Weak Signal Research
Quo Vatus - Matt Taylor 1987
Systematic Future Mapping
part 1 of 2
go to part two


Each of us navigates the present by means of a tacit model of the past and the future. Where we think we came from and where we think we are going rules many of our in-the-present actions.


No matter how formal our models of past, present and future, much of what we believe and know stays below the surface of our awareness. This is because of the nature of brain and mind and is, in fact, a feature of the system. This “inaccessible” content can be tapped by engaging in the design process. Design, by nature, is a synthesis process - so is the constant workings of our out-of-conscious mind.


It is important, however, to focus on certain aspects of our “future model” and subject it to rigorous analysis. Failure to do so can lead to disastrous consequences.


The definition of Weak Signal® Research provided on the MG Taylor web site offers the following.


“Weak Signal Research refers to those organizational traits and organic components that enable the enterprise to detect weak signals as a matter of course, build models and stories that illustrate the possible effects of whole sets of signals over time, and redesign itself efficiently to take advantage of these possibilities.”

Bryan Coffman 1997


This approach is far from a dry intellectual exercise. It implies a multi-agent process. It is possible to conceive of a whole ValueWeb® performing effective WSR even though being highly distributed.


Weak Signal Research is, in actuality, both an individual task and a group one. Each individual (node) gathers signals, communicates them (via PatchWork Designs Rules), processes the information per local interests and communicates what makes sense of the resulting gestalts. The network is reciprocal in this process. Both individual and group memory is possible if the right processes and systems are in place. It is a disciplined process but it is not technology dependent. Effective WSR does not requires acres of computers and data. It requires, a high sampling rate, pattern recognition, model building, high frequency testing and precise feedback. It requires sophisticated imagination and analytical thinking - a combination of modalities that our society, unfortunately, teaches that do not go well together. To be effectively applied, WSR requires design and strategic capabilities. This is a world rules by vision as much as logic.


I have been doing Weak Signal Research since the mid 1970s. My work of the last 30 years has largely stemmed from the models I built at that time. It is now time to wipe the slate clean and start building a new Model of the next generation - a period which will be most critical for Humankind. The new iteration of my ReBuilding the Future Course [link: rebuilding the future] will be one vehicle for doing this.

What follows are the “signals” I am finding significant for this transition period. Actually, every one of them has a lengthy history. I am dating them at the contemporary time a triggering (source) event raised the awareness of the general population to the issue or at lease the circumstances surrounding the issue. These dates, and the lag-time they reveal, stress how far behind the curve we are in the task of forming appropriate responses to the conditions we are creating. It can be seen that there are many interactions between these signals that cause fortunate or unfortunate synergist consequences depending on their combination and our responses to the conditions thus created.

Signal # 1
year: 1959

Context Nanotechnology itself was a Weak Signal for the first 20 years that Eric Drexler and Christine Peterson et. al. tried to get the world to pay attention to its possibilities and implications - both positive and negative. In the last ten years is has become a strong signal with billions invested into research and products. However, common understanding of the social, economic, political and safety issues associated with nanotechnology remain very weak signals at best. Nanotechnology when combined with the growth of computing power and developments in biology can create what Ray Kurtzweil and others refer to The Singularity [see #21]. This will be change of a different kind which will alter most of the “rules” humankind has played by for millennia. We may find ourselves with the power of gods, the education of school children and the desires of a drugged out consumer society. Not a good combination.
Source Event Richard Feynman gave his now famous There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom talk in 1959. Eric Drexler published Engines of Creation in 1986. The Foresight Institute was started that year. The event yet to come is the invention of a practical means for bottom up atom by atom manufacturing. Long before this event, however, there will be many nanotechnology breakthroughs and fortunes made. The path to the nanotechnology breakthrough will be an exciting one and perhaps not with out incidents. I am thinking that one of these will “wake up” the world hopefully stimulate an intelligent dialog not an overreaction.

Nanotechnology Properly Employed

The focus of this week signal is not nanotechnology and its development itself. It is the early indictors regarding how we will choose to develop it, apply it and self-regulate our use of it.

