Is the Future for Sale?

Selling the Future, Ariel Colonomos

Ariel Colonomos, CNRS Research Professor at CERI Sciences Po publishes a book entitled Selling the Future. The Perils of Predicting Global Politics (London, Hurst, and NYC, Oxford University Press, July 2016). In his investigation of the paradoxes of forecasting and future-telling, Ariel Colonomos interrogates today’s knowledge factories to reveal how our futures are shaped by social scientists, think-tanks and rating agencies. Interview with the author.


From "Moralizing International Relations" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) to "The Gamble of War" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), you have now chosen to focus on future telling and how this activity actually plays a role in our present and future. Can you tell us more about your research path? What lead you to work on anticipation and future telling?

In my book "Moralizing International Relations", I focused on the interpretation and the explanation of a dynamic that seemed to me very characteristic of the post-Cold War era and the 1990s. States and other institutions were “called to account” because of their past or present wrongdoings. They were obliged to look into their past in order to move into the future. There was, to me, a need to understand the reasons for this phenomenon and to measure its consequences, notably in normative and ethical terms. In the book that followed ("The Gamble of War"), I focused on the years in the aftermath of 9/11 which initiated a movement that characterized the  2000s, and to some extent is still one of the landmarks of the period we currently live in. In the face of attacks where civilians were being killed on their own soil, Western states started to engage in preventive action. By doing so, they made bets about the future. Preventive action is based on anticipation and therefore is a gamble. Striking first is justified by the assumption that inaction will be too costly and that the use of force will impede future attacks on the part of an opponent whose intentions are hostile and who has developed  its lethal capacities. This has very important military, political, legal, moral implications and consequences that need to be accounted for. Through this study, I discovered the importance of anticipations that lie at the core of prevention. In order to make preventive bets and therefore actually ‘Gamble on War,’ states need to make claims about the future. This is what led me to writing "Selling the Future"...


The title of the book is "Selling the Future". Do you consider the future as something that can be sold and bought on a market? What can be the price of the future? Who or what sets it—does the rule of supply and demand apply?

The future is an idea about a forthcoming state of affairs. In order to make this idea heard, you need to enter a public space where many other future tellers gather. You then have to have people listen to your claims. Those that I have studied in my book make claims about political or financial futures. They want to be heard and, in most cases, they want to have great exposure and be quoted. In some cases, future claims are just a work of expertise that you need to pay for, as in the case of rating agencies, for example. Think tanks are also organizations whose experts are paid, based on the funding that the think-tanks receive which depends upon their reputation. So money does play a role. However, there is also another dimension. The future is being sold on a “marketplace of ideas,” and, to that extent, the market is more of a metaphor than an economic reality. Indeed, my book explores the relation between those who supply ideas about the future —future tellers, such as academics, think-tankers or rating companies—and those who demand their expertise including policy makers, the media, and the general public. The marketplace of ideas is the space where this supply meets this demand. This game of supply and demand has its peculiarities. Although most Western societies are “knowledge societies,” where knowledge plays an important role in their economic and political development and also where there is competition between knowledge producers, there is little diversity when it comes to the “future industry.” Indeed, future claims converge on  focal points and strong consensuses prevail about which futures deserve to be studied. For example, it was important during the Cold War to ask whether the Soviet Union would be a durable political regime. A community of experts that you could count by the thousands dedicated their work to this task and the common consensus was to say that the “USSR is (was) there to stay.” There is little diversity in the questions that are being raised and in the answers that are being provided. The people for whom these claims are addressed—policy makers or journalists—are aware of the limitations of predictions or forecasts. However there is no attempt on their part to sanction those predictions or forecasts whose quality they would find unsatisfying, nor do we see great encouragement to improve our knowledge about the future. Politically, this can be explained in functionalist terms. Vague future claims enable policy makers to have a significant margin to maneuver when they have to make decisions. If future claims were to be considered trustworthy and accurate (the question of a criteria to discriminate between future claims is discussed in chapters 6 and 7), it would put some constrains on political institutions.


You devote a chapter in your book to credit rating agencies, as they influence future behavior in financial markets and temper their own predictions. Why did you choose to write an entire chapter discussing these agencies? 

