Filling in the Future [Version 0.0] [4000 words]: Methodology for filling in the immediate and long-term future, for personal and general strategy, rational coordination, and trust

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Content warning: This document briefly uses some vivid, obscene, “unprofessional” language in an example.

Status: Version 0.0. May not survive contact with reality. Also, rambling that requires perseverance. Could have better intros and outros in and between sections for context. Haven’t kept some promises made in the text. And much more.

Contents

  • Rationale and Overview
    • “for personal and general strategy”
    • “rational coordination and trust”
  • Key Building Blocks and Clearing Up Possible Misconceptions
  • Before You Start: Considerations for Coordinating Amongst Different Building Blocks
  • Block: Now (Starting Conditions)
  • Block: Otherwise
  • Blocks: Then and If
    • Motivation
    • Strategy
  • Block: Because
  • Iterating, Prioritization, and Uncertainty
  • Coordination and Trust
    • Conversational Norms
    • Perspectives and Meta-perspectives
    • Argumentation Burden
  • Conclusion

Rationale and Overview

“filling in the immediate and long-term future”

The basic idea in this document is to iterate on developing an explicit world model, a mega-concept that includes starting conditions, rules for how those conditions evolve over time, and snapshots of future conditions. I hope to address issues such as combinatorial explosion and uncertainty in the remainder of the document.

“for personal and general strategy”

A world model can include can include interventions, contingencies, opportunities, desired futures, undesired futures, unintended consequences, and much more. Such a model can be used to make strategic choices at a personal or group level to bring about desired world states. Below I will address how to incorporate these concepts into a world model. Additionally I will discuss the strategic concepts of equifinality and multifinality.

“rational coordination and trust”

Jointly building up and jointly understanding the same world model may greatly facilitate coordination between two or more agents. It’s also possible that doing so, under certain circumstances, in certain ways, might actually disrupt coordination.

Below I will address some pragmatics, emotional dynamics, and some mildly game theoretic aspects of coordination, which may or may not especially pertain to the joint construction of an explicit world model.

Key Building Blocks and Clearing Up Possible Misconceptions

The process of “filling in the future” involves working with five different main building blocks. You can summarize them like this: “Now, If, Then, Otherwise, Because.” First, I will briefly elucidate these building blocks and then describe how to work with them in much greater detail below.

  1. Now – This building block represents starting conditions. When iterating, as described in detail below, it can represent any snapshot of the state of the world.
  2. If – This building block represents interventions, opportunities, contingencies, etc. This is the building block in which things happen. Both actions by the strategic agent as well as other actors are grouped under the same building block. This will be discussed below.
  3. Then – This building block is the result of things that happen, how the world state has been changed by an If block.
  4. Otherwise – This building block is the result of what would have happened if the If block had not occurred.
  5. Because – This type of building block contains arguments. It is justification for the assertions made in other blocks as well as justification for links between blocks. “Because” blocks may be attached to or subsumed into the other blocks.

The reader may note one of the ontological assumptions made by these building blocks. First, the otherwise block seems to indicate that there is a “world that will happen” if certain events or interventions don’t occur. But, that “world that will happen” may contain all sorts of “events” or “interventions” that aren’t represented by if blocks. What’s going on, here?

First and foremost, the procedure described here is intended to be pragmatic. The brain/mind may more naturally simulate the world in some ways rather than others. The hope is that the explicit methodology described here will work effectively with how the mind actually simulates the world, and augment that, while compensating for its limitations. I’ve tried to design these procedures with a nod to both a) theories of causality (because of their elegance and concision) but also b) introspection into how my mind naturally, or not so naturally, is already working to fill in the future.

So, the “building blocks” are in fact each collections of overlapping (symbolic, nonsymbolic, cognitive, noncognitive) practices or orientations. Indeed, the building blocks are not intended to be “strongly typed” or even clearly semantically defined and bounded, though I’ll go into much more detail for each block. It’s also not intended that these building blocks necessarily be represented as discrete boxes in a flowchart or diagram, especially as “compression” (described below) comes into play.