Implications The specific implications of nanotechnology go on and on: massive breakthroughs in materials engineering, computing power, miniaturization, medical technology, energy production, the distribution system - it is endless. It is the impacts on the individual and society which introduce both the greatest potential and dangers. I will say it again, mature nanotechnology changes all the rules, all of the “natural” constraints which have governed the actions of humanity for as long as we have social memory. Look at how we have chosen to live with the technology developments of the last century then multiply this by many orders of magnitude. It is by this thought experiment that the true scope of the opportunity can be seen as well as the risk that we will dive into this era totally not prepared.
Patterns We see here, once again, the two generation lag I write of between the introduction of an idea to acceptance (cycle I) then the march toward ubiquity (cycle II). We are somewhere in this second cycle and it is not easy to see how prepared we are or not, as a society, to become responsible users of the many possible applications of this technology. The pattern here is a boring as it is embarrassing: great man (Feynman) makes a suggestion which is largely ignored; young genius (Drexler) writes a thesis which is derided and ultimately a “popular’ book (horrors!) advocating a serious thought process about the implications; this is still ignored; Scientist and technologist wife (Peterson) form an Institute (outside the mainstream !!) to do this neglected work; The science is attacked; a technical book is written and also attacked; new discovers are made, people become interested, the military becomes interested, the Institute is successful, a Nobel is rewarded (everything is OK now), serious money is invested; “serious” science becomes involved and there is a movement to push our now not-so-young hero aside with hardly a thank you (although he is not playing this game); BIG money becomes involved and the gold rush is on! Did the serious debate ever take place? Not really. Is nanotechnology as dangerous as some would have it? Probably not. Will products be as safe as large, politically connected corporations will have you believe? Probably not. Will the public be shocked when they belatedly discover military uses done in their name yet without their consent? I hope they will yet recent history is not encouraging in this regard. This pattern is as old as the wheel. I think that it is a dangerous habit which will someday cause humanity great grief. Is nanotechnology one of the greatest discoveries of all time? I think it is yet only when we are prepared - as a species - to deliberately design our future as a species in a self-aware, mature, responsible way. I wonder if the establishment will give Eric the Nobel...


Weak Signal Research is an early warning system. It is a method designed to effective employ the social time lag between discovery-invention and the impacts which follow as a consequence. Nanotechnology may make living thousands of years a reality. It can be argued that once we achieve this capability, and it is ubiquitous throughout humanity, that all will be well. Some will argue that this kind of longevity is not possible. What is often missing from the debate is consideration of the shorter term consequences along the path to longevity - consequences which are surely going to happen and can be disruptive to existing slow-moving systems. Let us say that “suddenly” the average life span of the affluent will “jump” 20 years. In context of our present political-economic system this can cause some very interesting social stress points. Issue of fairness, control, handing off to younger members of society, the distribution of power, the calcification of thought, and many other issues can arise. Have we thought any of this through or will we once again react in the moment based on the predigests and narrow self interests of the power elite in place at that moment? Multiple this simple example by many and the true lag between our growing capability and thinking may become clearer.
Perhaps it is a positive Weak Signal that Eric Drexler, Christine Peterson and their associates did not follow the normal narrowly defined career path and instead worked - not only for the technical development of nanotechnology - and insisted that broad social understanding, safe and ethical use was of equal importance. It is not easy to assess how effective their 20 plus year effort has been. It is easy to see that now the flood gates of development have opened. How will the balance be maintained between prudent thoughtful process and exuberant development in a way that is consistent with freedom of choice? Free people in a free market, the theory tells us, make the best determinations. There is not question that markets sort through complex choices extremely efficiently. There also is no question that issues like nanotechnology require informed, forward thinking “buyers” as well as genuinely free un-manipulated markets. [see #23]. Do we have either? I ask this in the wake of the housing-mortgage boom-bust. Was this just “bad” luck?

Signal # 2 Terrorism
year: 1914

Context There are four kinds of Terrorism which must be dealt with differently - Traditional Raiding, systematic State Terrorism, Ideologically Driven, and, reaction to Political Repression. The first three are of a different kind than the fourth yet are often combined into a complex witches brew of great potency. To treat these the same, or to fail to comprehend their different combinations, is to make a strategic blunder that will foil even the best designed tactical moves and well executed actions. All four exist in the modern world with a rapid increase in their mixing. This makes most attempts to deal with terrorism self defeating from the beginning. Often, terrorism wins even when individual terrorists are defeated.
Source Event Terrorism has been long with us. I will place the source of modern terrorism at the feet of three seminal events: World War I and how the Great Powers dealt with its aftermath including the reconstituting of state lines and regimes after the war; The introduction of mass bombing on civilian populations and acts of mass ethnic cleansing during World War II; and, the post war consequences of the “Cold War” which followed. I have long viewed the period since 1945 up through the present as World War III which is a global civil war over the control of natural resources combined with a futile attempt for one of several political, economic, religious ideologies [see #3] to be imposed by force on the majority of humankind. To a certain extent all of this can be seen at the failure of Enlightenment principles [see #19] and the consequence of the passing of the Nation State as a viable entity [see # 6].

