The near future is now impossible to forecast

Science fiction writer Charlie Stross has written about how the world today is so interesting and so volatile that it’s currently impossible to write about the near future. Anything one might forecast for, say, 15 years ahead is, he suggests, more unlikely to occur than at any other time in our recent past.

I’m a little confused by his thesis — at some points he seems to be saying that right now, with the US economy collapsing around legislators’ ears, it’s hard to make forecasts about the future, which is fair enough. In the midst of any big disaster, whether it’s financial, political, environmental, etc, forecasting will be tough because it could leave the world in so many possible states.

Other times Stross is suggesting (I think) that it’s not just the current economic collapse that’s the problem, but that predicting the future has become increasingly difficult over the past couple of decades. Is this the case? For example, thinking about a scenario for 2019 (or does he mean 2008; it’s not clear) written in 1996 he says:

…it would in many ways be more accurate than the future-USA predicted in 1986. But would it have a monumental fiscal collapse, on the same scale as 1929? Would it have Taikonauts space-walking overhead while the chairman of the Federal Reserve is on his knees? Would it have more mobile phones than people, a revenant remilitarized Russia, and global warming?

Well, I bet some writers back then could imagine we’d all have mobiles, or similar. And global warming or, more broadly, environmental disaster has been a known possible future for decades. Would it have seemed, in 1996, likely that Russia would be aggressive and China would have a space programme? I can’t think back and don’t know science fiction well enough to know.

As for the US economy tanking… yes, it’s perhaps unlikely that a US author in 1996 would extrapolate from the then present day and decide the economy was destined to collapse. But it’s also possible that such an author would come up with the concept as one of several possible wild card events and we’re always at the mercy of these, no matter when we’re living.

So I’m saying that yes, forecasting an accurate future is difficult now and probably over the next few months. But is it really generally more difficult during the 2000s than it was in, say, the 1980s? (Via Matt Jones.)

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