Rating agencies are one of the few market-based organizations whose purpose is explicitly to provide “opinions about the future” (this is how Standard & Poors defines its ratings). There are several reasons why this is an interesting and important phenomenon. Rating agencies are important actors in the financial and the economic worlds. They are widely heard in the public space, as ratings are widely mediatized especially in the case of sovereign ratings (ratings about the creditworthiness of states). These ratings can also have an impact on state diplomacy, as state leaders usually make public comments and try to justify themselves when rating agencies have downgraded their country. In my book I refer to the findings brought by economists who have tried to measure the financial and economic impact of those opinions about the future. A parallel can be drawn here with other types of future claims in world politics. Ratings are pretty stable. The reasons for that are both economic (ratings are provided to banks that use them to market their products, hence they cannot be too volatile) and reputational (as for other future providers, it would be difficult for rating agencies to modify their opinion too frequently, they fear they would lose their trustworthiness). Their stability influences the financial market and has an impact on the value of the sovereign bond. As rating agencies are slow to downgrade, investment is not affected. Meanwhile, the country can suffer from severe economic problems that will affect  its capacity to pay its debts. The stability of ratings, in some cases, then prolongs the stability of the country and, from this perspective, delays economic crisis that will appear when the country is in default and stocks dramatically go down (one good example is the Asian financial crisis in 1997). It is an interesting case of what I have called a “self-blinding prophecy,” future providers blind themselves and this self-blinding prophecy has a stabilizing effect on economics and politics.


The book takes a critical stance of the United States think tank establishment and Washington more generally, as their proximity and make up reinforce decision-making and future telling. Is this type of conformist thinking (about the future) unique to Washington or is it present in other important world capitals too?

DC is a very important example. Worldwide, Washington has the highest degree of political expertise concentrated in what is a relatively small city and due to the fact, of course, that the US is the leading super power and that such expertise is also heard beyond the boundaries of the US. Although I have not done first hand research, I can tell from exchanging with colleagues that are familiar with European bureaucracy that you find the same level of conformism in Brussels. As for France, there is no counterexample to what I’ve showed in the US case, i.e. a high degree of conformity to the norm of what is expected on part of the policy makers and in the public. The DC case reveals also another dimension of future tellers. Those professionals who claim about the future are “oracles’ networks” to which I refer in my book using, as a first historical example, the oracles that led Oedipus to killing his father and eventually to his own tragic fate. As in the myth of Oedipus, we are constantly oriented by a series of indicators that are provided by future tellers that orient our trajectories in one way or the other (as well as we have some degree of control over them). Those oracles—or professional future tellers—are also interconnected and part of a same social world. In DC, think tankers know each other well, and they know each other’s institutions. Rating agencies include other indexes in their own calculus and sovereign ratings they produce are part of other risk indexes that are being produced by other companies. 


The book presents academia as rewarding those who espouse existing paradigms. Does this book stick to or deviate from any existing paradigms within the field?

My work in this book is object-driven. I have chosen to study a topic, the role of future claims in world politics and selected different case studies, and then I have looked at what disciplines—to the extent I was familiar with them or I could reach some familiarity with them—would enable me to answer to the questions that I’ve set up. From this perspective, my work is (epistemically) “eclectic” (in the field of international relations, authors such as Peter Katzenstein have argued in favor of this epistemology). One of the difficulties of this approach is to find and build concepts in different spheres of knowledge that can be compatible and combine them in one single reasoning. The specificity of my work in this book is to have showed a series of paradoxes that I could not have identified and explained if I had had to use one single discipline, let alone one single paradigm. Those findings are the following: claims about the future are highly linear and tend to ignore radical changes. There is high degree of conformism, which is well accepted despite the fact that we live in knowledge based rich democratic societies. Claims about the future can help prolong the present and delay the future. Claims about the future help create surprises by concentrating on a set of pre-established issues and favoring continuity.


Your book Selling the Future discusses future telling since the end of World War II to the present with a historical detour by Greek and Roman times. Why/how did you choose these time periods to discuss future telling? Why do you largely omit discussion of other time periods such as, say, the 18th and 19th centuries?