Terrorism-Freedom Equation

The central aspect of this Weak Signal is how terrorism effects freedom and how freedom effects terrorism. An act of terrorism itself is hardly a weak signal. Those signals which indicate the reciprocal relationship between terrorism and true freedom are my focus.

Implications Terrorism cannot be defeated. The solution is to eliminate its root causes. To do this, on a global scale, means accomplishing a political economic-change of unprecedented proportions. This requires a paradigm shift in how all peoples perceive humanity in general and each other in specific. It requires creating a much freer and level playing field than exists today and the practical implementation of how we employ economic activity so that a free enterprise system [see #23] does exist and function in fact rather than in the imagination of a few and for the immense benefit of a very few. Most of all it requires universal education - real education. If terrorism forces societies to over react and give up their own civil liberties and rule of law then it will accomplish far more harm than the perpetrators of any acts can achieve on their own. Given the state of technology, the interconnected world, and the ubiquity of knowledge and resources, the balance of possible damage per investment in time material and risk is shifting toward terrorist acts compared to conventional ways of defending society and projecting force. Means available to terrorist are not easily nullified by large scale military actions. Technically, these are impedance mismatch and requisite variety problems. No amount of wishing and flexing of massive muscle will alter the result. Asymmetrical warfare are not just a words - the system with the greater variety will “win.”
Patterns The major pattern of terrorism is that of a closed-loop negative synergy process. This is referred to as a “catch 22” in popular language and a “double bind” by Psychology. In cybernetics, it is called a positive feedback loop. Unbalanced positive feedback does not lead to system stability. This is a technical system that functions the same in a social system as it does in an individual, a cult an economy or a machine. Therefore, it is not primarily a policing or military issue. The careful, precise use of restrained force may be required to protect innocent peoples while more curative actions are taken yet it must be remembered that even the most careful use of force will act as an amplifier within the system. Another pattern to consider is that of short term exploitation at the expense of long term, principled maintenance of the social commons. Failure of a sustainable social commons is almost always present wherever terrorism arises. The pattern of fundamentalism and excessive ideology combined [see #3] with political economic power will also be present. Acts of terrorism, with the exception of truly individual clinical situations, rarely occur in a vacuum.
Links The Nation State and September 11, 2001
Structure Wins - the use of hierarchy
ReBirth at Ground Zero
The central issues of terrorism are not the acts - no matter how deadly or despicable - of terrorism itself. The key issues are what gives rise to terrorism, how defending against it can erode civil liberties and turn a society into the very thing it is supposedly fighting, and how terror can be confronted without using terror tactics and perpetuating further cycles of violence. The solution to terror is the ability of imagining a world - and building such a world - where terror is not an endemic feature of the paradigm and social structure in place just merely an occasional universally condemned act of violence which is quickly and fairly dealt with. Acts of terror cannot be totally eliminated in a truly free society. They can be made rare yet unfortunate events. Terrorism cannot be eliminated in a totalitarian society either as they will be generated by this circumstance and may be the only response possible on the path to freedom. This relationship of terrorism to repression is what makes it so difficult to come to terms with and separate the merely brutal, sadistic and opportunistic from acts of true desperation.
The Weak Signals of Terrorism-Freedom are not found simply in its presence - terrorism has been with us since the dawn of humanity. The signals to track are those related to how it is viewed, how it is responded to and if truly effective actions are being taken instead of violent reactions which will only perpetuate this deplorable and growing aspect of our present civilization.

