Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most

Steven Johnson is an American journalist and writer specialising in science, technology and culture. His ninth book, Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, is an entertaining popular exploration of how to make better long-term decisions.

The book is constructed around analysis of various complex situations that required long-term thinking: these examples include urban development in New York City, George Washington and the Battle of Brooklyn, and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. But Johnson also emphasises the need for better decision making in our personal lives, brought out through examples from his own life and that of Charles Darwin. The underlying argument is the need for full-spectrum decision making, encompassing a diverse range of views and multiple approaches. Among the techniques given brief consideration are mental maps, forecasting, Red Teams and pre-mortems, simulations and wargames (the reason for my initial professional interest in the book).

The short, eight page section of the book dealing specifically with wargames contains little to surprise anyone familiar with the form: beginning with von Reisswitz, it traces the development of wargaming through the US Navy’s Fleet Problems in the 1930s, and the work of Thomas Schelling, Herman Kahn and others at RAND1. Johnson correctly acknowledges the potential application of games outside a military context, but beyond an example of a geopolitical game proposed by Buckminster Fuller, and a tantalising and unsourced reference to Robert Kennedy exploring a game on the civil rights movement2, does not give any examples or information on wargames in business, educational or other settings. Nor is there an example of a game newer than the 1960s.

The content and conclusion to the games section reflects the general audience of Johnson’s book and his focus on individual as well as organisational decision making:

“There does seem to be genuine merit in using games to trigger new ideas and explore the possibility space of a particularly challenging decision. It seems harder to imagine applying the gameplay approach to one’s personal decisions… But almost every decision can be productively rehearsed with another, even more ancient form of escapism: storytelling”3

This view leads into a longer discussion of narrative-based techniques, including Scenario Planning and the role of fiction. Johnson’s argument that science fiction is a valuable technique for envisioning futures is not surprising and has been explored elsewhere (e.g. Peper, 2017 and Johnson, 2011)4. More so was his focus on literary fiction as a way of getting inside a character’s head and exploring their decisions: the book ends with an extended reflection on Eliot’s Middlemarch from the perspectives of protagonist and author. Whether one agrees with Johnson’s conclusion that “More than any other creative form, novels give us an opportunity to simulate and rehearse the hard choices of life”5 is a subjective matter.

The combination of a polymathic author and a short book aimed at a general audience means that it is inevitably, but sometimes frustratingly, short on detail. In particular, the wargames section does not contain enough to recommend it to someone primarily interested in that subject, and the book does not adequately consider how techniques can be used in combination: for example using narratives and scenarios to define potential futures, and then wargames and simulations to explore strategy and actions within those contexts (e.g. Schwarz et al, 2019)6. However, these shortcomings are from the point of view of a specialist reader. As a short overview of decision-making the book is entertaining and the breadth of examples and sources is such that most readers will find something informative.

  1. Farsighted, pp.104-111 

  2. Farsighted, p.110 

  3. Farsighted, p.111 

  4. Eliot Peper, Why Business Readers Need to Read More Science Fiction, Harvard Business Review, 2017; Brian David Johnson, Science Fiction for Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction, San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool, 2011 

  5. Farsighted, p.211 

  6. Jan Oliver Schwarz, Cornelia Ram & René Rohrbeck, Combining Scenario Planning and Business Wargaming to Better Anticipate Future Competitive Dynamics, Futures, 105, pp.133-142, 2019 

Written on March 7, 2019