Cassandra Plays the Stock Market


Adapted from a talk I gave at Design Against Denial a conference put on by The City College of New York April 8, 2017.

So, after the election, I spent a bunch of time reading the literature on how scams work.

The UK police services have a bunch of guides to educate one another and the general public about understanding and avoiding scams. Aesthetically, The Little Book of Big Scams is my favourite but for reading purposes, The National Fraud Authority’s Fraud Typologies and Victims of Fraud Literature Review is an especially good general overview of the subject. It looks at common tactics undertaken by fraudsters, the fallout of their activities, and the effects that police responses tend to have on victims. The bit I can’t stop thinking about is the profiles of fraud victims.

They’ve got four kinds.

  • Unknowing victims — People who don’t have any idea they’ve been scammed.
  • Knowing victims (who don’t report) — People who know they got scammed but decide for one reason or another that it’s not worth pursuing. Maybe they don’t think they’ll get helped, maybe they’re embarrassed, maybe they just want to forget about the whole thing.
  • Knowing victims (who do report) — People who decide to go to the police for help.
  • Unbelieving victims.

I got really interested in that last group.

Here, let me read from the report.

There are also, however, the ‘unbelieving’ victims who are so taken in by a scam they will not believe it is one. For example the researchers were informed of some victims of investment frauds who were told at the point of payment by their financial institutions that it was a scam, but who thought they were merely frustrating their chances of making a ‘killing’ on an investment. These and many victims of mass marketing fraud have been termed what is known as ‘chronic victims’, responding to multiple requests by the scammers.

Later, talking about the bad outcomes of fraud:

Such is the nature of some chronic scams and their effect on victims. When family members try to intervene to stop them from engaging with the fraudster it leads to a disintegration of their relationships.

Right? So there are people who can be so wrapped up in a certain worldview that even in the face of serious evidence that they have been taken in, and despite many warnings from the rest of the world, they persist. Indeed, warnings from the rest of the world seem to serve only to entrench them in their position. With some of them, it’s as if they end up making bad choices specifically to spite the people warning them.

I’m telling you all this because according to the invitation to this event, we’re meant to be giving you ideas for approaches that “can speak convincingly across the language barrier that divides those who believe in socio-environmental outcomes modelled on probabilities grounded in digital data collection and analytics—and those who do not.

And I’m just not there yet. Like, I’m sure glad this leads to a panel discussion because I’m hoping my co-panelists can help me out. I have no idea about how to speak convincingly across that language barrier. Sometimes, I’m not even sure which side of the barrier I live on.

What I can do is offer you my thinking so far on the nature of the problem.

Oh, wait, I should tell you who’s in the picture. That’s Cassandra.

I have been fascinated by alternate futures for a long time. I grew up loving science fiction and fantasy, and as I’ve moved from video game development to journalism to design, I’ve had all the time in the world for speculative work. I love it.

I love it as a tool for thinking, as a way of expanding possibilities, and as a way of suggesting that the world could be different from how it is.

Lately, I’ve been wondering, is this love an aesthetic position or a moral one? Because for a long time I thought it was a moral one. But these days I am not so sure.

In a paper about the history of scenario planning, Kazys Varnelis & Robert Sumrell describe the thinking of mystic GI Gurdjieff who counted among his disciples Pierre Wack who founded Shell Oil’s London-based planning group

Gurdjieff believed that people lived their lives in a state close to somnambulism and sought to teach his disciples how to wake up and see the world. One way of doing this, Gurdjieff suggested, was to seek out “remarkable people.”

Wack’s idea was that you should get a bunch of remarkable people together — you get these people who are wide awake in a world of sleepy fools and set them loose on imagining wild alternate futures. If you do this, you could go beyond the more prosaic prediction models that Shell was using and which had a tendency to break down when the world refused to behave in an orderly manner.

If you are like me, this is an extremely tempting proposition. Who doesn’t want to be a remarkable person? Who doesn’t want to be a creative genius on a team of geniuses plucking out glimpses of the world to come?

What actually happens is: not much. The people get together, they come up with wild ideas, and Shell management doesn’t take the conclusions on board. They listen politely, I suppose, and then it’s business as usual.

Here’s Varnelis & Sumrell again:

Wack was disturbed by this and realized that their scenarios were too prosaic. Scenarios had to, he concluded, make it possible to “change our managers’ view of reality.” In other words, scenario planning was important less as an analytical tool and more as a rhetorical device.

The group gets some traction in the 1970s when a series of oil crises matched pretty closely to some of the scenarios that the planning group dreamed up.

But here’s the interesting part: there’s not a lot of evidence that Shell did anything about these aside from publish the predictions after the fact. They didn’t incorporate the predictions in their planning but once it’d all come true they were more than happy to tell the world they’d seen things coming.

