Sunday, November 28, 2010

Crystal Ball Report Card 2010

As I look back on the year that has almost passed, I tend to revisit the thoughts I have been regurgitating and inflicting on everyone over the server-space of blogspot. It is a quaint way indeed to see not only how thought process tends to flow, hit the harsh rocks of stark reality and readjust itself into a different stream. The magic of the weblog is to ensure that thoughts not only flow on their own, but also get stirred, diverted, dammed and unclogged by others whose streams of consciousness cross ours on the connected path of the world wide web.

As I meander about the currents of thought I stumble on to a new found surface of realisation. The trend of reaching a conclusion and then being forced to modify the earlier analysis is the way of not only the bloggers and other amateur thinkers of the world. This is also the modus operandi of the so called trend watchers and analysts who make a living out of reaching learned conclusions about the events of the world.

In an earlier post, which is now a part of the novel The Best Seller, I had pointed out that prediction is not really a pastime or profession we are good at as human beings. Especially where factors of people interaction get into the equation, we miserably fail to foresee what will happen in the immediate future, let alone the distant days.

Most corporations continue to live in the fool’s paradise of a deterministic universe. Data collection has never been so rigorous or so ridiculous as in these days of electronic footprint, something that my cyber psychiatrist friend continues to remind me of. However, can all this data, even with super number crunching computes give us a glimpse of the future?

Two years back, when the economies tottered, and the account manager of Axiom Consulting in HMH, Amsterdam, Ajay Yadav, was publicising his new patch-worked model of Defect Prediction to compensate for his lack of a vertebral column, I heard these immortal words from my buddy. It is the ancient fascination of man to look for the signs of the future in the present. It started with tea leaves, constellation and palms, and now find their modern manifestation in Economic Predictions and Defect Prediction Models.

Although my friend is often dismissed as cynical, I did present my theory that when the human element comes into the picture, there are too many parameters involved to perfectly predict the outcomes. 

However, at the end of 2010, let me try to provide some real results – going beyond pure theoretical analysis.
I am currently looking at some of the predictions made by one of my favourite political magazines at the beginning of this year. As they say, now the scores are in and let me see how the forecasters of the famed publication have fared.

Before proceeding, let me put forth the disclaimer that the magazine continues to be my favourite and whatever evidence I state are the results not of their incompetence, but of the pure perils of prediction. It is the profession of journalism that makes itself vulnerable to pitfalls. Normal reporting is the first draft of history while columns that look ahead attempt a first draft at the future. That is just not easy.

My favourite magazine did an excellent job in predicting the changes in Britain’s political landscape.  They foretold the call for the British general elections by Gordon Brown, and his subsequent loss to the new David Cameron government. They even foresaw that there would be a Miliband as a leader of the Labour party. However, they failed to foresee the Tory coalition with Liberal Democrats.

In the United States, they did predict (as who did not?) a tough year for Barrack Obama. They also did a good job in anticipating the healthcare reform situation and the continuing issues in Afghanistan. However, when it came to factoring in the popular reaction, they – may I say, predictably – failed to predict the rise of anger on the right wing, the tea party movement et al.

Moving on to the world economy, the relatively safe prediction of a slow, gradual, and backbreaking struggle to get back towards recovery in most of the rich countries did come off pretty well.  China was a pretty safe bet as it surged ahead of Japan to become the second largest economy of the world. So were the predictable performances of the other BRIC nations. However, as with most other modern day economic soothsayers, they missed the struggle of the euro regions, missing out completely on the toppling of Greece and the resulting perils of Angela Merkel .

On the other global domains, they did raise some warning flags about the controversy over online privacy, but my friend Dr. Suprakash Roy did the same in quieter, but more convinced manner. They also did manage to foresee FaceBook’s face off with Google, the rise of Kindle, Sony, iPad and other eReaders.

However, there were plenty that were plain unpredictable. The debacle of Kevin Rudd, Australia’s foreign minister, was unexpected and therefore even the best political forecasters did not bet on it. Thailand’s political violence was another major miss in the game of telling the fortune of foreign affairs.

Most importantly, there were other black swan events, which underline the absolute frailty of the human species at playing god while poring over data and trend charts, sporting honourable diplomas and degrees.  We still cannot predict the calamities and disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the volcanic eruption in Iceland with long-lasting effect on the aviation industry or the plane crash that killed Lech Kaczynski, the president of Poland.

There is absolutely no way that one can get round to predicting the events of the last paragraph, at least not yet. And as it often is, these are the occurrences that stamp their presence most indelibly on the history of the future of mankind.

We continue to make unparalleled leaps, accelerating to a level of scientific and technological sophistication that may prompt us into the false sense of security that we are in absolute control of a connected universe, where all that matters is known, deterministic and predictable, or just a click away. But, as we face the coldest winter in 1000 years it may be handy to remember that in the face of some of the most random events of the world, we are nothing but a bunch helpless creatures sitting with an illusion of power on a frail pale blue dot of a world.


Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

About Simon

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Amsterdam, Netherlands