Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Watching for trends in the future: a perilous venture

These are times when we would all like to foresee what is in store in the coming year.

Financial Times [Philip Stephens, “Advice for seasonal seers: future is not in the stars” December 18, 2008] reminds us that, “Now in the throws of a changing world order, understanding the present provides the only clear direction for the future.” But at the same time he points out that scarcely anyone foresaw major developments of this past year. If we continue to be so blind as we have been, we are in for a bumpy ride.

Understanding the present in such a way as to enable useful interpretation of the trends turns out to be a task that escapes our competence. Paul Krugman [NYReview, 12/18/08, pp 8,10] reminds us what Maynard Keynes had to say about the world situation of his time: "We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand." As Krugman puts it, "The true scarcity in Keynes's world -- and ours -- is therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding."

Having tried my own hand at prediction I am duly sensitive to how unlikely I am to foresee most of the critical turns of affairs that are ahead. The best I know to do is to keep looking at the skies, guessing as I best can at what they portend, or seem to me to portend. Knowing how limited we are, we at least feel sure that to ignore the indications of the future, whatever they are, is to abandon the responsibility we have as sentient beings.

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