From the Editor: Long Time Coming

Is it possible to use the past to predict the future?  

We live in an age of prophecy. Perhaps we always have done. The advantages inherent in knowing what is around the corner, what awaits us – whether as individuals or as societies – are so great that, despite the futility of the pursuit, we are compelled to keep trying regardless.

Visions and predictions are offered on a daily basis as to what, for example, a post-Brexit Britain will look like. The future of Trump’s America is discussed endlessly, usually via meaningless historical analogies. President Macron’s potential reforms of the EU excite comment, though the latest fashion in futurology is considering what the world – utopian or dystopian – will be like after the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

We know from past experience that almost all of the predictions made today will turn out to be wrong; history at least tells us that. Other disciplines are, if anything, even more prone to guesswork. Long-term economic forecasts are little better than astrology, as we discovered around 2008. So far as predicting the future goes, for all our modelling and statistics, we have barely advanced since the days of Delphi and the Book of Daniel.

It is, however, easier to predict what will survive than what is to come. According to the Lindy Effect, so named by Albert Goldman in 1964 after a long-frequented New York deli, inorganic things, such as a transport system or a democracy, are probably halfway into their lifespan. If a thing is 100 years old, for example, it should be with us for another century. If it is new, its future is much less certain. I came to work today on an underground railway system that opened in 1863. It should survive until at least 2071, or so the theory goes.

In other words, if something has been around for a long time, it is likely to be with us for a long while yet. What matters most is how robust a thing or an idea is, which increases as it ages. Spanish democracy is young, dating only from the mid-1970s. US democracy is old. Both are being severely tested, but the odds are that the latter will survive in better health than the former. Probably.

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