Kalkion Interviews Peter Garretson, A Futurist And Strategic Thinker

He is currently a visiting fellow at the Indian Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) under the sponsorship of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is also interested in future of energy and uses of Science Fiction in strategic thinking. On behalf of Kalkion group of magazines, Vishwa Mohan Tiwari, Honorary Editor, took the opportunity to talk with him and gain useful knowledge for our readers.

VMT: May I ask your views on strategic thinking and your experiences as a strategic thinker?
Garretson: I am a believer that organizations with strategic vision and focus will outperform those who are only making opportunist, tactical decisions in the present based upon path of least resistance. I also believe that without a long term strategic vision, any path will do, but you likely will not like where you end up.

VMT: Please elaborate the connection between science fiction and strategic thinking.
Garretson: Science fiction is strongly associated with a future orientation, with examining the implications of technology or discoveries that upend our basic assumptions. It is a valuable tool to examine and explain the implications of technology, or policies with respect to technology and their impact on human values and society. Science fiction is a kind of alternative futures planning, that allows us to think deeply about causality and interactions among key factors in our society. It also gives us a peculiar kind of prism or mirror to examine ourselves and discover what is essential or accidental or purely temporal in our outlook and culture.

VMT: You are also known as 'Transformational Strategist'. What is transformational strategy?
Garretson: When organizations consider their purposes and reasons for existence, and examine the current situation and road ahead, there is usually a disconnect, and a need to adapt the organization to its mission in the world. A transformational strategist concerns him or herself with how to transform organizations to be adaptive and value added in the world.

VMT: What is the relation of transformational strategy with science fiction?
Garretson: Science fiction informs and educates the mind of a transformational strategist, offering cautionary tales of where we do not want to go, and what bright new vistas might be possible for us--either by transcending the prejudices of the moment, or by developing tools that allow us to transcend our problems. It allows us to "try on" and "live in" different futures, and to examine chains of causality and interaction. It also frees us from the tyranny of the now, and contributes to a flexibility of thinking. Someone who writes science fiction has the additional benefit of being a synthetic thinker, where they not only analyze how things work, but work through how things might be put together, and how they might work together. All science fiction is a kind of gedanken experiment, where you change one of the variables in our world.

VMT: These days of fast and unexpected changes, prediction is not only difficult but also unreliable. Futurism when say dealing with impact of pollution of global warming may be difficult but its impact is not imminent. But in case of defence forces the impact of predictions would have far reaching effects on the outcome of war and on survivability of soldiers, rather soon. How does one cope with such a situation?
Garretson: The key is to consider many futures, and from living in each, and understanding the problems of each, to have a taste and a smell for each. Most successful strategic planners today seem to favor scenario based planning, where a range of possible end states is imagined based upon likely drivers and key uncertainties. They capabilities are selected that are cross cutting, and policies are selected to prejudice the arrival of one future over the other. At least in defense planning, there is a prejudice for looking squarely at worst case and planning for it, even if it is not the most likely. There is also a method to have branch plans, perhaps only as sketches, of how we would deal with a world that takes a wrong turn.

VMT: It is human nature to imagine future if not know it. Yet this world today lives mainly in the present moment. And strategic thinking is always risky. Is strategic thinking respected enough in today's world?
Garretson: People do live in the moment, that is true, or at least within the political/policy moment of 4-5 years, or the quarterly business moment, but that can also be very risky. It is risky to drive a long route having never looked at the map or sought the advice of others who have made the trip. It is risky to begin military operations without first taking reconnaissance. Similar, I see it as more risky to march into the future without surveying the terrain ahead based upon what we know about trends and counter-trends. Strategic thinking is never risky, though strategic decision making certainly is. It always involves accepting a cost in the present for a hoped for future gain. It is always an investment instead of spending in the now. At least in the circles I have traveled, strategic thinking has always been respected, at least as long as it is relevant to decisions we take today.

VMT: What kind of training or education prepares a man for strategic thinking?
Garretson: Playing multiple move games, such as chess and wargames, that force one to think through action-reaction, and sequences. Reading science fiction. Reading scenarios. Reading biographies of individuals that have maneuvered and changed systems, and how they thought several steps in advance. Reading histories that tell of intrigue. Reading the great military strategists (for example, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Lao Tzu, Chankya, John Boyd, John Warden) who suggest important considerations and maxims that suggest causality that are often persistent in human nature and conflict. And useful personal courses like Covey's Seven Habits that teach how to first have a vision, and then work on the tools to achieve it based upon principles. For kids, I would start with Panchatantram which I find without peer for an early discussion on strategy and policy.

