It's been over 2,500 years since the Oracle first offered the ancient Greeks a glimpse of their futures, and soothsaying is still pretty hit and miss. Today's seers may favor predictive software over, say, bird entrails, but if they could really see into the future, they'd be so rich they wouldn't have to tell fortunes for a living.
But here's a sure thing: the future's big business. Just ask Peter Schwartz. As chairman of the California-based Global Business Network, a "scenario planning" firm advising corporations and governments, it's Schwartz's job to know what's around the corner. Building on his experience as head of Royal Dutch/Shell's Group Planning unit in the 1980s, Schwartz, 56, charts inevitabilities and uncertainties for investors and politicians grappling with long-term decisions. Can he really tell us the shape of things to come? In Inevitable Surprises: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century (The Free Press; 245 pages) he insists that he can. Here's a sampling of what he sees ahead:
Prediction No. 1: There's still plenty of life in the global economy. Growth in some Western countries might be struggling, but Schwartz argues that technological advances and management innovations point to rising productivity levels and a "Long Boom" ahead. Thanks to further trade integration through globalization, quantum computers up to 100 million times as powerful as today's PCs, and widespread fiber-optic broadband by 2015, he estimates that "we will probably come close to a doubling of the overall standard of living throughout the world in a generation." The globe's second-most-powerful economy in 2020? China.
Prediction No. 2: The U.S. doctrine of preemptive strikes and increasing unilateralism will pump up the ill feeling between itself and so-called orderly nations like France and Germany. Over the next five years, Schwartz says, American military forces will pull out of almost all their overseas bases, as massive standing deployments give way to a high-tech global police corps calling on small numbers of special forces. The enemy, however, will remain the same. Talking up the possibility that U.S. aggression bolsters the ranks of terror networks, Schwartz leaps into a scenario in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan succumb to radical Islamists within the next 10 years, with "the probability of one of them falling likely enough as to be virtually inevitable."
Prediction No. 3: We'll live long enough to see whether his other predictions come true. Cloning techniques will allow scientists to replace worn-out cells in elderly patients with younger ones, by manipulating the telomere gene that dictates cell aging. With millions of people enjoying an active life through to 110 or 120 years old within a half-century, Schwartz sees more married couples in their 70s opting for serial monogamy; so look for a hike in divorce rates and a new wealth of multigenerational families.
Schwartz is sweeping, but he's not always generous with the detail. Even if you knew with certainty that a "Long Boom" was in the cards, you could still get hurt by the short busts between now and then. Equally frustrating, he throws up all manner of potential fuel sources for the automobile of 2015 anyone for electric, hydrogen cells or natural-gas turbines? without picking a likely winner. "Whatever the ultimate fuel source becomes," he writes, "we can be certain that it will be green."
Well, thanks. That's about as useful as the horoscope that says: "You will have a meaningful encounter with someone you know." This is where scenario planning exposes its achilles' heel: Is a range of potential developments of any value if it leaves no clearer picture of the future? After all, Schwartz was part of a U.S. congressional commission that warned of a 9/11-type scenario among several others shortly before the attacks took place. The more possible scenarios drummed up, the more likely we are to remain inert or, as Schwartz himself recognizes, resort to denial. And even a gift-wrapped final scenario can leave questions unanswered. Inevitable Surprises warns that we're "facing the inevitability of another global plague," without giving an insight into its timing, source or nature.
Still, Schwartz's writing carries a stubborn credibility, even as he brushes with science fiction, predicting, for example, physical teleporting by 2050. Perhaps our cynical era craves being told metanarratives, even while we can see the cracks. Was it easier at Delphi? Perhaps. Once we get that teleporter working, maybe we can go back and see what the future used to look like.