Appreciating life’s evanescence, exercising gratitude for each day, striving to live with meaning — these are all healthy accommodations to uncertainty. But they don’t solve the problem. Unless you are a self-sufficient monk or mystic sealed in a hermitage, your existence depends on other people going about their business as if they can see what’s coming: the farmer planting his crops, the merchant ordering next season’s inventory, the writer toiling away on the book you’ll read on vacation three years from now. And they depend on you doing the same.
In other words, although we can be sure about little — only death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin — our sanity and our success demand that we act with certainty. And the lubricant of this incongruity is our ability, as long as we’re still upright, to shift gears, reboot, start over, move on. Life is recalibration, adjustment, zigs and zags.
The digital revolution, thus far, has tended to take power from large institutions and organizations and transfer it to individuals. An example: A couple of years ago, I toured the factory in Dearborn, Mich., where Ford makes the most popular passenger vehicle in America, the F-150 pickup truck. In this same town a century earlier, Henry Ford churned out the Model T, famously declaring that buyers could choose any color as long as it was black. Now, thanks to technology, no two trucks in the vast factory appeared to be exactly alike. Buyers had the power to customize colors, interiors, wheels, lamps and power trains in tens of thousands of possible combinations. The factory’s computers brought the parts together in perfect sequence.
Another example was on display the other evening at my house. One daughter was streaming “Friends” episodes from the 1990s while another binged on “Game of Thrones” and the third may have been rerunning “Grey’s Anatomy.” We parents, meanwhile, were catching up on a missed season of “The Americans.” An awesome power once wielded in a few Manhattan skyscrapers to decide what the entire nation would watch has been atomized and distributed wherever there is broadband.
These two ideas yoked together — the rising power and the essential uncertainty of individual choice — show up in a remarkable little paper on the future of the global energy business published recently by the World Economic Forum. I say “little” only because it is so short; both the ambition and the ideas it contains are quite grand.
“Transformation of the Global Energy System” rightly observes that the industries forming the bedrock of the modern economy are changing more dramatically than at any time in the past 100-plus years. “An innovation tsunami has the potential to wash over the world’s energy systems. With it, disruption and transformation throughout the world economy could be as profound as the shocks of electricity and oil a century ago,” the authors state.
Now that’s really saying something, because electricity and the internal combustion engine arguably changed the world more, in a shorter time, than any other economic forces in history. But what makes the report so striking is that, having observed the accelerating disruption, the panel of experts responsible for the paper explicitly avoids predictions. Uncertainty is large and growing larger, they observe, around such basic questions as future demand for energy, the nature of tomorrow’s transportation and the role of large utilities in providing power.
“These unknowns are sobering,” the paper reports. “Pervasive uncertainty is making firms wary of deploying capital.” But underinvestment leads to booms and busts, creaky infrastructure and missed opportunities for a cleaner, more efficient future.
What’s true of the energy sector is true in politics, commerce, communications — indeed, in every aspect of our institutional, corporate and social future. We must find mechanisms to help large entities deal with uncertainty exactly as individuals do: by understanding that nothing is sure except change; that every Plan A will eventually need a Plan B, and Plan C, and so on for as long as the institution or industry or nation is still standing.
Waiting for certainty is no longer a luxury available to even the most powerful agencies. Instead, the future will belong to those who act wisely but decisively in spite of imperfect knowledge. “Our doubts are traitors,” Shakespeare warned, “and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”
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