New Year predictions are getting more and more popular. In a world that is growing ever more complex and confusing, we seem to be increasingly eager to get some hints about what lies in the fog just ahead of us. Yet what we need is probably less to get some clues about what might be coming up next than to acquire a more acute consciousness and comprehension of the road we are travelling.
It’s that time of the year again. That time when you wish all the best to those around you. That time when you pick your resolutions and try to convince yourself that this is the year when you will finally keep them. That time also when all types of people tell you what to expect from the next twelve months. Astrologers of course, who have read in the stars when you can expect to get a pay rise, when you are due to meet the love of your life, or when you have the best chances of procreating. But also a growing array of journalists, analysts, futurists, specialists, experts, bloggers, and other luminaries who have figured out what this year has in store for you, your job, your industry, your investments, your country, and your world.
Of course, all New Year predictions are not equal. Some are more worthy of serious consideration than others. Some are based on sound data and thorough research while others are merely exercises in fantasy and imagination. Some claim to be ‘objective’ while others don’t even bother to pretend. More importantly, some carry far more weight than others as they have a much stronger influence on the thinking and actions of those people whose thinking and actions actually contribute to influence the course of events and the shape of reality.
The World in…
Amongst the most influential New Year predictions are of course those made by The Economist, the news magazine of choice of the global elite. Its publication ‘The World in’, now in its 32nd edition, is dedicated to predictions of global trends and enjoys growing success and considerable influence, despite a rather mixed track record. A lot of its yearly predictions tend to be quite general in nature, which limits the risk of getting things widely wrong. Yet it also makes some quite specific calls every year, some of which turn out to be right, while a lot of others are wide off the mark. Above all, the army of journalists, contributors and ‘global leaders’ it mobilises for its predictive exercise often utterly fails to foresee major imminent developments that end up changing the world in profound and multiple ways.
Twelve years ago the influential news magazine asked historian Niall Ferguson to assess the overall performance of its annual predictions publication since it first appeared back in 1986. The verdict was rather mixed, to say the least, listing a whole series of events predicted by ‘The World in’ that did not actually happen, and, most importantly, a whole series of world-changing developments that actually occurred but were totally missed (e.g. the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe in 1989, the descent of Yugoslavia into civil war) or of ‘mega-trends’ that were only spotted late (e.g. the rise of China, the Internet revolution). Most surprising coming from a publication called ‘The Economist’ were the repeated misses concerning global economic and financial events. In particular, none of the financial accidents of the 1990s (i.e. the Japanese stock market crash of 1990, the 1994-95 Mexican crisis, the Asian crisis of 1997, the Russian default crisis of 1998) was foreseen by ‘The World in’.
Since then, The Economist’s predictions record has not dramatically improved. Ten years ago, ‘The World in 2008’ failed to predict any of the financial turmoil that would define that fateful year and shake the foundations of the global economy, while it foresaw that Hillary Clinton would be elected president of the United States. Eight years later, ‘The World in 2016’ failed to predict Brexit and the populist wave that engulfed the Western world, and once again foresaw that Hillary Clinton would enter the White House…
Such record would be rather embarrassing for pretty much anyone, yet it hasn’t prevented ‘The Economist’ from continuing to issue its yearly predictions publication, with growing fanfare and impact every year. In fact, the overall point of the exercise, for The Economist, is not to be right at guessing the short-term future, but to be effective at influencing the global agenda and the way decision makers in the Western world and elsewhere think about it. From that point of view, ‘The World in’ has been and continues to be a resounding success.
Trumpism v Macronisme
Back in 2005 Niall Ferguson found that throughout the 1990s The Economist’s annual predictions publication “almost invariably looked forward cheerfully to another year of higher growth, more democracy and less war – always provided that politicians around the world embraced free trade, privatisation and market liberalisation”, and that it could thus be read “as a classically liberal commentary on the process of globalisation, imbued with an almost Victorian belief in the harmony between economic freedom, political liberalism and international peace”. More than a decade has passed since then, yet ‘The World in’ can still be read in exactly the same way, as an announcement of all the blessings that are around the corner if ‘global leaders’ do the right thing (i.e. what The Economist recommends) and of the risks that could materialise if they don’t.
