Book Review: Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan

Book Review: Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan
Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together
Genre: Social Science

Paperback | 320 pp. | Simon & Schuster | | 1st Edition
Buy on Amazon
4.0 rating

Uncharted, by Margaret Heffernan, is a book that, while reading, seems to be drained by its own content. The great narrative makes this a quick and entertaining read, the structure, however, seems to miss some levels of coherence. There are two chapters, for example, that I could simply not match the overall concept of the book. The fragmented storyline does not help in making justice of a book that hopes to instil in the reader a new idea about the Future. Not based on linear predictive models, but rather on new capabilities of individual and collective sense-making.

Why drained? The reason is probably in the chapter where the author explains how we should prepare for the next virus epidemic. Reading those pages as we are still fully within the Covid-19 pandemics, makes you almost smile. Yet, it also shows the value of the core idea of the book: we cannot forecast the future, we can only try, as individuals and as an organisation, to be prepared and adaptable for the multiple options that look ahead in front of us.

Impossible Forecasting

This core concept is explored through multiple angles. The first is laid bare in terms of the distinction between complication and complexity. We can face, as human beings and through our organisations, very complicated situations, and our ability to analyse them in the small details is key. But when facing complexity, where ambiguity reigns, we cease to be effective.

History has shown our ambition, as human beings, to always “predict the future”. But it has never been really possible to do so. As human beings, we tend to mix cause and effect with morality and ethics, and more often, our theories don’t survive the length of time. She identifies two problems: Models first and foremost, are always subjective and incomplete representations of complex realities. Agendas, in the second instance, are always embedded in each model, because these are simply an application of the mental models of the creator.

Yet, the world of forecasting continues to flourish.

Human discomfort with uncertainty, together with a craving for reassurance, has fuelled an industry that enriches itself by terrorising us with uncertainty and taunting us with certainty.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 26

Because the future is unknowable, the best we can hope for are probabilities – which themselves may be incorrect. An element that is clearly visible in the effort we do every day in collecting more and more data, with the ambition to make the probabilistic calculation more accurate. But this is not possible, in reality.

We then often try to focus on our past, to try to find answers there. Also here, however, history is not helpful.

When we expect history to guide us, we overweight continuity and narrative, while underweighting change and contingency.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 58

The Automation Paradox

The author argues that our reliance on technology is misleading. “Technology aims to solve the so-called problem of human complexity by force-fitting a predetermined model onto the surprising variety of human existence.” An element that she links to the automation paradox, an element that recurs in the book.

This is known as the automation paradox: the skills you automate, you lose. So the more we depend on machines to think for us, the less good we become at thinking for ourselves. The fewer decisions we make, the less good we become at making them. We risk falling into a trap: more need for certainty, more dependency on technology; less skill, more need. We become addicted to the very source of our anxiety.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 6

This passage is illuminating, and I would have probably loved much more detail on the profound implications of this. She gives few examples, particularly around AI and Data Science, and then moves into a critique, towards the end of the book, in the effort by trans-humanism to entrust technology for even wider ambitions.

Between Complication and Complexity

The idea that everything can be deconstructed and understood, extends also to the idea that we can understand the human being in terms of emotions, behaviours, competence. Here as well, however, there is a high risk of error, because we give too much weight on some deterministic features. When DNA technology seemed to open the road to full understanding, the personality differences of twins created a discomfortable truth. We are all the product of a complex ecosystem.

If it were possible so simply to concoct a recipe for success, we would all be great leaders by now. But then who would the followers be?

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 71

This is where, particularly, we get completely wrong the difference between a complicated process and a complex system. We try to apply efficiency and predictability, useful for a process, to a system, with the results of killing off creativity and the ability to withstand adversity: in one word its robustness.

The language of efficiency is unmistakable: life is much simpler, and more predictable, if the complexity, anomalies and flukes can be managed out of it.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 96

An Eugenic Mindset

Which is exactly the contrary of how evolution has worked on our planet. All living beings evolved thanks to the maximum possible variety, each anomaly’s having the potential of being an advantage in the evolution itself. Reductionist management applies this efficiency principle to the utmost end. Defeated by the ambiguity and complexity of human life, many now think it will be easier and more profitable to reduce free agency than to predict it.

