May 15, 2008

Historian vs Futurist

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future"
The past is all we can talk about - predictions are just extrapolations, but it's the future we'll all be living in.

Niall Ferguson and Peter Schwartz, a futurist, had a debate the other week at the Long Now Foundation. MP3 here. Schwartz came off the worse, if only because it's so much easier for a futurist to get it wrong (it's almost guaranteed) than for a historian. There's one past, but many futures.

The one line summary is that Ferguson is a pessimist and Schwartz an optimist. I veer between the two, happy today but aware that it could all go very wrong, very soon. Consequently I see myself as a good boy scout, although in practice I tend to be ill-prepared.

Without pessimism there's less incentive to work for a decent future. All the optimists I know - something will turn up - are getting picked off by reality, one by one. Meanwhile, the pessimists are grinding themselves down...

Consider climate change - is the good work being done by those who think it’s not a problem or by those who think it is? Or is no good work being done? Be pessimistic about the future but work towards a better one, which also seems to be behind Ferguson’s liberalism [or conservatism, for American readers].

More Niall Ferguson on MP3

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