Niall Ferguson & Peter Schwartz, “Historian vs. Futurist on Human Progress”

Posted on Wednesday, April 30th, 02008 by Stewart Brand
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Niall Ferguson and Peter Schwartz

Past vs. Future

In what turned out to be a riveting evening, historian Niall Ferguson and futurist Peter Schwartz fire-hosed each other with enough ideas, frames of reference, ripostes, and eloquences to lead to a clear conceptual divergence. At the same time, the two were discovering, live in front of an audience, new ways they might work together on future projects.

Ferguson began by pointing out that while we face many futures, there is only one past, and its residents outnumber us…

Read the rest of Stewart Brand’s Summary

  • David Wade

    Thank you for summarizing the debate between Ferguson and Schwartz. I wish I could have been there, because I would have followed the last question posed to the two gentlemen, by asking Ferguson: Why choose to live in a world that only brings disappointment? My view is that Ferguson is an optimist or else he would commit suicide.

    However, when one speaks in terms of our species, I could see how one could be pessimistic about its long-term future and feel optimistic about one’s own short-term future.

    Perhaps, Ferguson should have said, “We must focus on worst-case scenarios, and history will teach them to us.”

  • Sounds fascinating – wish I was there! :)

    From reading the above, the point that sticks out most for me is the “Optimism Vs Pessimism?” question… it brings to mind all sorts of sci-fi-y/time-travel-y thoughts along the lines of “What we do if we could know the future?” and “What if we could change the past?”

    If we are optimistic about the future, we have to generally believe that things will turn out okay… but would that then make us complacent and therefore less likely to put so much effort into reversing negative or harmful trends? It could be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in reverse…

    On the other hand if we are too pessimistic, we could end up believing there is no point in attempting to instigate positive change, because nothing we do will make any difference…

    Like many things in life, I’d say that striking a balance, arriving at a sort of mid-point, is the way to go… a Pessimistically Optimistic or Optimistically Pessimistic approach! We need to be aware of how badly things could go, but at the same time believe we can change things for the good… learn from the past, but believe in the future! :)

  • Bob Coppock

    At the tail end of the talk, Ferguson said that Schwartz always postulataed three scenarios, Panglossian, disastrous, and Goldilocks. He said the important job is to look for ways disaster can happen, so you can prevent it. The other outcomes will take care of themselves. The discussion ended and Schwartz never had a chance to respond. So I will.

    The bright futures don’t take care of themselves. They are the result of a lot of work by people who exhort others, and who go to jail, and who march, and who become martyrs. A single book, if engaging enough and with the right amount of invective or hyperbole, can turn people away from disaster, or help innoculate against it. The book “1984” didn’t match reality partly because it existed. “Silent Spring” helped avoid a Silent Spring.

    I suspect one reason good futures happen is that they work from the bottom up. Leaders appreciate Machiavelli’s warning about starting new things. India became an independed democracy because many people stopped trains by sitting on tracks, and Gandhi went to jail and stopped eating. Ferguson thinks more top down.

    Also, seeds take time to grow, and predicting which ones survive is difficult. A particular crucifiction in Jerusalem didn’t make any news at all in Rome. The difference today is that there might have been something about it on the Internet. Bottom up is getting easer to do.

    Of course, not all bottom-up moves are good. The fascists came up from the bottom. So did the Ku Klux Klan.

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  • PS

    Schwartz came off the worse, if only because it’s so much easier for a futurist to get it wrong (it’s almost guaranteed) than for a historian.

    I think one must be pessimistic to work for a decent future. Consider climate change – is the good work being done by those who think it’s not a problem or by those who think it is? Be pessimistic about the future but work towards a better one, which also seems to be behind Ferguson’s liberalism [or conservatism, for American readers].

  • mudrock

    Thank you LNF for putting these events together and for the free audio downloads.

    I wish the format had been different. If they’d been given a certain topic (unknown to each beforehand) to bat around, I would’ve gotten better insights into their ways of thinking. I’m imagining a broad topic, such as China or the EU, hell maybe even the notion of progress, which each has certainly spent time considering.

  • Bruno Grieco

    What a great debate ! Kudos for the one who invented the format: one talks, other summarize then question.

    As PS already mentioned before, Ferguson had a small advantage in the start but Schwartz made his point brightly.

    I would like to add that I agree with Ferguson both on his thoughts about being pessimistic on the future, and specially, on his position about the role of technology on it’s modification (or lack of power to do so).

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  • Brian Staker

    This was a fascinating interchange between two minds and two points of view. Bob Coppock makes a good point about the three possible outcomes, & the ‘best-case scenario’ not just being a happy accident that we can revel in. Put in entropic terms, ‘brighter’ outcomes in the sense of higher degrees of order, or at least an order that we desire and is beneficial to us, are a matter of design and effort. ‘Negative’ outcomes in the sense of higher disorder in the system can be anticipated and avoided only up to a point. The number of ways a system can be disorderly are far more numerous than the small number of ‘orderly’ outcomes. (Orderly of course is in the eye of the beholder)

    The thing Ferguson is disregarding is the degree to which we have an effect on outcomes; it’s not just an engine set in motion that then goes off in its own direction. On the other hand, once these technological genies like nuclear power are let out of the bottle, it’s hard if not impossible to contain them. We can try to direct them for good, not ill. Ferguson’s largely cyclical view of history is dependent on the scarcity of resources. New technologies do show some promise of making resources more accessible and plentiful, like solar and wind power, which could be almost limitless. Would we evolve beyond war if the need to compete for resources was eliminated? It seems like almost a primordial urge. And technologies like genetic engineering could have harmful consequences that are very hard to predict. Ferguson’s position is inherently easier because he’s not trying to provide a solution, just show the weaknesses in Schwartz’s optimism. What would Ferguson have us do? Retreat into a Luddite view? The ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ can work on both sides of the argument. You can’t just ‘avoid negative outcomes;’ nature abhors a vacuum & you have to provide a positive alternative.

    I really was disappointed Schwartz didn’t make a stronger case for his point of view, that positive, well-thought out activity may improve the future of our world. A futurist isn’t just trying to predict the future, but design and organize and create it. Ferguson’s view of history as repeating the same kind of cycles over and over again seems so archaic to me; it’s not the only possible interpretation of history. One question this dialogue brings up is whether the ‘intellectual’ view has to be inherently pessimistic and skeptical by its very nature. If so that seems very limiting and even nihilistic.

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  • May

    The great value of this debate is to educate the next generation(s) and encourage them to be aware of how swiftly global events, natural and political can overtake their lives and how to survive when these evnts occur.
    The world operates as a system of dynamic change, growth and destruction that tests human ingenuity and stamina. We must all adapt or die.

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