Over the course of April, I was fortunate to see several great speakers, including Ola Rosling, Thomas Friedman and Steven Pinker. It would be impossible to condense everything they said into a short blog, but there were a few takeaways that are worth sharing.

Facts often don’t make great headlines

I admit to being a bit of a nerd, and managing primary research projects is one of my favourite bits of this job. Obviously, we have a hypothesis when we build a survey, but when pouring over the results we always find a few interesting nuggets and occasionally a real surprise.

Reading the news, it would be very easy to think that the world is in a pretty dire state. But that’s not what the numbers show. During his presentation, Pinker shared about two dozen charts showing how far we’ve progressed in a wide variety of fields: from the fall of infant mortality to increased longevity, from the dramatic drop in deaths in warfare to the astonishing fall in extreme poverty, and the list goes on.

Why the disconnect? Well first, news favours the dramatic.

You’re more likely to die of an asthma attack than in a terrorist attack, yet when was the last time you saw a news article about the dangers of asthma?

Steven Pinker

Secondly, news favours the instant. Pinker made the point that 130,000 people were lifted out of extreme poverty yesterday. You’d think that would be news, but actually you could say the same thing about every day since 1990. That’s over 1.3 billion people. Think about it, how many trends taking place over 30 years hit the headlinesmost of the ones I can think of are about the weather.

Our instincts are often wrong

Rosling had the crowd roaring with laughterwell as much as that ever happens at a lecturewith his comparisons of how we did at estimating social trends compared to chimps. As an avid following of Gapminder for years, it wasn’t exactly shocking to hear how badly even experts fare at estimating things like population and how many children are vaccinated.

Graph showing how many children there will be in 2100, according to the U.N.
Take the test for yourself here.

This shows just how much we’re swayed by inherent bias. Just choosing at random you’d expect a third of peopleor chimpsto get the right answer.

Fortunately, Rosling didn’t spend the whole evening showing just how little we know. The Roslings’ most recent book, Factfulness, talks about our inbuilt “dramatic attention filter”, how to identify when it could be leading us astray, and how we can beat it. If you don’t have time to read the book, it’s well worth taking a look at this great presentation.

The importance of understanding

Friedman set out a strong argument for why we need to understand trends more than ever. He contends that three accelerations are having an unprecedented effect on our world: Moore’s law (the ongoing rapid growth of technology), the market (globalisation and concentration of wealth), and Mother Nature (climate change and loss of biodiversity). These forces are affecting everything: the economy, politics, workplaces and even families.

In Friedman’s view, 2007 was a pivotal moment. It was the year that the first iPhone was launched, Facebook broke out of the university campus, a few friends rented out their airbeds to conference goers (that’s why it’s called Airbnb), and much more. One of the most fundamental changes was the dramatic fall in the cost of transferring a megabyte of data. This, along with the continuing rise in processing power, set the scene for a decade of dramatic change.

Right now, we’re on the cusp. Climate change, artificial intelligence and the battle between protectionism and globalisation could dramatically reshape the world in the next ten yearspotentially even much sooner.

In Niger, climate change is wrecking crops even as technology is helping more children survive, so a population of 19 million will reach 72 million hungry people by 2050.

Thomas Friedman, Thanks for being Late

As Friedman notes, our ability to adapt to change has improved. The early industrial revolutions took generations to come to terms with. We can now adapt to dramatic change in 10-15 years. That’s great, but technology isn’t slowing up; if anything, it’s accelerating. What good is it being able to adapt in ten years if changes are happening in five?

Perhaps the most profound thought I’ll take away is part of an answer Friedman gave to a question. He said that listening isn’t just about what you hear, it’s about what it says. Listening to somebody is a sign of respect. It’s easy to get carried away looking for evidence to back up your hypothesis, trying to nudge interviewees towards saying something that fits with the story that you have in mind.

With technology, and the world, changing so quickly, the role of journalists has never been more important. But while I love reading books and journals, a large portion of what I know about technology has come from things published by vendors and other consultants. As marketers we have a brief to fulfil, but what we produce isn’t just about selling stuff, it plays an important role in informing people about the possibilities of technology and inspiring innovation.

Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, linguist, and currently a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard. He’s written a number of best-selling books, including Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999), The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014) and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018).

Ola Rosling, son of the famous Hans Rosling, is co-author of Factfulness (2018). After a spell working for Google, he returned to work with his father as chairman, director and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to promote sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Goals by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information.

Thomas Friedman is a well-known author and American political commentatorfor which he’s earned three Pulitzer Prizes. He has written extensively on foreign affairs, globalization, the Middle East and environmental issues, and currently writes a weekly column for The New York Times. His latest book is Enlightenment Now (2016).

Posted by John on 20 May 2019