Niall Ferguson & Peter Schwartz, “Historian vs. Futurist on Human Progress”, Longnow Foundation, 2008/04/28

In thinking about the future, what can we learn from how historians think, versus how futurists think?

… 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— only 6 percent of all humans are now alive. Historians, he said, “commune with the dead. We re-enact their thoughts, in their context and ours.

”Historians look for rough regularities, such as he found in his analysis of the wars and hatred played out in the 20th Century. [….]

Ferguson ended with a critique of Schwartz’s book on scenario planning, THE ART OF THE LONG VIEW, which he thought showed signs of “heuristic bias.” When Schwartz asked Ferguson to expand on that idea, Ferguson pointed out there was a whole chapter in the book about “The Global Teenager,” which seemed spurious. It merely reflected Schwartz’s personal experience: “You were a teenager when teenagers mattered. [….]

In Schwartz’s opening remarks, he said that his plans to write a book titled THE CASE FOR OPTIMISM were derailed by reading Ferguson’s WAR OF THE WORLD. He’s been grappling with the issues Ferguson raised for 18 months. “You do alternative pasts, I do alternative futures. Where historians commune with the dead, futurists have imaginary friends.”

Schwartz characterized Ferguson’s view of history as basically down, with an upside possibility, whereas his own view was of history as basically up, with always the possibility of getting things wrong.”

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