For 2018, this comes in the form of ‘Trumpism v Macronisme’, i.e. the ongoing competition between ‘open’ (i.e. good) and ‘closed’ (i.e. bad) world views, or between the inward-looking ‘America first’ agenda of U.S. President Donald Trump and the “new kind of pro-globalisation social contract” championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, one that supposedly “boosts competition and entrepreneurship while protecting workers who lose out”. Mr Macron, The Economist says, “will emerge as a modern-day equivalent of Teddy Roosevelt, the American president most associated with the Progressive Era”, i.e. the period of intense social and political change in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. To do so the new champion of Western liberals will be able to ride a wave of “synchronised global economic growth, at last”, as “ten years after the start of the Great Recession, a sense of widespread wellness will begin to take hold in the world economy”.
It is somewhat ironic to see an institution of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economic liberalism pinning its hopes on a Frenchman – and it could actually be seen as an indication of the intellectual disarray in which part of the Anglo-American elite has fallen now that electorates in the UK and the U.S. don’t seem to be anymore willing to abide by its prescriptions. However, Mr Macron will only rise up to his fans and backers’ expectations if economic growth actually strengthens in Europe and globally, as The Economist predicts it will. Yet even The Economist acknowledges that there are very real risks that the world may be approaching the end of the expansion cycle that started in 2009 rather than embarking on a sustained recovery, and that the current uptick in global growth may thus be short lived. What could derail global growth and tip the world economy into a recession are, of course, bad policy decisions, i.e. “central banks tightening [monetary] policy too much, too quickly”.
The course of the year’s events will tell us what The Economist journalists and contributors will have gotten right this time, what they will have gotten wrong and what they will have missed – and missed something big they will probably have. What is already clear, though, is that their predictions will influence the way decision makers in politics, business and society conceive their agenda for 2018, and that a new issue of ‘The World in’ will be published around the end of the year to help them frame their thinking about 2019.
Clearing the fog
Overall, yearly predictions of global events and trends, whether by The Economist or by anyone else, probably tell us more about the mindsets, ideologies, interests, priorities or obsessions of those who make them – as well as of those to whom they are destined – than about what is likely to happen over the next 12 months. In fact, we all know by now that, as someone famously said, ‘it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future’. Yet yearly predictions seem to be increasingly popular, as more and more media, commentators and pundits now feel compelled to issue their own yearly calls and forecasts. That probably has to do with the growing complexity of the modern world, which leaves a lot of us puzzled and struggling to make sense of what is going on around us. Faced with a relentless rise of uncertainty about pretty much everything, we seem to be in search of some help, any help, to clear the deepening fog that is surrounding us.
The world was not supposed to get so confusing, of course, when almost thirty years ago the Soviet empire crumbled and the Cold War came to an abrupt and unexpected end. There were hopes, then, that the world would actually become simpler rather than more complex, more united rather than more fragmented, more stable rather than more fragile. Liberal democracy and capitalism had won, globalisation appeared to be not only unstoppable but also desirable, and a ‘New World Order’ of rising freedom and prosperity for all seemed to be on the cards – which some otherwise serious people said would lead to nothing less than ‘the end of history’[i]. Instrumental to the advent of this new era would be the ‘information superhighway’ of the Internet and associated technologies, which would bring us into the Information age and give us “25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world”…
Needless to say, this is not what we got. Liberal democracy did not conquer the world, and it now rather appears to be on the retreat or degenerating into a parody of itself – even in places where it seemed to be solidly established. The globalisation of capitalism, even if it arguably lifted billions out of extreme poverty, did not deliver rising prosperity for all but rather increasing inequality, mounting social strife and growing political discord. The Internet and digital technologies changed our world in multiple ways – and still do – but the Information age in which they have brought us is looking more and more like a ‘misinformation age’[ii]. A misinformation age in which an endless deluge of data and information ends up obscuring rather than illuminating our reality; in which it is so easy to manufacture and spread lies that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction; in which our social space and our mental universe tends to get shrunk and impoverished rather than expanded and enriched; in which a lot of us get increasingly confused and incapable of sustained attention; in which our cognitive abilities get hampered rather than enhanced[iii]; in which we are getting so much absorbed by technology that we end up being controlled and even manipulated by it.