This is a eugenics mindset, applied to everything we do and everything we are.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 101

A compelling statement that made me think a lot about all the areas in which we tend to idealise predictability and adherence to the standard. If a product has a defect, we eliminate the product. If an employee does not reach targets, we terminate the employee. If a person does not “fit” with culture, we don’t hire them. We end up applying eugenic principles in all areas where differentiation is perceived as an annoyance, a fault, an error. Yet, we have all agendas about diversity and inclusion, that per se become an anomaly into this narrative—an element to reflect.

Every generation of human being has lived with uncertainty and unpredictability; that’s how we developed the staggering human capacity for invention, discovery, improvisation and creativity.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 102

The Value of Experiments

She explores at length the importance and value of experimentation as a way to “be ready” fo alternative futures, and develop along with the line organisational adaptability. The value of experiments is that they accept risk. Everyone is, in theory, in favour of experimentation. Innovation, after all, is a mantra for the corporate world for the past decades. How do we get there without experimenting? The issue is that applying a managerial mindset we quickly end into a trap: we can’t do the experiment unless we are certain it will work. But we can’t know it will work until we do the experiment.

Not many organisations are really able to make experimentation a big part of their way of working. However, focusing on experiments is transformational. Experiments become a healthy means of exploration of what is possible in the future. Some will fail; others will succeed. Learning becomes the key outcome of this process, an element we had already seen when we spoke about Strategy as Learning.

The author goes at length in, illustrating how Scenario Planning can also serve as a way to move into the future by creative alternative storytelling experiments. The discipline has been criticised in recent time, for the same elements that Heffernan mentions about models: too many scenarios became the fruit of an ideology. She acknowledges this: thinking imaginatively is harder than many people expect. If the Scenario Planning process is done correctly, she argues, the act of doing it can change the systems it strives to describe.

Notice, Simmer, State, Fail. These are the stages of the artistic process, which gives an advantage to the artists’ minds in crafting the future.

Mind wandering. Diffuse but intense attention. Travel without an agenda. Non-linear. Undetermined. Unplanned. Open to reflection, accident and discovery. Inefficient. Inconsistent. In all of this, artists live and think in ways that are opposite to the linear, cause-and-effect, rational assumptions and efficient goals that underpin much of modern life and institutions. Instead, artists respond to the complex system that is life with the complex system that is the human mind.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 197


Is a Cathedral Project the only alternative to this? This is an in treating chapter, yet here is where I see a bit of discomfort in the coherence with the rest of the text. I appreciate the power of some of the examples and how long-lasting projects need to evolve with time. But the reality is that there are only a handful of cathedral projects at any point in time. We can learn from them, but it is too easy to shrug them off as an exception.

More interestingly, the acceptance of the capability of human beings to change constantly try, also when facing age and mortality. In this, the author tries to challenge the common assumptions that people cannot change and instead pushes for new models where individuality can be the true asset. In this, her view of the new organisation model is exactly that allows self-expression to flourish.

While loose structures might frustrate lovers of managerial neatness, it can allow leaders to arise from unpredictable places. Efficiency can be lethal; only the extravagant oversupply of creative thinking rises to meet the challenge.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 268

Imagination, creativity, compassion, generosity, variety, meaning, faith and courage: what makes the world unpredictable are also the strengths that make each of us unique and human.

How do we get from here? This is where the book lacks answers. Or better, there are even too many possible answers but are not recapped into an actionable structure. Of course, proposing a ready-made recipe in a book that is so fully anti-deterministic, might seem a contradiction. But the problem I see is that the book gives so many ideas about how to become adaptable at an individual, organisational and even political level, that is difficult to make sense of them without a much needed synthetic support.

Yet, the ideas are truly valid, and the book really stimulates truly systemic thinking while reading. The focus on being human touches a chord that is pivotal for me as well, and I believe the mass of information and examples is useful to really re-think the ample attitude we all have towards the future.

This book began with two questions: what do we need to do, and what do we need to be, to map the future? What we need to do is to hold fast to the gifts we have, and to develop them together. What we need to be is human.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted, page 320
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Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together
Genre: Social Science | Rating: 4/5
By Margaret Heffernan
Paperback | 320 pp. | Simon & Schuster | 20/02/2020 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9781471179785
Buy on Amazon

Uncharted Reviews on GoodReads

  1. Avatar of bulentduagi

    Excellent summary, thank you!

  2. […] reads that comes by as a reference from another book. I found it mentioned in Uncharted, by Margaret Heffernan, and was immediately curious about it, so I got the Kindle […]

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