It’s important to remember that what ultimately matters is the living, felt mental model that is cultivated and instantiated in the methodology users’ minds, and how well an explicit artifact supports that, whatever its form. Can the felt world model be fluently deployed, in real-time, for action and reasoning? Can the conceptual world model be communicated efficiently and clearly to others? And can the explicit artifact be used to inspect, modify, and refresh the conceptual world model in the users’ minds? This is what ultimately matters.

(And of course, does the world model accurately reflect reality or at least does its use make the desired future more likely to happen…)

Before You Start: Considerations for Coordinating Amongst Different Building Blocks

The next few sections will describe what you might put inside different blocks and things to do when you’re focused on a particular block. The order of the sections below isn’t necessarily the order in which you’ll work on different blocks. For example, you might start off with if blocks, listing off things to do, choices you could make, “shoulds,” etc. Additionally, you may rapidly switch between and amongst blocks as you’re working, and, if you’re working in prose, there may not be “blocks” as such at all, only mental moves that roughly correspond (or not) to each of the five blocks.

Block: Now (Starting Conditions)

This building block, or collection of building blocks, or prose, etc., etc., represents the current known state of the world. One might describe the way things are, what’s currently happening. Here one might describe what exists and the relationships between them. There may be complex ontological assertions both at the object level and the “rule” level. There may be considerable overlap between this block and corresponding because blocks, because there will be lots of assertions and possibly justifications for what currently is.

Additionally, there will could be plenty of overlap between now blocks and otherwise blocks, depending on what thinking and phrasing feels most natural to you. For example, the now block might contain beliefs and expectations you currently have about what’s going to happen “if you do nothing.” But, those beliefs and expectations could just as well be put into an otherwise block further to the right on your diagram or further down the page. That is, if you’re more interested in the state of the world as such, it may be better to offload those thoughts about the future all into an otherwise block, without explicitly calling them out as “beliefs about.”

The above paragraph was vague. The main point is that there is tremendous ontological freedom and flexibility in how you carve up and map the world. And those choices may very much matter in terms of efficiency (time spent and artifact compression) and effectiveness (what’s really going on and have you captured it). I recommend deeply feeling into the edges and flickers of your mind around the topic, really feeling for “what’s actually going on,” as well as spending time in dreamy reverie to see what your mind coughs up (and then catch it before it disappears!). And, of course, doing this will change your ontologies and beliefs, as you explicate and iterate and argue.

Block: Otherwise

This block is for “what’s going to happen if you do nothing,” or the world as it’s going to be if “this” isn’t “handled.” I explicitly called out this block as a block because this seems to be a very natural way the mind thinks. And the main clue that you have otherwise content is emotions. Emotions are felt because of shadows of possible futures. We feel the future in the present. And, often, we experience the emotion more explicitly and easily than the often implicit “future simulation content.” And, it’s easier for my brain to lie at me with words than emotions. The emotions are what I “really think” about what’s going to happen and why. Rather, the emotions are clues to what I “really think,” or that there is some “what I really think” waiting to be understood.

I’ll chop up emotions into two classes. (And I’m speaking very informally and semantically blurry, here. I’ll probably discuss some stuff below that aren’t emotions but tend to arise together with them.) First, there are the punctate emotions (thrills of excitement, dread, fear, etc.) and then, second, there are the global emotional states, sort of a pervasive feeling about, say, your life situation, that colors behavior and cognition for minutes, hours, days, or years.

Both kinds of feelings provide information about what you “really” think. Rather, sometimes your emotions are pattern-matching and they’re quite wrong. But, often, they grasp reality with breadth and precision that your analytical/verbal mind can’t (initially or ever) quite fully understand. When you analyze and symbolize you abstract, you leave stuff out. Regrettably, it’s true that the parts of the mind that trigger emotions are subject to priming, anchoring, and focusing biases (and all misconceptions from past, compartmentalized, and unreflected-upon experience). But, they also grasp intricacy and subtlety and shaded, presymbolic multiplicity and complexity that is in many ways “smarter” or more nuanced, more precise, or more correct, than any arguments the “intellectual mind” makes at those emotions.

