How can I make sure that my rubber ducky rises with the global bathwater?

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The Independent Culture
"We have met the enemy, and it is us," said Pogo the opossum, protagonist in one of America's best-loved comic strips, as he surveyed the Fifties political scene. Even a "possum" could see that the root of human trouble is almost invariably human beings.

A fortnight ago I was fleeing an ice-machine run amok on Miami Beach; this week finds me ensconced in gulker.com's world headquarters on a gloomy, foggy Super Bowl Sunday, brooding about the future, and especially future disasters.

Recall my New Year's resolve to use technology to improve my bottom line - today caps a week of cruising the Net, trying to understand the future better.

And disasters have been much in the news this week. President Clinton has his hands full with a media feeding frenzy, the economies of the Far East appear to be continuing their meltdown - and, oh yeah, there may be a war about to break out in the Middle East.

Ho hum.

Mind you, all of the above disasters could come home to roost; I, like many who trust their retirement to technology stocks, have already been clobbered, at least on paper, by events in Asia, and the markets are not likely to react favourably to a major presidential crisis in the US. War with Iraq could trigger any number of unpleasant consequences, the least of which would be to hammer the world's markets even more.

But, not to worry. A quintet of writers, British and American and working a century apart, have convinced me that, not only is global disaster no big deal, it can even benefit humanity.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay, author of the five-volume History of England, wrote about the infamous South Sea Bubble of 1720 in an essay published more than 150 years ago.

"If any person had told the Parliament which met in perplexity and terror after the crash of 1720 that in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams ... our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver's travels," he wrote.

Macaulay points out that though the burst Bubble reduced thousands to instant poverty, the next 100 years saw Britain's wealth grow by a factor of 25.

The modern writer Adrian Berry builds on Macaulay's idea in his 1996 book The Next 500 Years. Berry holds that great disasters, while tough on individuals, can benefit society in the longer term.

Take the great plagues that ravaged much of the world in the 14th century. One-third to one-half of Europe's population may have died in the plagues, but the survivors found themselves a valuable commodity in a seller's market. According to Berry and other observers, plague-induced labour shortages brought down the feudal system, thawing a millennium-long economic deep-freeze which in turn set the stage for five centuries of unprecedented progress.

The First World War saw the slaughter of millions, including a whole generation of European males, but hastened the world-wide adoption of mechanised transport, especially aeroplanes. The Second World War added millions more to the toll, yet ushered in computers, jets, rockets and atomic power.

Throw in the Great Depression, and you could argue that this century has been among the worst in history for disasters of purely human making. Nevertheless, the past 100 years have seen progress in almost every conceivable human endeavour, and we average Joes and Josephines can easily do things today that even a monarch could not have done a century ago, such as fly to Tokyo in less than a day. The unprecedented well-being that we enjoy is built in large part upon technologies that grew from our forbears' suffering.

Two American writers, Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden, add to the thesis of Macaulay and Berry and project that the next 40 years will be a non- stop global boom, driven in part by new openness, opportunities and perspectives sparked by globally networked personal computers. They contend that future historians will call the period 1980 to 2020 "The Long Boom", which was also the title of their essay, published in Wired magazine last summer.

The only trick, it seems, is figuring out how to make sure my fortunes increase with the general good luck washing over the planet. I want my rubber ducky to rise with the global bathwater, as it were.

And there's a problem here, as I learned from an article by Sarah Boxer on the New York Times Web site. The problem is that scientists think there are some things that really are unknowable, and the future is one of them. This prospering world of ours is getting ever more complex, with ever more moving parts, which makes it ever more unknowable.

Complexity and chaos theory both posit a high sensitivity to initial conditions: a tiny movement somewhere on the planet can have huge consequences elsewhere. An ill-advised investment by a Korean magnate, a romantic indiscretion in Washington, and, presto, a whole generation of retirees suddenly find themselves unretired as their mutual funds plummet in value.

But the reverse is also true. Events somewhere could also mean that we all retire early, and in style. I don't know why, but something tells me I'd better not count on that particular scenario.

After all, Pogo also said: "We are overwhelmed by insurmountable opportunity."

cg@gulker.com

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