VMT: You know that is an E magazine of SF from India. You have said in one of your articles that an SF writer is well qualified to be a science or technology strategist. Whilst you elaborate on this, please begin by defining science fiction, because there are many definitions of SF floating around.
Garretson: I think a too strict definition of SF would fail. But when I say SF, I am thinking of a genre of literature that concerns itself with the implications of technology or scientific discovery and the surrounding policy decisions on our society through the use of story and character, or literature that explores a deeper interaction with an aspect of science or technology that seems alien to us and must be explored more viscerally again through story and character. Then too, there is another form of science fiction where technology only serves as a set to expand mankind's horizons, or create a different backdrop to explore fundamentals of human nature that are best divorced from the present, or carried into that future without the context of present prejudiced to cleverly demonstrate their absurdity.

Of course it takes a diversity of views in confrontation with the other to do good strategy, but I think the SF author can offer useful insights. I think the qualification comes from the dual aptitude of the SF author to first, understand a bit about human nature and the causality of how humans are likely to behave, and second, an understanding of technology and the future from having studied it as a autodidact domain expert, and lastly, as having an aptitude for synthetic thought to put those different elements together. A piece that I think vindicates quite well my assertion is Jerry Pournelle's Strategy of Technology that was influential in the cold war:

VMT: The concept of communication satellites was seriously presented by Arthur C Clarke in Wireless World, a magazine for scientific papers. There are many instances when life has followed SF, e.g. aeroplane, submarine etc. came in SF first and then in real life. Were these examples of predictions of future machines made seriously in the SF of that period, and were not just imaginative thoughts and plots in a story, specially to make it catchy?
Garretson: I take them seriously. Of course there are degrees of imaginative vision vs technical vision, but the latter feeds the former. One can imagine and say, "What if we had a method of communcating remotely with just a small device in our hands." That vision of a fulfilled need encourages others to think through how it might actually be done. The same is happening today with interstellar travel. It starts as an imaginative SF question, "How would our horizons be different if we had an interstellar drive." Then it gets taken up by a amateur society, then NASA ( Now there are are annual conferences ( on the subject, dedicated organizations ( and even an academic physics textbook on potentially promising avenues ( I think it is always valuable for SF authors to say (paraphrasing Joel Barker), "What is impossible today, but if it could be changed, would change everything" for the frontiers of humanity or technology. That in turn informs us both about the widened frontiers, and the dangers and new problems we might encounter. And that, in turn, creates new and interesting technical challenges, and informs enlightened policy.

VMT: Have you seen SF being used for Science education, anywhere? (Other than as a subject by itself) I also mean in a serious way and not just as a supportive reading.
Garretson: No. Not cleverly as part of a system. I see many people being drawn into science, or science understanding, or science sympathy by SF at large, but I have never seen, for instance, a school system commission a science fiction work to specifically teach kids what life would be like living inside an O'Neill space colony (like Clark's Rama), or to understand viscerally the implications of relativity (like Haldeman's Forever War). Nor have I seen it consciously used as a recruiting tool via the education system with an effect like the show CSI bringing in lots of people to the field for forensics by making it glamorous. Several military academies have at one time or another, used Ender's Game as a core reading

VMT: SF as an agent of mass communication has to be catchy or very interesting or use fantasy etc, would SF therefore be a good medium to inculcate scientific temper?
Garretson: I don't think it is a question of could it. I think it is. I think many people's ambitions for humanity are raised by SF. I know mine was. I probably would not have been as attracted to the Air Force if it had not been for Star Trek. Nor would I probably have been sensitized to the problems which I have worked on like space solar power and asteroid defense. SF can is a kind of marketing for a grand future for humanity. It creates a need. It creates future envy. We get hooked on a vision, whether Utopian, or just plain cooler than today, and we want to bring it into being.

VMT: "I also think that SF does inculcate scientific temper in its readers. BUT, scientific temper of an average Indian is no less than those of advanced countries. And we know that SF is far less popular in India than in advanced countries. How would you explain this anomaly?"
Garretson: I cannot. It is a mystery to me. I'm not sure I agree that SF inculcates a scientific temper, but rather an orientation to the future, and a facility, openness, and agility to change of the status quo. Certainly it inculcates an interest in the happenings in science and technology and their impact on society--in that sense it might be closer to ethics of science or criticism of science than to science itself.

Fiction presents us with a sort of voyeurism into the lives and thoughts of others. In a real sense, voyeurism of the future is different than voyeurism in the present or past. In reading about the present or the past, one has the option of just observing and accepting. But not so with reading about a future that has yet to be--there we are still the architect of our own future and we feel compelled to take action to advance or constrain.