Of course, listening and honoring and explicating and healing the implicit content behind those emotional signals is a process. I would assert that until your emotions stop distracting you or arguing with you, there is still additional highly relevant otherwise to be sussed out. And it may be highly counterintuitive, highly (intellectually) unexpected, out of left field, outside of all your current models of the world and how it works, etc., etc., etc. But, again, relevant, often in personally important ways, however seemingly tangential to the possibly “professional” problem at hand. (Put yourself into your world model!)

In any case, the otherwise block is for system one and system two beliefs about “what’s going to happen” in the case that “you or your team does nothing” or “does things in the way it’s always been done,” or, “follows the path of least resistance.”

Blocks: Then and If

The then block is typically for intended and unintended consequences. Intention can span many levels of abstraction or be part of a long chain, so there will can be considerable overlap between then blocks and if blocks. That is, “moving your hand” can also be “drawing a picture,” can also be “adding to my portfolio,” can also be “furthering my career.” That is, in a certain sense, “moving your hand” is “furthering your career.” This is framing or ontology, depending on how you look at it, but, in any case, you might find a lot of then block material also in if blocks and vice versa. And you’ll probably be working on both if blocks and then blocks simultaneously.

You may want to think about “coulds,” “shoulds,” wants, desires, hopes, dreams, longings, goals, and requests, as well as fears, worries, concerns, unintended consequences, worst case scenarios, everything in between, etc., etc. (And there may be multiple if and then blocks in long chains or trees of ends and means, etc.) Of course, we’re mixing together “is” and “ought” in these blocks.

(Thens can be “micro,” too: emotional changes, conversational turns. You can model the world at any relevant spatial, temporal, and conceptual scale.)

If blocks contain “doing” and “events” and whatever seems to fit: things that you can do or not do, as well as things that can happen to you or out in the world, and much more. It can be helpful to divide things up into a) interventions (that you can make; choices) as well b) opportunities (was that world can change that open up new options for you), and c) contingencies (bad stuff that can happen to mess up your plans).

(Again, ifs, opportunities, contingencies might better find themselves implicitly or explicitly folded into otherwise blocks, depending on what feels right and makes sense for grasping the situation.)

If blocks, depending on immediacy and abstraction level, can also be your todo lists, your “maybes,” your projects, etc. (Aspects of projects can also be represented as thens.) Just as with thens, an if might span a minute or span a year, depending on the collections of abstraction levels that you’re working at.

For contingencies and opportunities, it can sometimes be helpful to think in terms of “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” “unknown knowns,” and “unknown unknowns.”

Motivation

You know you’re on to something with your ifs and thens (and all the other blocks) when you’re already in motion, already acting in the world, before you even retrospectively realize it. Motivation and action are ideally effortless, spontaneous, and automatized. Deliberate choice and action aren’t necessarily a bad thing; that’s a lot of the time. But deliberate action can also be considered a mild warning sign. And “should but can’t get myself to” should be a sign that something has gone horribly wrong.

Just like with emotions–how emotions, often, are extremely stubborn in very smart ways–it’s quite similar with motivation. Motivation is, in some ways, a deeply sophisticated bullshit detector: if you don’t actually believe X will work (enough) or be worth it (enough), then often you’ll experience no (or at least less) motivation. And sensitive explication tools, just like with emotions, can yield critically important information about self and world.

I’m playing with the term “operational specificity.” There’s probably a better way to say it. But you want to help your brain really see the immediate levers with which to move the world. The brain ideally grasps it all, all at once, from start to finish, including the most immediate of actions. And, in that full grasping, believes it will succeed. And you know you’ve got that, or enough of it, or the beginnings of it, or at least the first steps on the path, when you’re already in motion.

(Delicate application of teeth-gritting willpower can be an ingredient, too, just not something to be consistently relied on. Better to use willpower to work on your system than in your system, usually.)