Reading about the trials of the planning group you get the feeling that the history of scenario planning at Shell is a history of a group of smart weirdos trying to work out how best to get anyone to listen to them.

In their essay, Varnellis & Sumrell end up comparing scenario planning to fairy tale weaving.

Like fairy tales, scenarios present carefully crafted stories that indirectly illustrate the dangers of the world to an audience that isn’t ready for them. They allow us to prepare for the future, even if we feel powerless against the forces of the world around us, by providing a context for speaking about the un-speakable. The lessons of fairy tales are gentle and distant; they may only make sense later, when the codified dangers from the stories appear in reality. This helps preserve a childlike naïveté and enables the continued drive toward pleasure in the face of fear and doubt.

OK so this is now a really tempting position for would-be futurists. “Oh, I’m not making predictions. I’m expanding the breadth of your ideas about the possibility space.”

“Yes, yes, this is all vey important and you definitely need to cut me a cheque for this unverifiable work. One day, you’ll thank me.”

And after awhile one starts to wonder if we aren’t ourselves the unbelieving victims of fraud…

Why should Shell fund the planning group? Of what use are those dreams to the slumbering giants of industry? What does it matter if you can predict the future but can’t convince anyone? What good is it if you can convince people but only of the wrong futures? Who should pay Cassandra’s consulting fee?

You all know Cassandra, right? Trojan woman. Cursed with accurate prophecy that no one will believe.

The entire story of the Trojan war is her warning people to no avail.

“Don’t go to Sparta, Paris, it’ll end poorly.”
“Oh jeez, I know she’s pretty but don’t kidnap that woman. And definitely don’t bring her back here.”
“OK look, you didn’t listen to me about Helen, and we know how that turned out so could you please leave the wooden horse outside?”

Sometimes, I like to imagine how a contemporary Cassandra would be getting on.

For a long time I had this idea that she would be doing OK. There are a lot of opportunities today for someone who knows the truth to act without needing anyone else to understand them, I thought.

I imagined her playing the stock market. She starts buying dot-coms in 1994 and gets out in 2000. She sees the housing crisis from miles away and has sold all her subprime holding by early 2008.

But her story is a tragedy, so then I imagined her getting put away for insider trading. They don’t have any solid evidence, but no one believes her defence and the jury becomes certain she’s guilty. She’s the only person punished for the collapse of the banking system. Thankfully, it’s a white collar crime so pretty soon, she gets out. She’s like Martha Stewart.

I feel like I know a lot of people who kind of see themselves as a Cassandra. I feel that way sometimes, myself. We look at the world, we notice a lot of obviously terrible decisions that people and institutions are making, we point out that things won’t go well, no one listens to us, and then things don’t go well. We console ourselves that we’d seen it coming. It’s kind of a romantic feeling. You feel like you’re smarter than most people.

I was talking to my wife Pamela about all this and she gently pointed out that in my white-collar retelling, I’d missed the whole point of the Cassandra myth. In the story, things don’t go at all well for Cassandra. Her city burns. She is assaulted and kidnapped and eventually killed by the invaders. Cassandra doesn’t get to insulate herself from the worst of it. She suffers the consequences along with everyone else.

She is bound to the fate of her people. As we are bound to the fate of ours.

It’s not good enough to be right.

A funny thing has happened in my professional circles since the election.

In the wake of these terrible events, pretty much all of my colleagues have discovered the renewed importance of whatever it is we were working on in the first place. I, of course, have discovered the renewed importance of understanding the role of fiction and speculation in shaping the future of the world. I think we should be suspicious about this.

At the place where I work — a university — there has been a particular renewal in talking about how important it is that we teach everyone more critical thinking. The feeling is that the outcome of this election is the result of people being duped, and that if they’d had better critical thinking skills, that people would have been somehow inoculated against the bad ideas, and better able to think for themselves (and vote the way we thought they should).

I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit hanging around the online communities of the kind of people we are worried about reaching here, and I am here to tell you: They are using their critical thinking skills.

They are fully literate in concepts like bias and in the importance of interrogating sources. They believe very much in the power of persuasion and the dangers in propaganda and a great many of them believe that we are the ones who have been behaving uncritically and who have been duped. They think that we are the unbelieving victims of fraud.

Which is not to set up some kind of false equivalency between sides. But I do want us to consider the possibility that we don’t need to talk across that barrier, and that it might not be possible to talk across it. That we need to consider that if it’s true that vast swaths of the voting populace are unbelieving victims of fraud, that there’s not much we can do for them. That we may need instead to work to invigorate our allies, discourage our enemies, and save the persuasion for people right on the edge.

But, again, I’m saying all of this to you as someone who has not figured this out.