What does history tell us about predicting the future?

There must have been around a thousand people at Yuval Noah Harari’s talk on Monday night, all paying £30 each. It was at the Emmanuel Centre, which I’d never noticed but is close to Westminster Abbey. The talk was in a huge space with the seats in a semi-circle around the stage or altar. It felt religious, and Harari has something religious about him, although clearly a rationalist. People didn’t quite worship him, but he has something of a superstar status.

As I listened to him, impressed and fascinated by what he was saying, I thought “But isn’t there something illegitimate about historians predicting the future? And doesn’t history show us that most predictions are wrong?”

So when it came to questions I asked him “What does history tell us about predicting the future?”

He thinks quickly, and he answered [I paraphrase]: “It’s harder now than ever. A thousand years ago you could be more confident about the future, things didn’t change so fast. You didn’t have to think that people might be replaced by machines. People would live something like the same lives as their parents.”

“But now millions of things are happening across the globe and changing fast. We have more data than ever on what is happening, yet we can’t make sense of it. Look at the Americans in the Middle East. They have a mass of data on peoples, events, movements, plots, everything. Yet they can’t work out what is happening now, let alone what will happen next.”

I worried that his answer undermined his book, but the thought didn’t seem to occur to him, his interviewer, or, as far as I could tell, anybody else in the room.

 

 

 

 

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