Samanth Subramanian’s new book, “A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane,” will be published by Atlantic Books UK in August.
CAMBRIDGE, England — Trawling through the news archives, I found predictions of “the new normal” — the post-pandemic world — from as early as the first week of March. At the time, the United Kingdom hadn’t yet gone into lockdown; neither had France, India or Spain. In the United States, President Donald Trump had just about stopped declaring that the virus would miraculously disappear.
Roughly 3,400 people had died as of March 6 but you could still fly from London to New York. The contours of the months to come were fuzzy and indistinct, and yet there we were, making forecasts about life after the coronavirus.
The situation today is, in relative terms, not hugely different. Several governments don’t yet know when and how they will move out of lockdown. We don’t know who will be left immune after this spell of sickness, or if there will be a vaccine, or if there will be a second wave of COVID-19 this winter, or if the virus will mutate, or when it’ll be possible to travel freely across the world once again.
But even in the midst of this flux and uncertainty, we are toiling away at more predictions. Will “the new normal” include more working from home, fewer hugs, Zoom universities, green economies and reformed public health systems? Or will “the new normal” really just be “the old normal” — because human nature is human nature, and because the systems of power are too entrenched to change? The chief pastime of the moment is to indulge in these modes of sweaty speculation.
This may not be the time to sketch out, with great confidence, what 2021 will look like.
The impulse is understandable. We make decisions about today based on what we think tomorrow holds for us, and the very foundation for society is the belief that people will continue to follow a set of norms in the future.
But this compulsive need to map out every inch of the future, at a time when we’re still at sea, suggests that our civilization has gotten itself hooked on that promise of knowability. “We are,” as the writer Margaret Heffernan puts it in her new book “Uncharted,” “addicted to prediction.”
It’s true that predictions seem to work for us in a thousand small ways every day, mainly in the realm of the economy. Retailers decide how much stock to hold in their warehouses to anticipate demand. An airline formulates a budget to take into account the likely price of oil next year. Investors buy shares in the belief that their value will rise. The Pantone Color Institute even conducts an annual exercise to divine the Color of the Year. (For 2020, it was Classic Blue. “It’s a color that anticipates what’s going to happen next,” a Pantone official said: prediction overlaid upon prediction.)
But as the mathematician David Orrell explains in his book “The Future of Everything,” these are better described as extrapolations rather than predictions — their models based on our ability to hoover up and crunch vast troves of historical data. And even in their narrow domains, the models aren’t infallible. They don’t capture “major turning points,” Orrell writes: sudden frictions in the Middle East that shock the price of oil, or pandemics that squeeze existing stocks of face masks.
From economics, we’ve imported this pathology of prediction into other spheres, and come to believe that we can foretell big sociological shifts as well. One example is the speculation, heard often these days, that in the new normal, companies will give up office spaces and keep their employees working from home.
This would be a tectonic change, involving an inversion of a century of working customs, disorder in urban real estate, a rearrangement of family lives and an abrupt withdrawal from interactions with colleagues.
There is no bank of historical data to rely upon here; indeed, one might argue that there never can be such a data bank, given that these disruptions rely entirely upon the unquantifiable factors of human nature and human behavior.
Our societies are complex systems, turning on a host of visible and invisible axes. Predicting their behavior is, quite literally, the stuff of science fiction; only Hari Seldon, the psychohistorian in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” novels, has managed to do it with any reasonable success. But he had the advantage of being a fictional character. In the real world, forecasts about what people will do, individually or en masse, are riddled with the risk of failure. The Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election have taught us that only too well.
We’re at a similar moment now. Already we’ve been beset by the calamitous effects of another complex system: a virus that jumped from animals to human beings and triggered a flare of disease.
We’ve known, for years, that such a pandemic was coming, and some scientists even knew it would be caused by a coronavirus. Yet we weren’t able to predict this specific outbreak, let alone prepare for it. Even so, we’re indulging our old addiction again, certain that we can envisage the world to come, when the sensible thing to do would be to admit that it’s going to be very difficult to forecast.
Our economies are addled; our psyches are shaken from the spate of tragic deaths; our abilities to deal with unexpected events have been shown, in many countries, to be flimsy. This may not be the time to sketch out, with great confidence, what 2021 will look like.