For as long as I can remember, I have been hearing of the imminent end of the world. How does a forecaster feel among the omnipresent predictions of the apocalypse?
In an age of ever-accelerating change, the world is essentially constantly ending. This is how I interpret this omnipresent spectre of the apocalypse. The world has already ended many times. We are going through such an end at present, it is the end of the world as we know it. We are entering the new Middle Ages and this is a change encompassing the political, the economic, and the psychosocial.
Today, capitalism is going through a crisis even deeper than the one after World War II. Our social condition is changing, because a large part of the world experiences progressing precarisation, and with it the dwindling of the middle class which would be capable of accumulating a financial cushion for an uncertain tomorrow. In the long term, this state of uncertainty and danger is unbearable, we want to get rid of it at all costs, so we are liable to vote for anyone who promises us relief.
Even at the cost of freedom?
(born 1984), international forecasting consultant, researcher on the evolution of civilization, new technologies expert. Member of the Jagiellonian Club, philosopher, publicist, doctor of humanities. Author of the book Nadchodzi nowy proletariat! [A New Proletariat is Coming!] (2012), editor of Miasta w nowym średniowieczu [Cities in the New Middle Ages] (2016), and co-author of the State Power Index (2017).
The cost often is freedom. In the West, for example, the outsourcing of industrial production from the United States to China was paid for by Main Street first and foremost. Meanwhile, in the countries to which production has moved, the middle class is rapidly growing. As a result, the world order based on US hegemony is crumbling. In addition, although extreme poverty on Earth has been diminishing for a long time, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the United Nations to forecast an increase in poverty in the poorest parts of the world. Climate change will also contribute to this process. So, we are seeing an increase of many worrying phenomena, such as inequalities or the crisis of democracy – and in this context, the end of the world seems inevitable. And the world which is emerging is not yet fully visible.
But we are certainly anticipating some of its form.
Indeed, although we do not want to talk about many probable scenarios, because we are afraid or ashamed of them for various reasons. For example, in Europe, we are bound to be spending more and more resources on combating ethnic and religious segregation and cultural balkanization. However, when we take a look at the official EU report on the future – the 2021 Strategic Foresight Report, we do not find a word about it. There is, of course, much there about climate change, access to technology and resources, and the emergence of a multipolar world [that is, one in which the influence of three or more powers is most strongly present – AN] – and rightly so! – but there is nothing on ethnocultural frictions and the problems with integrating migrants and their descendants.
It is seen as inappropriate to talk about because it can breed dissention and give fodder to the extreme right. Unfortunately, as a result, important topics are often swept under the rug and displaced from key debates about the future. And this denial lets them exacerbate.
Do we have any other embarrassing scenarios that we prefer not to notice?
The famous black swans are events so unlikely that they are difficult to predict. However, there is greater danger from the grey rhinos.
For example, the question of the liberal West’s civilizational defeat. We have learned something from the sociologist, historian, and economist Immanuel Wallerstein [author of the world-systems theory – AN] and more and more often we look at the world as a system of communicating vessels. But in this connected world, we still do not reason in terms of civilizational evolution, where the systems we call civilizations clash with each other, offering different solutions to the same world’s ills. Civilizations are a bit like the alien ocean from Stanisław Lem’s novel Solaris – an abyss governed by its own laws, which spits out an endless succession of evolutionary forms. Meanwhile, in the face of the crisis experienced by the current form of economic and societal liberalism, many Western thinkers, from Anne Applebaum to Ivan Krastev, propose… even more liberalism. Maybe we should rather consider that liberalism is being swallowed by Lem’s ocean, that it will be chewed up and then spat out in a completely new form? Still, among liberal thinkers, wishful thinking continues to dominate.
Perhaps such thinking aims to hold on to some remnants of hope?
But it does the opposite! If we assume favourable scenarios, that is great, let them come true. However, by anticipating adverse scenarios, we can reflect on how we should act now to minimise the greatest risks in the future. This pertains not only to such cases as the famous black swans – events so unlikely that they are difficult to predict. There is much greater danger from the grey rhinos.
The what now?