Strategy

If and then are of course also the realm of strategy. This is where concepts like proximal and terminal goals, ends and means, and equifinality and multifinality come in.

Equifinality is when multiple paths lead to the same goal. Multifinality is when a single “action” leads to multiple goals. Both can be strategic.

[Much more could go here!]

Block: Because

This type of block is for justification. It can be helpful to make a distinction between “is” and “ought” arguments. Typically, you’ll be presenting arguments for why something is a thing, why something is the way it is, why things are going to go a particular way, or why particular interventions are going to produce particular effects. Prioritization will generally be discussed below. But, it’s worth noting that arguments can be attempted about any aspect of the world model and can lead to massive updates and improvements to the world model. Furthermore, arguments are how you make the world model vivid, real, and true to anyone you’d like to communicate the world model to.

In because blocks, you might cite or develop meta-models or general models that apply to “conditions on the ground” in your specific world model. For example, you might find or formulate or justify principles, rules, heuristics, theories for which conditions (nows, ifs) in your world model can be “inputs,” and these meta-models and general models might be arguments for how to turn those inputs into outputs, as arguments for what might or will happen (thens, otherwises). This can lead to very useful compression if the same becauses can be applied in multiple places.

[Much more could go here!]

Iterating, Prioritization, and Uncertainty

Iterating is the actual act of working on your explicit world model, actually creating or doing the blocks above. You may want to think in these terms:

  1. Extending
  2. Recursing
  3. Pruning
  4. Compressing

You extend and recurse by adding or dividing up blocks as you see fit and possibly by asking, “What’s next?,” or “What happens in here?,” or “What happens just before or after this?”

Pruning typically happens when events happen in the world (which changes opportunities and relevancy) or during argumentation.

Compressing happens when you find patterns and regularity, and you’re able to parsimoniously express the same information using much less “ink.”

Critically, building out a world model of what will or could happen can lead to a combinatorial explosion, a branching tree of possibilities. You have to make choices about what to explicitly represent and how to spend your time. And, over time, how you make those choices will change as you learn better heuristics or the state of the world changes.

Additionally, the size and form of your world model can make it harder to use or update. It’s so, so important to focus on what matters, at the level of abstraction that matters, in the order that matters (because building the world model takes up real time in the real world). You might be messing with your world model a lot, or not, but the point is to effectively mess with the world. And if you have a huge, unwieldy flow chart or document (or collections of flow charts and documents), wrestling with that might or might be the best way to spend your time, depending on what you’re trying to do. Or maybe that’s exactly how you should be spending your time, or somewhere in between…

[Much more could go here!]

Coordination and Trust

Of course, working on a world model together, or sharing world models, may greatly enhance coordination and trust. It’s also possible that there could be weird, counterintuitive effects that could turn everyone into hated enemies or something. Testing required.

Here, I want to comment on a few issues.

Conversational Norms

It’s probably well worth considering how to facilitate particular conversational norms when working together on an explicit world model. This is especially important when the world model contains the people working on it!

It may be very helpful to attempt a norm where it’s ok and appreciated when everyone enumerates each other’s most heinous, evil-all-along, backstabby scenarios. People should of course do themselves, too.

Probably even more important is not the the “evil-all-along” cases, but what I call the “worst fear, insulting, bumbling oblivious stupidity as they sail off to do I-knew-it-all-along, aimless, idiotic things that waste time and/or ruin everything” cases.

I’ve been thinking about the best way to get these out there in an emotionally safe way. “I’m worried you’re dumb. I’m worried I’m dumb. I’m worried you’re worried I’m dumb…”

I’m thinking something like this:

“All possible worlds are fair game. I know this is hilarious and unlikely, but let’s pretend we each get a set of very precisely located brain aneurysms and start executing our most likely weird, irrational, extended automatisms. And also the case where the aneurysms make us become insanely paranoid and or actively malevolent.”

It could be helpful to work out a list of extreme, stereotyped behaviors and to work out what each person would do under each of those classes of behavior.

More things to consider are moral hazards, “got mine; checking out,” wasted effort, work going into the void, etc.

