970. He worked at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, CA, and served on the faculties of the University of Arizona, NYU and Princeton before becoming one of the first members of the research staff at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, Austria. In 1986, he left IIASA to take up a position as a Professor of Operations Research and System Theory at the Technical University of Vienna. Currently, he is a Fellow of the Wissenschaftzentrum Wien, as well as a Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, Austria.,

He was also a member of the External Faculty of the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, where he worked extensively on the application of biological metaphors to the mathematical modeling of problems in economics, finance and road-traffic networks, as well as on large-scale computer simulations for the study of such networks.

His keynote at the 2nd European Futurists Conference, Nov. 22, 2006:
The Rise and Fall of Globalisation: An Example of Socionomics in Action.


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