Grey rhinos! Rhinos that blend in with the savannah. They are like those threats that are permanently present and constantly probable (for example, at the level of 5–10 percent), and because of that remain widely ignored. The term “grey rhino” was introduced by the forecaster Michele Wucker [at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2013 – AN]. Next to climate change, a good example of this phenomenon is the current pandemic. Many people had claimed it was a typical black swan. Meanwhile, the pandemic is actually a grey rhino – scientists had been warning for years that further pandemics are coming. My job is primarily to point a finger at such grey rhinos.
And once we indicate them, what next?
In Europe, for example, the focus should be on designing a model of new multiculturalism and on clarifying the foundations for European unity. I have long said that the European Union should draw up a Charter of Fundamental Rights or even an axiological constitution. Such a constitution could be adopted, for example, by a strengthened Committee of the Regions. As a result, the law would better resonate with European diversity. Meanwhile, we still do not know what the key concepts for the future of the Union are. What, for example, is “liberal democracy” when “democracy”, as Marcin Król wrote, prioritises the will of the collective, while “liberalism” elevates the will of the individual? Or what, in practice, is “open strategic autonomy” as the Union’s approach to global affairs? What here is open, and what is autonomous?
You wrote that the present dilemmas of the Union are similar to the challenges of the Jagiellonian era Poland-Lithuania.
Without an accurate description of what is and what could be, there is no possibility of making a diagnosis and taking corrective or remedial measures. And then we are in for an end of the world, because the course of change will completely break out of our control.
Yes, because even then large multi-ethnic states had to negotiate their policy of internal and external openness. Apart from the moral aspect, we must answer the question of what dangers may arise from this. For example, how to organise our actions in such a way as to accommodate refugees, reconcile differences in values or recognized law, while preserving the sovereignty of the countries concerned. This is a very inconvenient topic for the EU elites, because it requires defining the limits of this sovereignty. Meanwhile, the weaker states of the Union are afraid of the strongest governments dominating over them, which is why they prefer to leave certain concepts open to interpretation, in the belief that this will protect their sovereignty. Strong EU countries are well aware of this, so they avoid precisely defining these concepts as well, only suggesting that it must be done someday. The European Union’s federation dilemma is certainly a grey rhino – it is there, and yet we try not to see it, it appears, then disappears from view, but at all times it is liable to cause havoc.
What are the biggest risks when working to identify such grey rhinos?
Not distinguishing facts from fictions and expectations. We need to be more oriented towards descriptive forecasting, which tells us how things will or can proceed, regardless of what we would like. I emphasize this because when I began to publicly present the theory of the new Middle Ages, some were outraged that I was comparing modern processes to medieval processes. As if I were choosing this future as the desired one, and not just describing the most probable variants of the future. Meanwhile, if we ignore what is happening, our language will very quickly fall short of describing the changes that unfold. Without an accurate description of what is and what could be, there is no possibility of making a diagnosis and taking corrective or remedial measures. And then we are in for an end of the world, because the course of change will completely break out of our control.
Still, I wonder how much reality we can actually control. In your texts on this topic, you distinguish between ordinary forecasting and what is known as foresight.
Foresight focuses not only on how things are and how they are likely to develop, but also on the question of what we can do about it. We outline the contours of the future and from there we can strategically plan our steps based on the predicted trends. This approach is much more constructive than wishful forecasting. Foresight lets us protect ourselves from the worst-case scenario. This way, foresight can be a source of hope, because it gives us a sense of influence over what lies ahead.
Is your theory of the new Middle Ages an example of such foresight?
Yes. This theory points to numerous similarities between the processes that take place today and those that took place at the turn of antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Among others, these processes are: globalization and universalization resulting from the spread of common language and technology, a great migration, and the related problem of multiculturalism. It is also a return to religion and ethnicity as the basis of identity, feudalisation of capitalism, alienation of successive social groups, an information overload resulting in a new kind of illiteracy, namely the inability to recognize and assimilate true information. And finally, it is the fragmentation of states below the level of nation states, while at the same time great socio-political entities (such as the European Union) are being created, based on the philosophy of tolerance. During the two hundred years of peace, called pax romana, the Roman Empire looked similar. Admittedly, today we have a much more developed economy and more resources to maintain order. Nevertheless, if we apply this analogy and look from its perspective at the current situation in Europe and in the world, we may be better able to recognize what is going on by analysing the causes, circumstances, and effects of so- called long duration processes (as Fernand Braudel put it). In other words, we can learn a lesson from history. For the culture of strategic thinking, such a bird’s-eye view is important because it allows one to see important processes and trends, even though for now they are (seemingly) not urgent.
If we know this, why do we have such a problem with thinking strategically?
Because the framework of strategic thinking changes frequently, whenever there is a change in power. At the state level, such a change takes place on average every four years. It is far too short a time to carry out any preventive action for the long term. Well-defined foresight assumes, above all, consistency of action, such as an implementation of a plan spanning several decades. A good example from here in Central Europe is the Three Seas Initiative, a project to transform the eastern flank of the European Union to be more resistant to pressure from the East, including energy pressure. This project has been laid out for many decades, and we see its point every time Russia threatens to cut off the gas supply to our part of Europe.
Do we in Poland often think with such far-sightedness?
The state’s ability to act strategically depends primarily on its internal stability. In Poland, this became possible only after 1989. We started to plan an accelerated accession to NATO and the European Union. But nothing was certain then. Do you remember Stan Tymiński? Adam Michnik dubbed him the “Indian Messiah” from Canada because, armed with one handbook on political PR, he had managed to reach the runoff round of the presidential election. If he had won then, there would have been no accession to NATO in 1999, and today we would probably be paying in roubles and perhaps sending migrants to the German border, hand in hand with Lukashenko. Polish elites got their act together and, for the most part, recognized that being outside NATO is not good for Poland in any probable scenario. And they united against Tymiński. A similar unity was on display about joining the European Union. Fortunately, after 1989, we had some moments of lucidity and foresight, allowing us to formulate, strategize, and reach certain far-reaching goals. May we have as many as possible in the future, and always keep in mind what the Eisenhower matrix describes as “important non-urgent things.” Because the important is bound to become urgent sooner or later. But by that time it will be too late to prepare a strategy. We will be scurrying to salvage as much as we can in the moment.
I have the impression that we are constantly putting out one fire or another. When in the history of the Western world was the best time to engage in this far-reaching thinking?
After World War II, for example. Despite the Iron Curtain, the West had several decades of relative calm, which was a good time to think responsibly and strategically about the future. So it planned for itself a utopian unity, based on the belief that since we fight with steel, let us surrender the possession of steel to mutual control, so that we can no longer murder each other. Sounds naive? Well, it worked! Such idealism is perfectly fostered by exhaustion with war. That was the beginning of the Bretton Woods system of world influence based on the dollar. Supply chains began to be outsourced, benefiting mostly China, which adopted capitalism’s logic of innovation, but without subscribing to democracy. China began to implement solutions which precluded its approach towards Western values – and yet it has established itself as one of the leaders in the race for innovation and effectiveness. Francis Fukuyama’s conjecture about the end of history was shattered.
Maybe the problem was the adopted definition of effectiveness? After all, we are now discussing what is meant by the word “progress” and why it has been so strongly identified over the years with economic growth and nothing else.
In response to this understanding, various schools of economic thought are looking today for alternatives to economic growth, mainly because of its ecological and social cost. They are considering not only abandoning growth altogether (known as degrowth), but also, for example, shifting it to other objectives, such as achieving economic equality or enabling the energy transition (green growth), or assuming a more realistic, agnostic approach to growth (agrowth), by giving it a lower priority. These are important efforts, especially as we are experiencing a crisis of capitalism. We have realised that a system based on the constant maximization of profit and growth also maximizes human needs, and that is a way to nowhere. Younger generations see it more clearly, so they turn to solutions such as a sharing economy or striving for work-life balance. In this sense, in response to the maximized consumerism that has not brought us happiness, we are returning to values like seeing human kind as a part of nature. Or recognising our need for collectivity, disregarded by a system based on extreme individualization. Even technological progress has shown us that our behaviours are incredibly predictable, our attitudes – measurable, our needs – comparable. Therefore, capitalism is likely to evolve in the direction of feudalism.
Or techno-feudalism. After all, almost all of us are already working for big tech, even just feeding the social media algorithms.
Yes, and the only choice we have is to feed either algorithms serving the American Bretton Woods system or the Belt and Road system, a fledgling Chinese alternative based on the New Silk Road trade route. The discussion about these systems is essentially a discussion about the potential paths of global development. Today, the global economic system has its centres, semi-peripheries and peripheries.
So, what we have is techno-colonialism. When we talk about the future, we usually think of the rich countries of the West and the global North. The costs of development, shifted to the poorest places in the world, are still largely invisible to us.
Of course. And, as you can guess, this arrangement mostly benefits the centres (such as the United States or China), while the peripheries (the poorest countries) benefit the least. The current revolution, based on the development of artificial intelligence and automation, will only deepen these disparities. The countries with the data, the tools for analysing it, and the institutions that will be able to take advantage of these analyses, will soon gain such a powerful advantage over other countries that the division into the poor and the rich – or the techno-colonized and techno- colonizing – will be permanently sealed. A techno-colonized country will depend on its techno- colonizer to provide it with tools for development in a world based on digital and other new technologies (such as web browsers, communication tools, or infrastructure to support smart cities). Such a country will not participate in the production of these treasures of the modern world, and in consequence will be forced to rely on purchasing them from the centre, as a form of tribute or fiefdom. Through this, it will be giving up control into the hands of a country with an information infrastructure – in some part also giving up its sovereignty.
But, for example, the European Union does not have its own tech giants, and yet it tries to regulate them, at least in its own territory.
I talk about the new Middle Ages and the new feudalism, so that we can finally get out of the purely capitalist language and logic, and thus widen the scope of our own imagination a bit.
Yes, and in this sense the Union is a digital semi-periphery fighting for a position in the centre – it uses its geopolitical and economic position to dictate conditions at least in part. The Union may succeed, but in the future, individual peripheral countries will have nothing to say. This is how these neomedieval processes work. Developing countries, struggling every day to preserve territorial integrity or to control migration, are unable to focus on what developed countries have pursued, i.e. the development of new technologies and artificial intelligence. And that puts them in a losing position in the tech race, which is really a race for global influence. In a few years, they will only be bouncing off of the glass ceiling and looking for a deal with those who have the digital tools and the necessary infrastructure – that is, they will be forced to enter the neo-colonial network. This is a very unfortunate prospect.
In that case, by anticipating such a course of things today, are we able to prevent it? The best example is the climate catastrophe, whose mounting effects we are trying to stop with further development. The same is true of technology. Is that a paradox?
It is, and that is why I talk about the new Middle Ages and the new feudalism, so that we can finally get out of the purely capitalist language and logic, and thus widen the scope of our own imagination a bit. Recently, Gaya Herrington, Director of Sustainability and Dynamic Systems Analysis at the American branch of KPMG, published a very interesting analysis of the prognostic model Limits of growth, created in 1972 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Club of Rome. She found that if we maintain the current pace of change and development, in 2040 there is bound to be a technological and civilizational collapse – economic growth will first slow down, and then begin to decline, regardless of the achievements of technological progress. Industrial production will decrease along with food production, basic raw materials and resources will become scarce, pollution will increase. The result will be a population decline.
Is there anything that can be done about it?
There is, but this requires not only the use of technology for the common good here and now, but also new types of investment and a new form of education. By this I mean public investments, such as the Build Back Better programme of the American Democrats, requiring a departure from the purely private capitalist mindset. We must not only accept that the assumption of continued economic growth is unsustainable – and thus move away from prioritising gross domestic product – but also decide what will become our priority in its stead. Education, in turn, is needed to make new generations aware of how consumption and everyday decisions affect nature and civilization. Because only specific institutions and specific education build specific civilizations.
Which brings us back to the definition of progress.
Yes, although I personally believe that only two kinds of progress have actually taken place in human history: technological progress and moral progress, although the latter is extremely unsteady, since it exists only as long as we remember our history, and especially its darkest moments. In London, in 2011, I gave a TEDx lecture entitled Collapse of Complex Society: Learning from History. In it, in a twenty-second animation, I showed the rise and fall of the Roman Empire measured by two variables: social complexity and energy. In short, when Rome was developing and occupying new territories, it had surplus energy, for example in the form of agricultural labour force. With the development of the territory, energy and social complexity increased. The moment Rome ceased to develop was when the surplus energy sunk into the growing social complexity – it had to be spent defending ever wider borders, reconciling ever more diverse cultures, and meeting the needs of ever greater numbers of people. And in a way, this was the pattern throughout the history of civilization – dynamic development, a slowdown due to the dwindling energy resources, and a technological breakthrough, supporting the maintenance of social complexity. Or fragmentation and a search for other paths.
So, what stage of this process are we at now?
History is a spiral, in that historical processes are not only cyclical, but also linear – they reproduce certain patterns, but there is also progress.
The anthropologist Joseph Tainter, in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, emphasizes that the fall of the Roman Empire was really an economizing process, because it served to recover the surplus energy to be used for something new and not only for the preservation of the old. This is due to what Tainter calls the law of diminishing returns on investment in innovation. Any technology’s efficiency and effectiveness can be developed only up to a certain point. When we reach the limits of a given technology, its further development ceases to be possible or profitable, so we have to start thinking about new solutions. This is where we are now. To stay with the example of energy – we have already exploited some of the Earth’s natural resources to such an extent that on a macro scale their further acquisition is becoming less and less profitable, if not economically, then ecologically, which really means economically in the longer term. We have reached a peak in this stage of development. It is time to slow down and look for new solutions.
So, it is possible to slow down?
Yes, but only if we agree to do it together. The problem is that if we assume it is time to slow our growth and reorganise our civilization, then we must have consistent rules on a global scale. This is what game theory predicts – certain strategies pay off only when the rules apply globally, and those who cheat can be effectively punished. Consider, for example, the reluctant attitude of China or India at the COP26 summit on decarbonization. If these countries do not adopt the same rules as the rest of the world, the game will be tougher for some players than for others. That is absurd. If only the West adopts these more difficult rules, it will automatically make itself less civilizationally effective due to the new burdens. China will then seize the opportunity and grow further, faster, and better without these burdens, and gain headway in developing new technologies and artificial intelligence, among other things. And this carries the risk of China rapidly techno-colonizing the rest of the world. That is, until there is a climate catastrophe. There must be some common rules or development thresholds, beyond which countries will make specific commitments. But either everyone takes on this developmental burden – and then it ceases to be a handicap, because it is equal for everyone – or the transformation fails. In that sense, we are in a standoff. The West cannot be the only player on the board who changes their rules to green – that means suicide. The West must be capable, because there is a race for the influence necessary to preserve Western values, such as democracy, or even, recently, concern for the planet.
So, the race never ends.
There are several scenarios: of course, it may happen that China will take over the dominant, central position in the global system. But it may also experience a revolt from too much social oppression. Or there could be a climatic collapse. Or China may simply drop out of the game if the rest of the world comes together and punishes them for playing unfairly. Whichever the case, the dominant role in the world over the next few decades will be increasingly determined by the strength of big tech, search engines, and algorithms of particular countries. Another ever-present consideration will be climate pressure and the search for the Holy Grail in the form of a new, cheap energy source, which will turn the tables and give one of the players an upper hand for a century. It is the kind of bonus Britain once received for the industrial revolution.
So maybe the solution is to split the tech giants apart? For example, there are ideas to transform Facebook into a cooperative.
If this were to happen, China and Russia, taking advantage of their centralised power, would begin to make further swaths of the world informationally and digitally dependent on them. Digital influence is like water – if some dominant algorithms flow out of somewhere, others will pour into their place. Of course, the dominance of American tech giants is not completely healthy on a global scale, because they have too much unchecked power, but on the other hand, this allows them to keep in check the other powers with techno-colonizing ambitions. Of course, tech companies are not states, but nevertheless their influence has its roots where their headquarters are. In short, on the one hand, we do not want tech giants to collect our data and control us, but on the other hand, we do not want the techno-totalitarian systems from the East to spill over the world.
So it is either techno-feudalism or techno-totalitarianism? Is this the only choice we currently have?
We need to think about a third path. Some time ago, I was giving a lecture to uniformed services about Internet geopolitics, and some participants seemed surprised at how much influence Google or Xiaomi can have in this arena. They simply had not made the connection and were convinced that the strength of a state mainly depended on the number of its tanks or jets. I tried to demonstrate that, in a few years, wars will be decided by the sophistication of artificial intelligence and battles will be fought in the digital world. This is why we so urgently need a new language and a new form of imagination – because otherwise we cease to understand the world.
But you yourself, by referring to the concept of the new Middle Ages, make use of old language and old concepts.
My forecasting theory is different from how the New Middle Ages were defined by the early populariser of the term, Nikolai Berdyaev [in his 1924 book The New Middle Ages – AN]. He argued that after World War I we, as humanity, had done so much harm to ourselves with new technologies that we should reject technological developments and return to old forms of social organization. I, on the other hand, use this concept to show something completely different – to notice similarities and differences, and to draw conclusions. My thinking pivots on the notion that history is a spiral, in that historical processes are not only cyclical, but also linear – they reproduce certain patterns, but there is also progress. In this sense, we are not going back to the new Middle Ages – the new Middle Ages are, as the name suggests, a new chapter of history, and we should look for a new language to describe it. One inspired by medievalism, but new, nonetheless.
Like in the graph proposed by Julian Krzyżanowski to illustrate the sinusoidal logic of history? According to it, there is an alternating sequence of rational and irrational epochs.
I am becoming more and more convinced that this is the case. The father of modern sociology, Pitirim Sorokin, said something similar, noting how the more intuitive and more rational eras intertwine. Consider the fact that nowadays we increasingly hear about the need to return to intuition, nature, spirituality… Michal Zabdyr-Jamróz, in the text Nowe średniowiecze: era miast deliberatywnych [New Middle Ages: the era of deliberative cities] describes how public policies evolve from pure rationality to the category of so-called common sense. Common sense, however, is not necessarily rational. It is based on preferences, beliefs, assumptions… We saw how relevant this is with COVID and the power of conspiracy theories that came on the heels of the pandemic. My rationality tells me that 5G masts are not there to mind-control people, but my neighbour’s common sense tells him that they are. And he is ready to go burn this mast down in the name of freedom and altruistic service to society. I must take his common sense seriously, and not ignore or ridicule it.
On the other hand, for some time now we have been inundated with books arguing that we live in the safest time in history. Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now stands in opposition to the new Middle Ages.
Contrary to appearances, this is not mutually exclusive. From the point of view of normative forecasting, I would very much like a new enlightenment to come. But as a representative of descriptive forecasting, I see that large-scale changes are more likely to move us towards the new Middle Ages. And this potential threat is, in my opinion, reason enough to work on tools that can protect us from the worst effects of the ongoing processes. In contrast, if we assume the most optimistic scenario, in the belief that rationality, progress, and humanism will win, then we run the risk of complacency in the face of those grey rhinos. The same is true with technology – we can leave it unattended and unchecked, let it grow in any direction, because most of us do not understand exactly how it works – or we can ask ourselves difficult questions about what its further development can lead to and how to guide it to support our values and goals.
What are the future prospects in technological development and what can we learn from them?
In my text Cyfrowa lekkość bytu [The Digital Lightness of Being] in “Nowy Napis” I indicate three such potential paths. First, we might let algorithms brainwash us and let them control our choices and privacy in exchange for the promise of convenience and more free time. Second, we might reject the power of algorithms in the name of defending privacy and independence, although the costs of such rejection will be very high. And thirdly, we might trust algorithms with some tasks, because of the benefits they bring, but refuse to fully automate our lives in other areas. However, each of these scenarios assumes a huge impact of technology on our mentality, which will lead to a weakening of our attachment to individualism after the algorithms show us how predictable and similar we are.
You have also written: “If you want to choose the right profession for the future, remember: the great displacement is coming.” What will that be like?
The great displacement is the gradual elimination of human consciousness from the tasks that a machine can perform. In other words, with the development of artificial intelligence, people will stop performing professions based on repetitive tasks; instead, popular and valued jobs will be those based on emotional intelligence or creativity. Strategically speaking, it is better to work in an area which automation will not take over any time soon. This also will lead to a change in our mentality – not only in terms of individualism, but also the concepts of labour or creativity.
And, it seems, also the concept of freedom. Until now, freedom has been associated primarily with consciousness. But in the world of algorithms and information overload, consciousness has relevance in a much smaller niche.
Yes, although let us remember that changes which take place in our mentality are very difficult to predict. In the chain of change, it is difficult to foresee how one thing will affect even the fifth link down the line. Perhaps most philosophical concepts will be reformulated? Today, we are seeing changes not only to the concept of freedom, but also dignity, the very meaning of life, and, with the ascent of the Internet, the understanding of what is real. Or maybe, on the contrary, we will cling to the old understanding of classical values? These are still open questions. Do you play computer games?
Not for years.
We place huge expectations in technology, instead of operating on several fronts at the same time.Often, we think ahead instead of focusing on action in the present.