Signal # 3
year 1144

Context When the term fundamentalism comes up generally people think of religion. In fact, this pattern is prevalent in all arenas of human endeavor be it religion, economics, business, science, academia, the arts, media and politics. The tenor of debate today, in all of these fields, is becoming more and more outrageous and less civilized. The House of Intellect is in disarray. This is the era of SPIN [see #5] made possible by the decline in education [see #16] all to the detriment of the social commons and the benefit of those who seek power over others. Often these symptoms are treated as just a passing superficial expression of our present “freer” culture. I think they are becoming embedded in our culture and are very serious indeed - this is not a game. I do not see this as an expression of a mature free culture but as the breeding grounds for the return of totalitarianism. The concept of cultural wars is an accurate description yet misapplied when citing the situation in the mid-east, as example. This conflict is more one between fundamentalists with different venues and interests than between cultures of a totally different kind. The failure of Enlightenment Principles [see #19] has let loose the dogs of war. This is first and foremost a war for the hearts and minds of humanity punctuated with moment of extreme violence.
Source Event From the perspective of the Western Tradition, I have to name the Inquisition as the source right down to our present time. This launched a struggle which has continued to this day.

The Return or Fall of Fundamentalism and Conflict of Cultures

Are we seeing a return of fundamentalism in all of its disguises or its last stand? It is this just another oscillation as the curve swings one way and then another or are we experiencing a fundamental change? Will the remaining cultures on Earth be honored and enjoyed or suppressed and wiped out? Whatever the outcome, will it be arrived at by self-aware, open dialog and free action or by the imposition of propaganda, economic sanctions, drugs and violence.

Implications In this time, with the power we are gaining, this issue, the return or fall of the fundamentalist mentality may be the single most important collective decision we will make. We are becoming a global community that will be transparent or surveillance dominated [see:18]. It is difficult to believe that the technology to do this will stop being developed or not used. The question is, as David Brin has framed in the Transparent Society, is how. In such a world an intolerant humanity will escalate itself to mass suicide. And, tolerance will not be an adequate antidote. We must do much better than tolerate one another - we have to drop the very belief structures which lead to the conflict. We have to make a truly creative society.
Patterns The fundamentalist mentality is always the same no matter the field: there is one truth, one right way, those who do not believe are demented wrong or evil and condemned, they must be stopped by any necessary means so virtue is protected. This is a self righteous, narrow-minded, tight mentality which usually resides in institutions which wield great power over the thoughts and actions of their members. To stray from the path is to be excommunicated. Those who disagree are attacking the entire community of believers. This attitude is independent of the belief. It is possible, for example to strongly believe in a religion and not condemn other faiths. Possible to be a member of a political party and treat members of another parties with respect and collaboration. It is possible to be a scientist representing the present paradigm and encourage new ideas and dissent. The fundamentalist mentality does not tolerate dissent and given the means will eventually embrace power as a means to stomp it out. From a child bullied in the classroom for being “different,” the student told that a subject for a doctorial thesis “will end your career,” to a religious leader recommending the assignation of a lawfully elected leader of another nation, a reporter, no matter the facts, unable to publish an article questioning the consensus position, to the invasion of another country - without knowledge of its language or history - to change its regime, we see the same arrogant, viscous, conforming pattern. The times change. The costumes change. The ideas change as do circumstances and style. The pattern does not.
Links http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition
In a complex and interconnected world, cultures are rubbing up against one another at an increasing rate and magnitude. The separation of time and space where cultures can rise and fade is no longer a luxury we have. We need new policies, attitudes and social habits to deal with this. The present mix is not working. There will be a global culture - it is already emerging. This should be built on the rich diversity of many local and distributed cultures. If these are destroyed, we will reap a bitter harvest and have built a fragile, dull and ultimately non viable world.
The question is if we will have a global society - and it will be global - of repression and fear or openness and creativity. In such a society, we all will be exposed to things which will not fit our personal ideal world. It is a fundamental choice to attempt to impose our view or embrace true freedom even when it is messy. It is on thing to argue for and promote ones’s values in a free market of ideas and goods and another to use power to squash difference or legislate the contrary viewpoints out of existence. Our individual and collective choice in regards these matters will determine the spirit of the era to come.
There is one issue that has to be considered and that is why some people feel driven to fundamentalism. One can be an Evangelical Christen, for example, and not be a fundamentalist. One can be a strong Liberal or Conservative without being a fundamentalist. From the perspective of a religious conservative, which a couple has every right to to be, think of trying to raise a family in the present American culture. Would you want your child walking the streets, going to school, exposed to everything you oppose? Think of the just finished (08) US presidential primaries where both a Liberal and Conservative were both treated marginally by the press. Who declared what they had to say as not relevant or interesting? Individuals with double digit ratings were actually excluded from debates because they “had not earned the right?” Who made this judgment? Of course they were free to keep on campaigning yet is the public free from spin [see:#5], propaganda and the exposure that only money can buy? In the practical world of modern politics is a manufactured consensus and money buying the election? The point is simply this: in a pluralistic and free society it is dangerous to “win” too completely. It is critical to win and lose philosophical and political arguments gracefully and always leave the “opponent” a way out. Sun Tzu knew this. The great lesson for the coming era is for individuals, groups, movements and society to learn that sometimes it is better not to do something just because you can. If an atheist cannot send their son to school with confidence; if an Evangelical family cannot feel secure allowing their daughter to walk the down the streets of a city; if someone for or against a war cannot standup and make their point without being spit upon; then these people, and ultimately all of us, are forced back into to a defensive, enclave winner-take-all mentality. Is this what we want? Moderation is not inconsistent with freedom it is an essential quality of it. The attitude of consumerism [see #17] runs far deeper than the shopping mall. Do not flaunt a freedom or right in the face of someone whom it may offend just because the law says you can. Do not impose you viewpoint by force even if you can get always with it. This is both good domestic and foreign policy. The individual and the commons have to be balanced. The present and the future have to be reconciled. The quality of life lived is the issue - not ideology.