I think SF is fundamentally different that other fiction in that for many of us, it is the opposite of escapist. I do not read SF to get out of the present because I am pained by my present condition, but rather to inform and give meaning to my plans for the future and action in the present because I am optimistic about either the present or the future.

If the duties of the present consumed my every minute, left me without the leisure time and resources (including literacy) to acquire such books, or discouraged me from thinking about a future different than the status quo, I might chose escapist literature if any at all, and might prefer themes that reflected useful themes for my life--acceptance of the vicissitudes of fate, and a smallness of human beings before society's structure and forces and those of a cruel, capricious, and uncontrollable nature.

To read SF is to pre-suppose that my daily life allows for such leisure time, and that I can imagine a future different in some meaningful way than today, where both mankind in respect to nature, and individuals in respect to both society and nature can be a meaningful actor.

Your question makes me wonder if there is a correlation between interest in SF and nation's self perception and perception of their prospects in and focus on the future. If that is the case, then the confident, high-growth, ambitious India may begin reading and producing a lot more Sci-Fi, to help imagine and suggest its own bright future.

VMT: Science is totally materialistic... Can SF be used to humanize a society?
Garretson: I don't agree that science is totally materialistic. For many scientists, their motivation to conduct it at all is deeply spiritual and motivated by all to human motives of curiosity or desire to have control over our destiny, or to understand the mind of God. What SF does is make aspects of science and technology comfortable and familiar for us. It translates numbers and equations into the daily interactions of a person we identify with. And plays with the terms of the equation in ways that are meaningful to people.

VMT: Who are your favourite writers and works of SF? And did any SF story help you in your work ?
Garretson: There are so many which I have read and enjoyed...Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Greg Bear, David Brin. I would put Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek above all other works because it gave me a vision of an inclusive, curious society with broad boundaries, and a host of techno-lust challenges. Then I would say Orson Scott Card has greatly contributed to the literature on military strategy and leadership. You've seen my praise for Pournelle's thinking above. I think the cyber-punk vision of Blade Runner, Diamond Age, Neuromancer are meaningful to consider. Neuromancer I'm sure must have affected my expectations, vision, and work in augmented, mixed, and virtual reality. There are also authors that write mainly non-fiction, but intersperse it with small pieces of fiction, like Gerald O'Neill and Ray Kurzweil. I wish, honestly, that I had read Gerald O'Neill's high frontier much earlier in life. I saw it in Gundam and forever changed my expectations. There is far too little O'Neillian in today's Sci-Fi, one exception, and a really monumental work is Bruce Sterling's Schizmatrix Plus. Vernor Vinge and I have an on-going argument about the Singularity...and I think I've only scratched the surface of what SF has to offer.

VMT: You are a futurist, and SF is also generally speaking futurist. What is the future of SF?
Garretson: That is a very hard question. I am also of the opinion that the best way to predict the future is to create it. So let me attempt to create the future of science fiction with a bit of criticism.  I think today's sci-fi is too dark, it is too pre-occupied with humanities problems, and not sufficiently concerned with stroking its ambitions and setting new vistas. I think science fiction needs to pull back a bit from the space-opera fantasy, and transcend the cyber-punk darkness. I think right now we most need science fiction that creates a compelling vision of where we can take humanity over perhaps 3 generations using real, not just imagined technology. I think we have to re-imagine O'Neill's vision and Sarabhai's vision with what we know today. But we have to paint it like CSI or Star Trek so that people can "try on" a future that they then get hooked, and so want to create. I believe there is a real world of the future that could involve a sustainable, developed world getting its energy from Space Solar Power, protecting Earth from asteroids, mining the sky for valuable minerals, and protecting our climate. Where access to space through space planes and other new innovations is common. I think we could use that as a stepping stone to free-flying space colonies. How different would that would be? What would it be like to live in that world? What kind of institutions would make it work? How can we hook kids on the science it takes to put it all together? How do we get them to decide: "I want to solve that problem","I want to live in that world!" (for some visions of that world that I like, see:
  Space Solar Power
  Man Conquers Space:

VMT: Would you like to give a message to the readers of
Garretson: Be the change you wish to see in the world. A science fiction author has many roles, as social critic, as explainer of science, as a teacher through parable, as harbinger of doom if we do not mend our ways, but the most important function is as prophet and herald of a place humanity can be that is broader and more hopeful than today. SF authors are futurists that get to live in the future and transport us there from the tyranny of the now. It is up to you to find the safe harbors, grand vistas, and fertile valleys we must travel to. All things are first created in the mind.