This book is mostly about political futures in contemporary world politics (Middle Eastern Politics, China, think tanks in DC and rating agencies). However, it is also important to have a historical outlook  a minima, for example when studying academics and area studies. This is the reason why I discuss the paradigmatic case of Sovietology during the Cold War, for example. I also realized that Greek and Roman times are important to understand the role of institutions that produce future claims because they were set in what constitutes one of our reference points in the history of democracy (Athens) and what were the two most important empires leading the world (Athens and Rome). I also wanted to know if patterns of behavior in the relation between power and knowledge are entirely historically contingent or there are some universal modes of relations. By reading the literature available on oracles in Greek and Roman times, I have argued in favor of the latter. In this project, exploring other time periods such as the 18th and 19th century did not appear to be essential, although I agree that it is a fascinating historical question.


Towards the end of the book, you argue that there are seminal events, what you call “tipping points”, some of which you discuss earlier such as the fall of the Soviet Union. Is there anything futurists can do to better identify and predict these tipping points? 

Those who argue in favor of predictive markets—that aggregate the opinions and the analysis of non-experts—make an important point. Experts, whether they are academic or think tankers, are biased by the knowledge they have acquired and the paradigm that they use from which they cannot deviate. Non-experts can bring another contribution and select issues that experts had not thought about. It is important to open up the public space of anticipations to new forms of knowledge. Although I’m not involved in this activity and have no interest in seeing these tools develop other than being intrigued by the results they would yield.


You assert at the end of the book (p. 191) that “the industry of the future… slows down the world’s progress.” While put succinctly there, this is a reoccurring theme in the book. What do you mean by slowing down the world’s progress? Is the “future industry” as you call it simply a nuisance to world progress or rather a large impediment?

Although I develop a normative approach in the third part of the book, by writing that “the industry of the future … slows down the world’s progress,” I do not mean to make a moral claim. I claim that predictions or forecasts, on average, rather slow down some of the political or economic processes they are embedded with. This goes against conventional wisdom, according to which, for example, rating agencies are frantic organizations that have a major role in the aggravation of unexpected financial crises (they delay financial crisis, then in a second phase they accelerate a downfall that would have happened anyway, and again they slow down a process of recovery). My claim also goes against the findings and the paradigms of some of the major currents of thought in the social sciences. First of all, since the end of the Cold War, although it is surprising that their ideas would converge, both liberal and post-modern authors have argued that one of the major characteristics of the interdependent world we live in is speed and that the world’s pace has strongly accelerated if we compare it with the Cold War period. Non-state actors would be major players in this process. Moreover, critical theory has also argued that one of the landmarks of modernity is “social acceleration” and that technology is one of the major driving forces in this process. I show that the future industry, that uses technology and is part of the bureaucratization of politics, unexpectedly, does not have that role, rather on the contrary. In many circumstances, it has a decelerating effect.


In all, do futurists provide us with more uncertainty or certainty about the future?

We have here an interesting paradox. The expansion of the global marketplace of ideas about the future is driven by the perception that we live in a world where risk and, therefore, uncertainty prevail. This perception might be right or false, this does not matter. What matters is that there is a demand for predictions and forecasts, so that this information would accrue the quality of our decision-making. This is an illusion because the quality of future claims is very low and the informational value of predictions and forecasts, as it is acknowledged in most cases by those who frame them and those to whom they are addressed, is extremely limited. Is this because it is not possible to have a better understanding of the future (i.e. there are radical limits to our knowledge of the future)? I argue that this is not the case and this is the paradox. I have shown in my book that those who participate in the supply and demand market for the future acquiesce to this state of affairs. This would mean that we don’t really want to know more than what we already know (very little). To some extent, then, futurists reproduce the very uncertainty that was the initial reason for which they were brought into play. To answer your question, futurists’ ‘raison d’être’ is uncertainty and, with the consent of those that surround them and that have asked them for advice, they perpetuate it. Doing so, they also perpetuate the role they have been assigned to and we keep a high degree of control over our lives. This would not be the case if we knew the future as our choices would be predetermined.


Ariel Colonomos was interviewed by Jason Nagel and Miriam Perier



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