Signal # 4

Context It has been the default design assumption of humanity for a long time that the Earth was a stable system with its physical evolution more or less completed. Those who have tried to say otherwise have been banned from polite company for decades. Along with this we assumed that other than local disturbances nothing that we humans did would greatly alter the situation. The overall attitude of the human race (not a large number of its individuals) towards planet Earth can only be described as rape and pillage with a causal disregard for life except as it may serve our purposes. Sorry, this is the record. Earth has restored herself time and again sometimes with the help of humans only to be exploited again and again. On an individual level, few humans whom I have met have wanted this. The arguments from utility, that this exploitation was necessary for human survival, does not check out with the facts - not in the past, not now and not in regards future options. With this legacy, and despite many cultures who escaped this path, humanity is ill prepared to do the thinking necessary, and take the actions necessary, to deal with the weather challenges we are likely to face and to some significant measure have created. There are two extreme sides to the global warming debate and both are wrong-headed. One is that it is not happening at all and even it is it does not matter. The other blames humanity exclusively and says it will be the end of life including human life unless we die, get off the planet or give up our well being. I doubt in any scenario it will mean the end of the Human race. There are many ways we can survive even the worst forecasts of weather change. This is not the question and the argument is the wrong argument. The ethical question is how could we have ignored the evidence for so long and how do we account for the millions of species we are killing and the billions of our own race who are likely to die in payment for a careless past and the future survival of the elite who will marshal the means to do so? Bluntly, the social strategy seems to be “I will make it and you will not - too bad.” Actually, I have not heard “too bad” expressed much. This debate is the old paradigm - the legacy of millennia of bad habits. There is a new model emerging which does not call for sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of our human way of life nor the sacrifice of most other life on this planet nor a good chunk of humanity.
Source Event  
Signal Rapid Global Weather Change
Patterns Either/Or thinking while useful as a technique of logic is a disaster as an embedded social paradigm.
General Links of Interest
In part one of Weak Signals Research overview, covered the basic idea of this method plus four signals: Nanotechnology Properly Employed, Terrorism-Freedom Equation, The Return of Fundamentalism and Conflict of Cultures and Rapid Global Weather Change. With each of these, I stressed it is not the surface issue itself which constitutes the weak signal it is how these signals are heard and responded to (or not) which defines their “weakness.” Also, it is their potential interaction with one another and the other signals, yet to be described, which is of particular interest.
Part Two will continue with more Weak Signals. It will be seen that underlying all of this complexity are a relatively small number of PATTERNS which constitute a Pattern language of social habits and organizational change constraints. It is by understanding these patterns that it becomes possible to design and facilitate corrective actions to anticipated problems thus avoiding the “crashing into the wall” technique so prevalent in the world today.
go to part two

Matt Taylor
Palo Alto
March 16, 2002



SolutionBox voice of this document:



posted March 16, 2002

revised July 28, 2008
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(note: this document is about 20% finished)

Copyright© Matt Taylor 1987, 2002, 2004, 2008

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