The peculiarities of the "future industry"

Ariel Colonomos, a CNRS research professor at CERI Sciences Po, has just been awarded the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Ethics Book Award for his book Selling the Future: The Perils of Predicting Global Politics. In this book, Ariel Colonomos investigates the paradoxes of forecasting and future-telling, and explores today’s knowledge factories to reveal how our futures are shaped by social scientists, think-tanks and rating agencies. Interview.

Is the future something that can be sold and bought on a market? How can a price be put on the future? Does the rule of supply and demand apply?

Ariel Colonomos: 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. My book focuses on those who make claims about political or financial futures. In some cases, future claims are just a work of expertise that you need to pay for, as in the case of rating agencies. Think tank experts are paid as well, based on the funding that they receive which depends upon their reputation. So money does play a role.

However, the “marketplace of ideas” is metaphorical. My book explores the relation between those who supply ideas about the future and those who demand their expertise, including policymakers, the media, and the general public. The marketplace of ideas is the space where this supply and demand meet.

What is specific about this metaphorical market?

Ariel Colonomos: This game of supply and demand does indeed have its peculiarities. Although most Western societies are “knowledge societies,” there is little diversity when it comes to the “future industry”; future claims converge on focal points and strong consensuses prevail about which futures deserve to be studied and which answers should be provided.

Policymakers or journalists to whom these claims are addressed are aware of the limitations of predictions or forecasts but never sanction those they find to be of unsatisfactory quality. Why? Vague future claims give policymakers significant leeway when they have to make decisions. If future claims were considered trustworthy and accurate, it would put some constraints on political institutions.

You devote a chapter in your book to credit rating agencies, as they influence future behaviour in financial markets and temper their own predictions...

Ariel Colonomos: Rating agencies are one of the few market-based organisations 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 economic worlds. We hear a lot from them in the public space, as ratings are widely publicised 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.

The book takes a critical stance towards the US think tank establishment and Washington more generally...

Ariel Colonomos: DC is a very important example. Worldwide, Washington has the highest degree of political expertise concentrated in what is a relatively small city, due, of course, to the fact that the US is the leading power and that such expertise is also heard beyond US borders. The professionals who make claims about the future are what I call “oracles’ networks” based, as a first historical example, on the oracles that led Oedipus to killing his father and eventually to his own tragic fate. As in the myth of Oedipus, a series of indicators that are provided by future tellers constantly orient our trajectories in one way or the other (even as we have some degree of control over them). 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 calculations and the sovereign ratings they produce are part of other risk indexes that are being produced by other companies.

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

Ariel Colonomos: We have an interesting paradox here. 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. It doesn’t matter whether this perception is true or false. What matters is that there is a demand for predictions and forecasts, so that this information might improve 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 therein lies 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 who surround them and have asked them for advice, they perpetuate it. In doing so, they also perpetuate the role they have been assigned to. In one sense this is reassuring, as it means we can 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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