Truly, this is the bleak midwinter—and not only literally. The world’s biggest brains despair at intractable conflict, climate catastrophe and raging nationalism. Meanwhile the economics profession, as it emerges blinking from a decade of stagnation it failed to see coming, is split. Half is preoccupied with wizardly robots that will destroy jobs and livelihoods, while—somewhat incongruously—the other half frets that growth is grinding to a halt because we’re running out of big ideas.
But the dismal productivity numbers are, as last month’s Prospect explained, clouded in haze. This time we’ve tasked writers with peering through them to catch sight of the tomorrow shaping up in different aspects of life. There’s no sign of ideas running dry.
Consider quantum computers, which replace the basic building block of the digital age, the binary on/off switch, with something more akin to a dimmer. Such machines are, as Jay Elwes explains, already moving from science fiction to scientific fact. In food (Stephanie Boland) and also in relation to sex (Kate Devlin), disruptive technologies abound; there are some disturbing implications, but there is also real hope that technology can deal with pressing needs.
Meanwhile, Big Data is revolutionising the way goods are priced (James Plunkett) in a way that could, if we’re not careful, see shoppers ripped off. But it doesn’t have to. Everything depends on the way the ground rules are written.
Here lies the rub: the whole point of facing the future is to shape it. Back in the sunnier days of the 1990s, Third Way leaders spoke as if an unstoppable tide of technology and “progress” would eventually solve every problem. Humanity simply had to learn how to swim with it. Take globalisation (Dani Rodrik). It came to be seen as a process to adjust to, rather than control. The pain some people suffered dropped out of mind; vested interests quietly filled the space that politics vacated.
If voters are in a mood to upend the liberal order (Theo Bertram), then blame the long years where they were told they couldn’t change anything much. New Year’s resolutions always need willpower. For 2018, we could do worse than rediscover the collective resolve to shape tomorrow together. Do that, and we just might find that spirits begin to lift.