Incoming Presidential Speech: International Society for the Systems Sciences
 43rd Annual Meeting

July 2nd, 1999 – Asilomar, California

Our baseball player-philosopher, Yogi Berra (America’s much-quoted answer to Confucius), is reputed to have said: “Prediction is a risky business, especially when it’s about the future.” Who knows if Yogi really said that. Berra once told a reporter: “I never really said everything I said.” (He really did say: “when you come to a fork in the road, take it,” and “always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”)

Well, whoever it was who warned us about making predictions was right on the mark; predicting the future is a high-risk, low-scoring sport. Somebody did an analysis of columnist and TV commentator George Will’s predictions over a six month period and found that he was correct only 33 percent of the time. On a binary “yes-no” basis, that’s much worse than guessing at random. In a similar test with a chimpanzee (no kidding), the chimp scored 50 percent.

There are many famous examples of bad predictions:

  • Like Lord Kelvin, the chemist and President of the Royal Society in 1895: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
  • Or remember the famous quote by Irving Fisher, economics professor at Yale in the summer of 1929: “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
  • And French Marshall Ferdinand Foch (just before WWI): “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value”
  • Or Jack Warner, President of Warner Brothers movie studio in 1927: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
  • Then there was Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of IBM, in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
  • And Bill Gates in 1981: “640K ought to be enough [memory] for anybody.”

Or, a little closer to home, do you remember the people who were predicting only a couple of years ago that the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) would not survive? The pundits were saying that the ISSS had served its purpose. Times have changed, they said. No use beating a dead horse. As the Baptists in G.A. Swanson’s home state would say, we are a “born again” organization.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of past-President G.A. Swanson in Atlanta a year ago, and the incredible job done by the immediate past-President, Bela A. Banathy, during the past year in organizing the wonderful Asilomar conference, not to mention a lot of behind-the-scenes work by a core group of dedicated people — Janet Allen, Jennifer Wilby, Tom Mandel, Martin Hall, Carl Slawski, Ken Burkhardt, Syste Stribos and (not least) our Special Integration Group (SIG) chairs — the ISSS has not only survived but has new vitality and new purpose. It is filled with promise for the future.

Although I will save my serious speech-making for next year’s World Congress/ISSS meeting in Toronto, I do want to say a few words about where we are going — about the vision and the “strategic plan” that we are pursuing — and how our plans for the Toronto conference fit into that vision. I’m really paraphrasing some of the things Bela has been saying over the past year when I suggest that the future of ISSS may lie in serving three complementary roles.

First, there is role and a real need for what I call a “big tent” — a forum for the many diverse systems-related interests, research programs and theories that cut across various fields and academic disciplines. Our SIGs are, of course, central to this role, and I hope we can encourage more organizations and groups to pursue some of their activities inside our diverse tent.

One example of this is our newest SIG, established by the Epic of Evolution Society under the leadership of Brian Swimme and Larry Edwards. The Epic group will continue to have its own meetings, newsletters and other events, but we hope they will also continue to sponsor panels on the evolution of complexity at ISSS meetings, as well as contributing plenary-level speeches, symposia and the like.

To that end, I hope we can do more to recognize and publicly acknowledge the contributions that these independent organizations and groups are making to ISSS. For instance, we could explicitly identify our SIG sponsors in publicity materials and conference programs, and we could provide more opportunities for the SIGs’ to show-case their activities and contributions throughout the year, especially through the Bulletin and on our website. Also, if we are successful in our current efforts to expand our membership and our financial resources, I am hoping that in due course we can do more financially to support the SIGs and their work.

The second long-term role that ISSS can serve for the systems field involves the basic objectives that inspired the formation of the ISSS and its predecessor, the Society for General Systems Research, in the first place. These are still valid. The founders of ISSS, back in the 1950s, felt strongly that the systemic aspect of reality was being downgraded by the conventional disciplines, which emphasize narrow specialization and reductionist approaches. The founders stressed the need for more general theories that would transcend the tendency toward fragmentation in the scientific enterprise. To quote this year’s President, Bela A. Banathy, the ISSS should seek to allow scholars “to pursue their varying interests in a manner that honors their differences while fostering theoretical integration.”

The third role for ISSS involves a long-standing commitment that I hope we can stress more strongly in the years ahead. As Bela H. Banathy (senior) put it some years ago, ISSS should seek “to pursue science in the service of humanity.” Many ISSS members are greatly concerned about the problems of systems management, systems change, and, especially, our urgent environmental problems (which are deeply systemic in nature). Mike Jackson’s program at University of Lincolnshire and Humberside, and at the University of Hull, (in the UK) and Bill Shireman’s Global Futures Foundation, as well as several of our SIGs (most notably the SIG chaired by Enrique Herrscher), represent a solid foundation that I hope ISSS as an organization will actively promote and develop in the years ahead.

