A glancing review.

I went to a debate called "Historian vs. Futurist on Human Progress" last night. It was interesting.

Niall Ferguson started, explaining the position of the historian. History is a flexible field that vacillates between the micro (dusty letters written) to the macro (empires rise and fall). He spoke of communing with the dead, and preferring their company to the living, of rough repetitions but not models, and of how much we can learn from what has gone before.

He was followed by Peter Schwartz, who, rather than talk to us about futurism, referred mainly to Ferguson's work. Apparently, Schwartz has created a new method for futurism, which is to present three likely scenarios (good, bad, OK) for any given situation.

It was refreshing to hear a British person tear strips of a West Coaster. Ferguson was simply the better debater, able to hold his argument while criticising Schwartz with both humour and insight. Schwartz didn't seem to hold a particular position. What he did hold was the annoying body language of sitting on his Aeron facing Ferguson, legs wide open, twirling from side to side, particularly when under Ferguson's bright spotlight. The debate even drew me towards the difference in intonation between the two accents. Where Ferguson was lyrical, pausing for effect, with appropriate stress in appropriate places, Schwartz's speech was like a metronome, where his stress on words was almost like a heartbeat, apart from the words he spoke.


Here are the most salient points, in my opinion:
  • There is much to be learned from what's already happened,
  • There is not one future, but many. There is only one past,
  • Historians appear to be more studious and rigorous than futurists,
  • Scotland passed through its Enlightenment during the late 18th, early 19th centuries,
  • China is facing a perilous future. Despite its obvious current industrial strength, its "One Child Policy" will make for a volatile next few generations. Interestingly, Ferguson raised this as an historical anomaly; difficult to predict, and
  • Hearing Ferguson speak makes me interested to read his books. I'll start with a few articles, despite him being a self-proclaimed Thatcherite, supposedly balanced by his enduring Hobbesian appreciation of utilitarianism and general liberty.

As an aside, Flickr has shown me the dance and gesture of monks debating in various parts of China and Tibet, sparked by this wonderful video by Buzia: