Book review: A Brief History of the Future

Jacques Attali offers a vision of the past that entrepreneurs and innovators can relate to. But what of the future? Market democracy, he reckons, is coming to an end.

I grew up with two visions of the future. One vision, from a popular interpretation of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, shows the rise of a charismatic dictator who demands loyalty in order to buy and sell. Things start out well, but eventually the world ends in a round of plagues and wars and only the saints are left. Then they get a new heaven and Earth. (Not a bad thing to wish for, considering what we’ve done with this Earth.)

The other view of the future had some things in common. One world government, Armageddon (well, a third world war) and hope arising from the ashes. No new heaven and Earth, but a United Federation of Planets. Star Trek provided an optimistic view of humanity without glossing over human foibles such as greed and our propensity to create havoc.

A Brief History of the Future also portrays two possible futures. One is ugly, dehumanising and possibly fatal to the human race. The alternative— and the one the author argues for—is where entrepreneurs put their acumen and skill to the service of humanity. It’s not that far from the dream of Star Trek, minus the special effects.

Attali doesn’t see history like most history writers do. He writes less about kings and battles, and more about commerce (or “the mercantile order”). His view of history centres around geographic ‘cores’—first religious, then military and now economic—of world trade and he shows pretty convincingly how these cores, though they often started small, wielded a major influence on the world.

Starting in the Middle East and moving on today to Silicon Valley, these cores draw the most innovative people to them and most profitably meet the pressing needs of the day.

“[The mercantile order] constantly reinvents itself in a unique shape, around a single centre, a single core, which attracts an innovative class (shipbuilders, manufacturers, traders, technicians and financiers) marked by its taste for the new and its passion for discovery. Until a crisis, or a war, leads to replacement of one core by another.”

Now this is a vision of the past that entrepreneurs and innovators can relate to. But what of the future? After showing us the current era, the era of market democracy, Attali predicts that it is coming to an end and envisages several future scenarios.

Chapter 3 is called ‘The End of the American Empire’, a title that shouldn’t surprise anyone. But he doesn’t see a sudden collapse of the US; instead he sees a steady, slow decline, with the country’s problems and needs providing plenty of fodder for the rest of the world.

The rest of the book outlines opportunities for the future, such as the marketing of time, the rise of self-surveillance (measured your own carbon footprint lately?), the death of privacy and the idea that insurance companies will rule the world.

It all starts to feel very uncomfortable, and rightly so, because the future he describes becomes devoid of humanity, of morality, of concern for the other.

It’s a great relief, then, when the end of the book presents an alternative: hyperdemocracy (a meaningless phrase in itself, but in context it’s pretty exciting). Concepts like the common good and collaborative intelligence play a big part in this possible future, as do entrepreneurs who use their skills not just for themselves or their desired lifestyles, but to make the world a better place.

It sounds clichéd. But when you’ve journeyed into the future, you might just think it’s what the world needs.

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