Importantly, we want to make it safe to say anything. I think a couple particular emotional reactions we’re trying to avoid. CONTENT WARNING: I’m going to state them hilariously and obscenely:

  • OH GOD I KNEW IT MY WORST FEARS YOU THOUGHT I WAS A FUCKTARD ALL ALONG YOU HAD SUSPICIONS ALL THIS TIME YOU’VE BEEN INTERACTING WITH ME YOU’VE BEEN SIMULATING/MODELING MY [SUPPOSED!] POTENTIAL OR BELIEVED FUCKTARD-NESS ALL ALONG OH GOD DEEP SHAME ALSO I’M DEEPLY OFFENDED BECAUSE YOU DON’T KNOW ME AND I CAN’T WORK WITH YOU BECAUSE EMOTIONS UNTIL WE WORK THROUGH THIS AND IT’S GOING TO BE REALLY ACUTELY PAINFUL AND GROSS EVEN IF YOU UNFLIP MY BOZO BIT.
  • OH GOD YOU’VE SUSPECTED ALL ALONG THAT I’M A WORLD-CONSUMING, BABY-FUCKING DEMON!

Ok. With the aneurysm thing above, these reactions above are what we’re trying to avoid. And in good faith:

“Look, we all harbor deeply skeptical concerns about each other because we all deeply care about making these particular goals into a reality. We’re deeply skeptical and suspicious, far over and above how we actually feel about each other as people, because we all care so, so much about making this happen. We all want it to succeed, to really, really succeed no matter what. We’re all on the same team. So let’s be professionals and systematically work through these really, real, ridiculous concerns we have about each other. True or not, ludicrous or not, paranoid or unempathetic or completely off-base or not, it will increase trust and cross-pollinate all sorts of useful considerations into the world model. This is part of kicking ass and taking names and crushing everything in our path, and/or really enjoying each other’s company while we’re doing it.”

Perspectives and Meta-perspectives

Systematic, mutual explication, combined with argumentation, may make deception harder and may facilitate trust. It’s always possible that someone will be able to model yet-one-level-deeper than the other person so as to outmaneuver them. (Think the Princess Bride scene with the poison.) “You think that I think that you think that I think that you think…”

The Princess Bride scene also contains another lesson in that explication itself is a weapon that can potentially be wielded against other people explicating with you (or one can manipulate other people to use explication against themselves). It obfuscates by highlighting, by directing attention. When you put something in you’re usually leaving something else out, no matter how hair-splitting and comprehensive. Furthermore, first choices can lock on a particular frame or perspective that hides much of which is now tremendously subtle in this particular model of reality.

Depending on what’s explicated, it can make it harder to anticipate some adversarial “left field,” anti-inductive, (now) super surprising, tacit-reality-needle-threading moves.

[Include more here about “[deep] emotional land mines” (i.e. triggered, extreme, and/or impulsive behavior).]

Argumentation Burden

And, finally, it’s worth noting that working with an explicit methodology like this can facilitate mundane interpersonal dynamics like status plays or putdowns. For example, asking for an argument right then can be legitimate but it can also be a way to subtly mess with someone, or both. It should be an explicit norm to be able to ask for an argument for needing an argument [sic]. And, finally, let’s all be genuinely warm to each other, in good faith.

Conclusion

Sometimes the mind grasps and grasps at possible ways forward, possible actions to take, but, over and over, nothing plausible and motivating comes up. Depending on life situation, a person’s future can be vague. There might be nothing concrete to latch onto. But, one can deliberately simulate the future, deliberately generate concrete content in the absence of external inputs. Generation of structured cognitive content, in the absence of external input, is a skill that can be developed over time. (It comes into play during writing as well.)

Of course, that content could be “wrong” or misleading or a waste of time or worse than a waste of time (opportunity cost). But, you’re creating an artifact, via an artifact-cognitive feedback loop, and that artifact can be iteratively bootstrapped into something relatively dense, precise, accurate, powerful, and actionable, for some people, in some life situations, some of the time.

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