That the imagination exists at all is one of the most interesting features of our minds. Conceptualizing and thinking about things outside our immediate perception, or that may not exist at all—to plan for the future and what could be—is not only a spectacular feat, it's one of the most important differentiators between us and other animals. Forward thinking is the crux of the stock market—not a depiction of the now or the past, but a signaling of the future's earnings and growth—the crowd's best guess about what's next.
Speculating on the future is one of the great pastimes of intellectual life. Years ago I asked science fiction author David Brin what he thought of the genre. He said [paraphrasing], "This isn't science fiction. It's speculative fiction. Those who are serious about this genre are endeavoring to make serious and necessary hypotheses about how the future might look."
So maybe we can call George Friedman's book, The Next 100 Years, speculative fiction of the most rigorous kind. Dr. Friedman is CEO of Stratfor, a leading geopolitics analysis and information source. He's done something not many serious geopolitical forecasters would ever dare in public: Forecast how the world might look in 100 years.
Theories about predicting the future have been around forever. Most, in some form or another, use the past to predict what may come. This can be anything from qualitative trend analysis to hardcore statistical arbitrage. Economics, sociology, meteorology, physics, and countless other disciplines (of both the hard and social sciences) aim to know what comes next. In fact, the usefulness of a theory is often defined as its ability to predict.
You'd be hard pressed to find a field with more theories about the future than stock market forecasting. But let's have no illusions here—thinking 100 years into the future has little or no value for even the longest-term equity investors. At best, market prices are a reflection of a few years from now, but nothing like 20 years, let alone 100.
Nevertheless, this is a useful and provocative book. Friedman's view of the future includes tremendous insight about the here and now. Everything from how and why geopolitical alliances are formed, to the uses of cutting edge robotic technology, to how today's global energy turmoil will evolve and rob the Middle East of its current power, and much more.
He's at his best when explaining why China isn't necessarily going to be a dominant global power decades from now (as is widely assumed today); at his most interesting and whimsical when speculating on the conquest of space as the next geopolitical frontier (the US will dominate space with "battlestar" war stations by 2060!); and at his weakest when attempting to explain how the year 2080 will look based on current circumstances and decades' worth of assumptions he's built up throughout the book (Mexico will vie for dominance of North America!?).
For Friedman, the specifics of the moment or the individuals in power at any given time don't much matter. Instead, he sees huge, impersonal forces constantly shaping the geopolitical landscape. These forces tend to be cyclical, and tacitly predictable. The details might not be precise, but the outcome over the long run is certain. This isn't such a far cry from the logic of economics—Adam Smith's notion of the "Invisible Hand" is just such an inevitable, huge force guiding larger scale free market economies.
That Friedman can make such topics so interesting is a feat in itself. We don't tend to like reading about the abstract and impersonal—we'd rather our sweeping biographies. Historians, for instance, have a penchant for chronicling decisive events—wars, elections, and so on—but spend comparatively little time on the larger scale, less provocative economic forces that truly shaped the course of history.
In truth, the world's more random and chaotic than Friedman's vision, and the true "inevitable" forces that shape things are clearest in hindsight. Friedman himself admits as much. This is a prime reason, for instance, it's best to only try and forecast stock markets no more than 18 months into the future. Anything longer is treacherous. Think, for example, where your mind was in 2000. Did you see all that would happen these last 10 years—from 9/11, to wars, to housing booms, to recessions, and all the rest?
It's vital for a society to think forward, and Friedman provides one of the most rational, interesting views of it in some time. But you're probably best suited keeping your stock market predictions separate from your feelings about battlestars for now.