I just finished reading "The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century," by George Friedman, and I hope he is wrong about nearly everything. His thesis is that we humans don't have much choice in our international politics, that we are guided by geopolitical considerations, and that armed conflict is inevitable. The book is an odd mix of plausible scenarios and wacky Star Wars fantasies.
Perhaps that is not surprising, coming from a fellow who is the chief intelligence officer and founder of Strategic Forecasting Inc. (Stratfor), a private intelligence agency whose clients include foreign government agencies and Fortune 500 companies (and plain old citizens willing to pay $199 a year for newsletters).
There is a some fresh thinking in the book, but ultimately it suffers from a failure of imagination. First, the big stuff from Friedman that might seem counter-intuitive: The United States is not in decline, he says; in fact, it has only begun to flex its muscle as the dominant power on the globe, a position it will hold for the rest of the century. (That part sounds right, though it also flatters the potential customers for his intelligence newsletters.)
What about China? Pretty much written off as an insular and isolated giant, economically dependent on the U.S. as a buyer and a borrower.
Overpopulation? Not a problem. Nations will soon be underpopulated and fighting to lure immigrants.
Global warming and the energy crisis? Population decline and technological advances will solve both.
Forget al Qaeda and radical Islam, he says; they're just passing problems, already moving off stage.
Is the current White House going to transform domestic policy? Writing before the outcome of the 2008 election, Friedman says no, that won't happen for another 15 or 20 years, the end of a 50-year cycle that started with Reagan.
The shift in domestic policy will be caused by a financial crisis that will make our current situation look like a blip. Russia will briefly rise again, for a mini cold war, then collapse. Eastern Europe will grow in dominance over Western Europe. Our greatest adversaries will be Turkey and Japan, and, eventually, Mexico, as the southwestern United States becomes a borderland of people and state governments with dual loyalties. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never be resolved; it will just fester on for another 100 years.
Friedman concedes he could be wrong about many details. He treats his predictions as a parlor game, something his grandchildren will enjoy reading in the future.
He does make plausible cases for the events and predictions mentioned so far. He is on firm ground when explaining the hidden motivations for everything from our Middle East interventions to open trade with China. It is when Friedman ventures into the realm of science fiction and elaborate scenarios contingent on specific incidents that he starts to strain credulity.
He predicts that the United States will build giant "Battle Stars" in space, but that because of hubris these space stations will have one fatal flaw, that we will think of them as unbeatable, not noticing that a hardy band of rebels could launch a sneak attack... Yes, it does sound a lot like the original "Star Wars" Death Star, though Friedman gives no hint that he is familiar with the film (or "Battlestar Galactica").
On the elaborate scenario goes. Japan knocks out our Battle Stars from its moon bases in a surprise attack (why didn't future Americans just read Friedman's book!?), then Japan teams up with Turkey to cripple our military. But the U.S. strikes back with super-secret high-tech weapons that run on unlimited electrical power harnessed from space.
One side effect of that unlimited solar power beamed from space: We'll all have robot servants. (Well, actually, I'll be dead by then, along with all the baby boomers, after spending my old age in the care of Mexican immigrants, who will be paid handsomely to run our medical care and service industries. He predicts the boomers will use political clout to approve one expensive government program after another well into their 80s).
Interestingly, Friedman does not predict that these robots will turn into a humanlike race of androids known as the Cylons, nor that we will invent time travel so that a brave man named John Connor can travel back to the 20th century, pursued by a lethal killing machine that never stops... I'm kidding him a little here, but Friedman was on firmer ground in the first part of the book. Science fiction writers thought out the ramifications of his technological predictions in far greater and better detail years ago.
"The Next 100 Years" is in some ways the flip side of another book I've been dipping into, "The Black Swan," by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is fascinated by huge, random, hard to predict events outside the normal realm of experience, which he calls Black Swans.
Friedman acknowledges that such unpredictable events happen all the time -- for example, nobody could have predicted that the government's Arpanet would lead to the Internet and then to an iPod that can hold thousands of songs in the palm of one's hand. But he still views the world as one in which nation states will inevitably turn to armed conflict, and where domestic policies will be driven by social and economic pressures independent of political party and personality. In his world, it didn't really matter who got elected president last fall. The country will head in the same direction, more or less, with just a few differences in details.
So what are the "Black Swans" that Friedman missed? That's the hard part, of course. Taleb would say that Black Swans defy prediction. Jetliners slamming into skyscrapers on a sunny September day. A tsunami off the coast of Georgia. A deadly pandemic wiping out major population centers. A giant asteroid striking the earth. Nuclear accidents. The mistake is thinking that chance events are ruled by the Platonic rules of the gambling casinos, when they are a lot messier than that. He no doubt knows Friedman's type. A quick excerpt from the second part of his book:
When I ask people to name three recently implemented technologies that most impact our world today, they usually propose the computer, the Internet and the laser. All three were unplanned, unpredicted, and unappreciated upon their discovery, and remained unappreciated well after their initial use. They were consequential. They were Black Swans. Of course we have this retrospective illusion of their partaking in some master plan. You can create your own lists with similar results, whether you use political events, wars, or intellectual epidemics.
You would expect our record of prediction to be horrible: the world is far, far more complicated than we think, which is not a problem, except when most of us don't know it. We tend to "tunnel" while looking into the future, making it business as usual, Black Swan-free, when in fact there is nothing usual about the future. It is not a Platonic category!
We have seen how good we are at narrating backward, at inventing stories that convince us that we understand the past. For many people, knowledge has the remarkable power of producing conficdence instead of measurable aptitude. Another problem: the focus on the (inconsequential) regular, the Platonification that makes the forecasting "inside the box."
I find it scandalous that in spite of the empirical record we continue to project into the future as if we were good at it, using tools and methods that exclude rare events. Prediction is firmly institutionalized in our world. We are suckers for those who help us navigate uncertainty, whether the fortune-teller or the "well published' (dull) academics or civil servants using phony mathematics.
Friedman makes only passing mention of the Web, and he was writing before its latest social media iterations. He does not seem to recognize how it is already knitting our world together, how it empowers ordinary citizens, destabilizes traditional sources of authority, spreads knowledge and liberation, and generally acts as an agent of change. Imagine how another 50 or 60 years of technological change in computing alone might transform our societies. Imagine an unforeseen invention or breakthrough.
I read both of these as e-books on my Kindle and on my iPhone, devices that might seem amazing now but will surely seem primitive in a short time. Friedman writes of robots, but other thinkers have already predicted that we will be the robots, cyborgs with lifespans far beyond what is known now, in a world of artificial intelligence advances we can only barely imagine. (Ray Kurzweil's singularity might sound as kooky as Friedman's space battles in all its details, but some shadow of it could be on the horizon in 50 years.)
Friedman clearly knows he is playing with fire, that he could be very wrong. And how could he foresee the unforeseeable, the unknown unknowns? So his future still sounds "inside the box," much like the 20th century, only with cooler weapons. I'd like to hope for a great leap in computing and technology that will make us more connected across the globe, in a networked economy where war is no longer considered good for business (or for empires like our own). Imagine a mixed and transparent society that transcends borders, perhaps. And for something else... something interesting and unforeseen.
I think Neal Stephenson did a better job imagining the implications of new science and technology in his novel "Anathem". His world is no utopia, but I'd rather live in it than in the one Friedman sees, a world where we keep making the same dumb mistakes over and over, fighting over the same turf.
I'd say I'm hoping for some Black Swans, but you have to be careful what you wish for, and besides -- they'll happen anyway.