Overall, decades of relentless globalisation and ‘technologisation’ have ushered an era of endless ‘social acceleration’[iv] in which time seems to flow ever faster, the present gets irremediably shrunk, certainties get repeatedly shattered and expectations based on past experience cannot anymore reliably inform the future, making our relationships to each other and the world increasingly anxiogenic. At the same time, globalisation and the rise of the ‘technosphere’ have turbocharged the ‘Great Acceleration’[v] in human activity that is now the prime driver of change in the Earth System and that leads to more and more ‘planetary boundaries’ to be crossed. Not a single week now goes by without some inconvenient reminder of the multiple, compounding environmental crises that homo sapiens is generating: climate destabilisation, ocean acidification, species extinction, soil erosion, groundwater depletion, toxic waste accumulation, etc. Slowly but surely, slowly but faster and faster, we humans are destabilising the Earth System upon which our existence and survival depends. The resulting ‘global weirding’ of our natural environment leaves many of us confused, oscillating between denial and depression, between various delusions of ‘techno-fixes’ that we try to pretend could both ‘save the planet’ and make us richer and a sense of powerlessness that feeds our very post-modern forms of social apathy, relativism and even nihilism.
Our difficulties in understanding and making sense of our increasingly complex world are probably compounded by the decline of the Western world’s intellectual class. Once upon a time an array of public intellectuals would, in each and every country, engage in critical thinking and reflection about societal issues, and propose somewhat coherent interpretations and recommendations that would help frame the people’s understanding of their reality. Yet the implosion of 20th century ideologies and the accelerating pace of economic, political, societal and technological change over the last decades has left much of the intellectual class in disarray, unable to come up with even seemingly comprehensive narratives of what is going on and where we are heading.
That may be because the rise of the technosphere and increasing societal complexity have forced many members of the intellectual class to specialise in very specific domains and areas of human knowledge, which in turn has hampered their ability to understand and make sense of the world as a whole. That may be because intellectuals have been supplanted in the public debate and the ‘ideas industry’[vi] by new kinds of thinkers, the ‘thought leaders’, who are less interested in analysing, understanding and explaining the world than in proselytising their own worldviews, less inclined to deal with complexity and to engage in critical thinking than to promote concepts that they contend can ‘change the world’. That may be also because the kind of intellectual produced by our modernity is mostly now what essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb (of ‘black swan’ fame[vii]) calls the ‘intellectual-yet-idiot’, i.e. a paternalistic, semi-erudite expert who “pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited”. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the intellectual class has largely lost its ability to help the general public understand the world, or even get the impression that it does. This, in turn, generates yet more confusion and distrust that hampers our ability to make sense of what is going on.
Hence our increasingly frantic search for hints about what may lie around the corner. Our need to be told what is just ahead of us rises as our capacity to understand what is going on around us diminishes. We earthlings tend to prefer certainty to knowledge anyway, as Welsh mathematician, logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) said. Thus we find it somewhat reassuring that more and more people pretend to have the foresight to see what’s on our way as we move forward on an increasingly foggy road – even if deep down we know that what they do is just extrapolate from a limitative set of current trends and past experience and to interpret their extrapolations through their own specific subjective lenses. The best that New Year forecasters can provide us with, in fact, are some more or less valid clues about what could be happening in the short term. This, in itself, does little to dissipate the fog that surrounds us, and it may even contribute to make it more dangerous as it diverts our attention from the much more fundamental need to understand the road we are travelling. As we accelerate along that road and our journey gets more and more uncomfortable, what we need are probably less tips about the state of the road and of the traffic than a map and a compass – or a navigation system, if you wish – to get to know and comprehend which road we have taken, where it is leading us, and where we currently stand on that path. This, in fact, is what we really need to understand and make sense of ‘The World in 2018’. This, in fact, is what we shall discuss in the next post(s).
To be continued…
[ii] A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age – Scientific Habits of Mind, by David J. Helfand, Columbia University Press, 2016
[iii] The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas G. Carr, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010
[v] The Great Acceleration – An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945, by J. R. McNeill & Peter Engelke, Harvard University Press, 2016
[vi] The Ideas Industry – How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas, by Daniel Drezner, Oxford University Press, 2017
[vii] The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Random House, 2007