So, how does the plan for a World Congress of the Systems Sciences next year in Toronto fit into this strategic plan? The purpose of the World Congress is to create an even bigger “big tent” for the millennium year by organizing a forum where many other organizations and groups can share the limelight as co-hosts and co-presenters. Each co-host will be responsible for presenting a defined segment of the program — a short plenary speech, up to two “breakout” panels and an informal evening workshop or discussion session. So far we have enlisted 25 co-hosts. Two that signed up earlier had to drop out, but three more signed up at the Asilomar meeting.

The benefits to ISSS are three-fold: (1) It will attract many new faces — and ideas — to our annual meeting (the single registration fee entitles everyone to attend both events). (2) It will hopefully establish better relationships, more active communications, and more cooperation with these other organizations and groups. (3) It may very well be a stepping-stone for attracting new SIG sponsors, or re-energizing some older ones. This has already happened with the Epic of Evolution Society. Three other participants at Asilomar may soon establish SIGs. And I am hopeful that it will also occur with two or three of the prospective co-host groups in Toronto.

I also want to assure everyone that ISSS will not be short-changed at this event. Registration fees will also support a full ISSS program, and we will have a full scope of ISSS panels, along with a number of special forums, symposia and panels in both the World Congress and ISSS portions of the program. If you can envision the program as one event in two parts, the keynote and plenary speeches will be clustered in the first three days (Monday to Wednesday), with somewhat less emphasis on papers and symposium panels. Then, in the last three days (Thursday to Saturday) the program will be light on plenaries and heavier on panels.

I also want to emphasize that the Congress and ISSS meeting will overlap and be merged at certain key points, namely: The welcoming reception and concert on Sunday night, some of the afternoon and evening symposia and panels during the World Congress portion, the plenary forum on Friday afternoon, the banquet on Friday evening, the public lecture on Friday night and the wrap-up “Open Forum” on Saturday.

Finally, I might mention that we hope to be able to make this truly a global event by enlisting the participation of several remote sites in other countries. We will have at our disposal the world-class capabilities of the Rogers Communications Center at Ryerson University, and we are very hopeful that we will be able to get help from the McLuhan Communications Program (which is moving to Ryerson) in organizing this effort.

Let me just wind this up with a brief mention of several special forums, symposia and panels that we hope will enliven the activities at the Toronto meeting and help to support our overall theme: “Understanding Complexity: The Systems Sciences in the New Millennium.”

The first of these events involves the so-called Y2K problem. It seems to me that there is an historic irony — fraught with symbolic significance — in the fact that we are not, as one might expect, facing the new millennium with high hopes for the future and faith in the promise of technology, as our optimistic forebears did at the end of the 19th century. Instead, we are facing midnight on December 31st of this year with dread, and contingency plans, and lawsuits that are already being filed by eager litigators in anticipation of what’s to come. The Y2K problem (like global warming) highlights one of the deepest aspects of the human condition: technology has become a double-edged sword, a source of progress and a serious threat.

Our change of attitudes toward technology can be illustrated with some of the slogans that have been used to define recent decades.

  • The 1950s were really captured, I think, in the slogan for a GE ad: “Progress is our most important product.”
  • The skepticism of the 1960s was expressed in the ironic title for comedian Mort Sahl’s famous nightclub act: “The Future Lies Ahead.”
  • In the 1970s, as the environmental movement emerged, ecologist Kenneth Watt became famous for the slogan “the future is not what it used to be.”
  • If there is a slogan that is appropriate for 1999, perhaps it might be: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the future may be cancelled.”

Indeed, a great many people will not be allowed to celebrate New Years Eve this year. Many agencies and business firms are cancelling vacations, or staffing up with double shifts and preparing various contingency plans. It seems to me that the systems sciences ought at to be involved in this important millennial “event”. Collectively, we should have something useful to contribute to the understanding of how the Y2K problem happened and what can be learned from it.

It happens that one of our members, Professor Stuart Umpleby at George Washington University, is leading a research program that will involve both before and after analyses and perspectives, and he has graciously agreed to utilize the results of his program as the basis for a special forum in Toronto on “The Lessons of Y2K.” Professor Umpleby will be the facilitator and Adam Sundel will serve as our internal contact person during the next several months. (Descriptions, contact persons, e-mail addresses and website addresses, where appropriate, for all of our special forums, symposia and panels will be posted on the ISSS website very soon.)

Other special events (and their facilitators) will include: “Healthy Communities in a Healthy World” (Len Duhl); “Re-thinking Human Rights and Global Responsibilities in the New Millennium” (Bob Artigiani), “The Art and Science of Forecasting in the Age of Global Warming” (Hal Linstone); “Business and Social Organizations in the New Millennium: The Challenge of Complexity” (Enrique Herrscher); “What is Life/Living?” (John Kineman); and “Foundations of Information Science” (Søren Brier)

Back in the 1920s, a famous astronomer stuck his neck out and predicted that intelligent life would one day be found on Mars. This prompted the satirist H.L. Mencken to respond: “How is that possible. We haven’t even found intelligent life on Earth.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, 1000 years from now (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) people might still say that, in Toronto, Canada, in July of 2000, the ISSS proved H.L. Mencken wrong.

Category: Publications