Is the Future for Sale? An Interview with Ariel Colonomos

An interview with Ariel Colonomos on the political economy of predicting the future.

Jason Nagel and Miriam Perier from CERI: From Moralizing International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) to The Gamble of War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), your work has focused on forecasting and how this activity actually plays a role in our present and future. Can you tell us more about the trajectory of your research? What led you to work on anticipation and future-prediction?

Ariel Colonomos: 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’ over their past or present wrongdoings. They were obliged to look at their past in order to move into the future. There was, for 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 following 9/11 that saw the beginning of a movement that was to characterize the 2000s, and to some extent still defines the period we currently live in. In the face of attacks where civilians were being killed on home 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 involves 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 lethal capacities. This has very important military, political, legal, and moral implications and consequences that need to be accounted for. Through this study, I emphasize 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 write Selling the Future.

CERI: As regards the title, do you consider the future as something that can be sold and bought on a market? What price can be put on the future? Who or what sets it—do the rules of supply and demand apply?

AC: The future is an idea about a forthcoming state of affairs. In order to disseminate this idea, you need to enter a public space where other future-predictors gather. You then have to persuade people to listen to your claims. Those studied in my book make claims about political or financial futures. They want to be heard and, in most cases, they want to gain further exposure and be widely quoted. In some cases, future claims are simply the product of expertise that therefore commands a price, 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, often commensurate with 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, in this respect, the market is more of a metaphor than an economic reality. Indeed, the book explores the relationship between those who supply ideas about the future—future predictors, such as academics, think tanks, 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 its 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 prove to be a durable political regime. A community of experts, numbering in the thousands, dedicated their efforts to this task and the prevailing consensus was to affirm that the ‘USSR is (was) there to stay.’ There remains little variation in the questions being raised and 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 downgrade those predictions or forecasts whose quality has been found wanting, nor do we see much encouragement to improve our knowledge about the future. Politically, this can be explained in functionalist terms. Vague future claims enable policy makers to have significant margin for manoeuvre when they have to make decisions. If future claims were to be considered trustworthy and accurate (the question of criteria to discriminate between future claims is discussed in chapters 6 and 7 in the book), it would put some constrains on political institutions.

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

AC: 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 economic world. They are widely listened to in the public space, as appraisals are frequently 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 world leaders usually publicly comment and try to justify their monetary policy when rating agencies downgrade their country’s credit status. In the book I refer to findings of economists who have tried to measure the financial and economic impact of these opinions about the future. A parallel can be drawn here with other types of future claims in world politics. Ratings are fairly stable. The reasons for this 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 crises that emerge when the country is in default and stocks dramatically plunge (one good example is the Asian financial crisis of 1997). This is an interesting case of what I refer to as a ‘self-blinding prophecy’: future providers blind themselves and this self-blinding prophecy has a stabilizing effect on the economic and political situation.

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

AC: DC is a very important example. Worldwide, Washington has the highest degree of political expertise concentrated in what is a relatively small city due to the fact, of course, that the US is the leading superpower and that such expertise is also heard beyond the boundaries of the US. Although I have not conducted first hand research, I can tell from exchanges with colleagues who 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 shown in the US case, i.e. a high degree of conformity to the norm of what is expected on the part of policy-makers and among the public. The DC case also reveals another dimension of future predictors. The professionals who make claims about the future can be seen as ‘oracles’ networks’ to which I refer in the book using, as a first historical example, the oracles that led Oedipus to kill his father and eventually to his own tragic fate. As in the myth of Oedipus, we are constantly oriented by a series of indicators, provided by future predictors, that orient our trajectories in one direction or the other (in addition to the degree of control we have over them). These oracles—or professional future predictors—are also interconnected and part of the same social world. In DC, think tankers know each other and each other’s institutions well. Rating agencies include other indexes in their own calculations and the sovereign ratings they produce are part of other risk indexes that are being compiled by other companies.



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

AC: 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 looked at what disciplines (to the extent that I was familiar with them or I could achieve some familiarity with them) would enable me to answer the questions that I’ve constructed. From this perspective, my work is (epistemically) ‘eclectic’ (in the field of international relations, authors such as Peter Katzenstein have argued in favour 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 combined into a coherent line of reasoning. The specificity of my work in this book is to have outlined a series of paradoxes that could not have been identified and explained through one single discipline, let alone one single paradigm. My findings are as follows: claims about the future are highly linear and tend to ignore radical changes. There is high degree of conformism, which is widely 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, favouring continuity.

CERI: Selling the Future discusses future prediction from the end of World War II to the present, with a historical detour to Greek and Roman times. Why/how did you choose these time periods to discuss future forecasting? Why do you largely omit discussion of other time periods such as, say, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

AC: 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, for example when studying academia and the discipline of 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 behaviour in the relationship between power and knowledge are entirely historically contingent or if there are some universal modes of relations. By reading the available literature on oracles in Greek and Roman times, I argue in favour of the latter. In this project, exploring other time periods such as those you mention did not appear essential, although I agree that it is a fascinating historical question.

CERI: Towards the end of the book, you argue that there are seminal events, referred to as ‘tipping points’, some of which you discuss earlier including the fall of the Soviet Union. Is there anything futurists can do to better identify and predict these tipping points?

AC: Those who argue in favour of predictive markets—which aggregate the opinions and analyses of non-experts—make an important point. Experts, whether they are academics or think tank analysts, are biased by the knowledge they have acquired and the paradigm they operate within from which they cannot deviate. Non-experts can bring alternative contributions and focus upon issues that experts had not thought about. It is important to open up the public space of anticipations to new forms of knowledge. However, 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.



CERI: You assert at the end of the book (p. 191) that ‘the industry of the future… slows down the world’s progress.’ Put succinctly there, it 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 for world progress or rather a significant impediment?

AC: 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, tend to slow down some of the political or economic processes they are embedded within. This goes against conventional wisdom, according to which, for example, rating agencies are frenetic organizations that play a major role in the aggravation of unexpected financial crises (delaying financial crises, then in a second phase accelerating a downfall that would have happened anyway, and again slowing the process of recovery). My claim also contradicts the findings and 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 postmodern 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. It follows that 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, but rather the contrary. In many circumstances, it has a decelerating effect.

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

AC: 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 correct or false, it does not matter. What matters is that there is a demand for predictions and forecasts, in order that this accrued information 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 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 there lies the paradox. I have shown in the 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 (which is 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 asked for their advice, they perpetuate it. In doing so, they also perpetuate the role they have been assigned 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.

Selling the Future: The Perils of Predicting Global Politics will be released in July 2016 by Hurst Publishers as part of the CERI-Sciences Po series. This series, consisting of translations of noteworthy manuscripts and publications in the social sciences emanating from the foremost French researchers at Sciences Po, Paris, is edited by Christophe Jaffrelot.

Ariel Colonomos is a Senior Research Fellow at CNRS (the National Center for Scientific Research) and a Research Professor at CERI-Sciences Po in Paris. He has also held numerous visiting appointments at Columbia University. His research focuses on predictions and forecast in international relations, global norms, the ethics of war and the epistemology of IR. His books include Moralizing International RelationsThe Gamble of War, and Selling the Future: The Perils of Predicting Global Politics.

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