Does Civilization ring a bell? It is a popular series of games by Sid Meier, in which the goal is the development of a civilization. We start with a wagon of settlers somewhere in antiquity, and we can end up in space. The game can be won in several ways – technologically, economically, culturally, militarily – depending on the decisions we make. For example, in order to achieve globalization, we must first develop electrification. Or, to build catapults, we have to invent bronze working, and so on. Each created technology gives certain bonuses, but also carries certain risks. Recently, researchers from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge made a modification to this game, introducing the possibility of creating artificial intelligence in one’s civilization. If we embark on this path, we stand a chance of such fantastic development that we can achieve a complete transformation of humanity and triumph of our culture, but at the same time there is a risk that these technologies can completely destroy humanity if we do not invest in parallel security systems. And that is the truth about many technologies – they can protect some things, but there is also much they can destroy. In the short term, artificial intelligence will lead to techno- colonialism, but it may also be able to help us extract the colonized countries from dependence and degradation at a later stage. For now, this is the only probable path of development.
In your opinion, are our expectations for technological development not exaggerated? I have the impression that the promise of technology saving humanity sometimes becomes a smokescreen for our ignorance in the here and now.
Looking at such analyses as the already mentioned one by Gaya Herrington, we can conclude that ultimately our salvation will come not only from technological development, but also public investments and appropriate education before 2040. So in this sense yes, we place huge expectations in technology, instead of operating on several fronts at the same time. Often, we think ahead instead of focusing on action in the present. But, as I mentioned, in addition to technological progress, moral progress is also being made, which is a great reason for hope. It is unprecedented how we, being in Europe, care so much, for example, about the poor countries of the South.
But we care not because we are so great, but because we have a slightly better understanding of the workings of globalism and are aware of the impact our actions have on the poorer parts of the world.
And believe me, this way of thinking is something very new on the civilizational scale. Of course, it would be wonderful if we were able to deal here and now with all the ills of the world. But in practice, we must constantly make choices about what we focus our actions on.
So, we are back to the dilemma of the burning house – should we be putting out the fire or fireproofing for the future?
We cannot much afford to ignore the current fires, so, of course, ad hoc action must take place. But, as a forecaster, I will keep pointing out grey rhinos and postulating parallel thinking about the non- urgent but necessary organization of the future. Especially since the processes that used to take centuries can now occur within a few decades with the accelerated traffic of information and transport. And in the age of social media, emotions and political demands are already evolving at the speed of light.
Who a few decades ago would have seriously believed in ethno-economic ghettos in Europe? Who would praise the business viability of trans-arctic transport? Who would have thought that public dissatisfaction in Pakistan could cause street protests in the UK overnight, and that settings on some website (Facebook) could have an impact on riots in Myanmar? Or that before you eat your favourite chips, you will check how much plastic was used to make the packaging? Or that organized migration routes will run through aircraft decks? Who would confidently say that capitalism is eating its own tail and that we must return to the cooperative? Not so long ago we would have called someone like that a lunatic, or at least a commie.
So, what does a forecaster feel when he sees his predictions coming true, even though no one wanted to listen to him?
In London, in 2010, when I was preparing the aforementioned TEDx talk, I was forbidden from voicing predictions about the upcoming authoritarian turn in Turkey and the threat of Russian aggression in Ukraine. One of the speakers – a physicist who had no clue about geostrategy – made a big row that the world does not look like this anymore, it is the 21st century, what I am saying is some kind of confrontationism, and that I should consider withdrawing my speech. He even wrote several long emails to the organizers and threatened to withdraw his presentation. Finally, to keep the peace, organizers suggested that I soften the overtones of my theses and they were preserved in a trace form. However, when a few years later both predictions came true, that is, Russia attacked Ukraine, and Recep Erdoğan came to power in Turkey, I received an apology from one of the organizers for that incident years ago. My feelings were conflicted: of course, I was sad that these things happened, but at the same time I felt a kind of satisfaction that I had been right.
And the physicist?
The physicist never apologized. However, I see an example of a very dangerous trend in this story, how we are afraid to talk about dangerous potential scenarios, as if speaking about them was tantamount to conjuring them into reality, or compromising one’s values. We often react with denial or aggression. Well, I got used to it. That is why I repeat: we have to talk about these scenarios if we want to be even slightly prepared. Otherwise, only new ends of the world await us.
This interview appeared in the January issue of the monthly magazine “Pismo. Magazyn Opinii” (1/2022) under the title Tupot szarych nosorożców.