Of Defining Moments & Black Swans
A young Millennial, contemplating the future (the author's son, Leros, Greece, 2004)
By 2050, people won’t judge things by today’s norms. Millennials and their children will decide the shape of mid-century reality, especially in the majority or ‘developing’ world where they are numerically the largest generation. Things we now consider remarkable, unimaginable or outrageous will become the new normal. New factors we haven’t considered will appear, and some anticipated probabilities will not happen at all, or not in the way we think they will, or leading to the consequences we currently expect. And life will go on.
Only part of the future will be forged by making thought-through, principled decisions. Much of it will arise from questionable choices, dodgy politics, ricocheting circumstances, evolving facts, luck, opportunism, profit perceptions, corruption, brilliance, incompetence, incidents and accidents. Black swans will be involved – events and developments that no one believed possible until they actually happen. Centuries ago, people thought that swans were white only, until black swans were found in Australia – hence the name.
Recent instances of black swan events have been the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 Credit Crunch, the 2014 rise of the Islamic State, Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016. Go back a few years before each of these events and they were unforeseeable, impossible, to most. Afterwards we re-edit our mental maps to incorporate such events as if they had been expected, but they weren’t. Black swans will continue happening – this is guaranteed – though their nature, shape and size is the stuff of guesstimates. This makes forecasting difficult, but factoring in black swans is necessary. Airplanes, cars and computers were once impossible, and so too, before your birth, were you.
Events tend to evolve in pattern-setting jumps – periodic defining moments where the game-plan changes critically. The period from 2008 to 2014 was like that, beginning with the banking crisis, progressing to the Arab revolutions and leading to the barbarity displayed by the Islamic State. Once the pattern has been reset, developments tend to extrapolate from there. Our sense of future possibilities tends to be defined by groupthink and received beliefs, a safe territory of knowns and expectations established by consensus or in the duly followed utterances of experts and authorities. But things can head in contrasting directions from this, and more and different things can happen than we bargain for. In a sense, events are not guided solely by the past – it is almost as if the future pulls the present forward, toward possibilities or inevitabilities we hadn’t quite reckoned on.
These shifts happen suddenly, sometimes surreptitiously. The tipping point in today’s shift of power from the West to Asia was the 2008 Credit Crunch – a defining moment that most people thought was a banking crisis, but its implications were bigger, deeper, further-reaching and historic. There will be further tipping and inflection points, each preceded by incremental shifts along a trajectory that suddenly goes critical and changes, and 2008 was such a moment. Expect more.
Even so, the after-effects of such shifts take time to emerge. In the late 2010s there has been a flurry of technological inventions and advances arising from ideas hatched around 2008-12 in hidden away labs, backrooms and meetings. It takes time for things to unfold, even when a tipping point has been crossed. Not only this, but the symptoms of a defining moment can appear in disguise, looking as if the wrong thing is happening when things are actually going strangely right. Around 2008-12, Asia discovered that it had a serious pollution problem – smog and toxicity. Up to that point, nagging Westerners with their environmental concerns were not fully believed in Asia. This discovery marked a tipping point after which Asia became the leading source of momentum in a global clean-up that will unfold in future years. The West will contribute significantly since it has had a head start, but the leading impetus now comes from Asia. That wasn’t expected.
In surveying the future it is thus necessary to factor in defining moments, tipping points and black swans. By their very nature, and because of our normality bias, we don’t easily see them coming. But they come anyway. Talking of which, there is a fifth possible future world scenario that we must mention here, an apocalyptic scenario – apocalypse meaning ‘revelation’, not catastrophe. There is the smallest of chances that the greatest of all black swans could occur, in the form of a global, simultaneous shift of public awareness or perception of manifest reality that brings a radical and wholesale shift of priorities worldwide. In some cultures this would previously have been anticipated as a return of the Christ, or of the Mahdi, or of a sudden dawning of a new age, or some other such miracle cure for our woes. This possibility grates with the modern rationalist mindset, though for some people it is an article of faith. Although several end-of-the-world and redemption mega-events have been predicted in the last fifty years, none has happened – at least, noticeably.
If this report suggested that, by 2050, an apocalyptic scenario were to happen, it would quickly lose credibility. But it is wise not to completely exclude such remote possibilities, even when they confront our normality bias. They might look improbable, impossible or illogical, but it is also valid not to lock that door since, should it happen, we might be faced with very rapid choices to make, for which we might be unprepared. We should accommodate the slim possibility of enormous black swans in our future calculations. “Trust in Allah, and tether thy camel”, goes the Arabic proverb. Have faith in whatever you believe in, but do the sensible thing anyway.