Robert Winder's Notebook: Truth. The final frontier in our search for the future

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Of all the human urges, one of the most natural and profound is our desire to know what happens next. Ever since Agamemnon kidnapped Cassandra, or Macbeth consulted those juggling fiends, we have sought guidance on what the future holds. This simple and impossible yearning drives the page-turning suspense we look for in narrative literature, and gets us gripping our armrests in the cinema. It supports huge forecasting industries in politics, economics, romance and self-improvement, and underpins the whole idea of gambling, be it in the global securities market or at the racetrack.

The ancient world's sybils, oracles and soothsayers may well seem a little flaky to smart moderns like ourselves, but they are hardly wackier than our own busy astrologers and palm-readers. At elections, we seek to read the tea-leaves by taking opinion polls, while at football matches our pundits spend most of their time predicting the result, just like dreamy fans on their way to the game ("I'm going for 1-0. Shearer to score - he's due a goal").

We are an impatient species, always eager for sneak previews of tomorrow's world. And of course there are plenty of people happy to offer us one. They are the trend-spotters, and you can see them out there, on lonely platforms in the drizzle, with their anoraks and binoculars and notebooks, staring into the cloudy future.

Few areas of life are free from their prognostications. Paco Rabanne made a few waves this summer when he predicted that a meteorite would smash into Paris; Nostradamus was wheeled out as usual to help explain the eclipse. There was even a computerised horoscope at this year's National Wedding Show in Olympia, which offered happy couples glimpses of their more or less compatible futures through an exciting marriage between antique star-gazing and new technology. Sure enough, when I typed in my date of birth the computer spat back my exact - but exact - age. It was enough to send shivers down anyone's spine.

Every year, at around this time, the normally sober Economist goes in for a spot of crystal ball-gazing of this sort. Well, not quite of this sort: there is nothing occult about its procedures, and few of its contributors (bureau chiefs, investment analysts and politicians) would see themselves as readers of runes. This year's edition, The World in 2000 is a snappy portfolio of articles on politics, business, science and "ideas", designed chiefly to help the global investor pick a few winners in the months ahead. As always, it is smart and to the point. On the whole it resists the temptation to indulge in tipsy millennial prophecies, and it steers distressingly clear of trouble (no mention of the Balkans, Chechnya, Northern Ireland). But it does identify an intriguing set of global tendencies that, if true, will certainly reshape the world as we know it.

"2000 will be a year in which the world shifts its balance," it begins. "America's magnificent economy will slow; Europe and Japan will pick up the slack." This is hardly a controversial view, though it may cause a few Wall Street stockbrokers to scoff nervously. But last year's semi- gleeful obituaries on the Asian economic miracle were, it seems, premature. "Remember the books that predicted the dawning of an Asia century that would eclipse the Western world?" writes Paul Markville. "Pull them down again. One day it will happen."

This is largely a business matter. But as the magazine drifts into the cultural arena it makes several more intriguing claims. It is time, for instance (the magazine insists) for a Muslim reformation. As revolutionary fervour in Iran, Afghanistan and Algeria slackens its pace, so a new possibility is emerging of a gentler and more enterprising association of Muslim peoples, stranded as they are among so many different nationalities.

This would certainly be a hugely significant shift (it might even affect the oil price), though the entry optimistically fails to mention that the Protestant reformation was accompanied by a great deal of bloody warmongering in Christian Europe. But it chimes neatly with one of the magazine's other forecasts, which is that the power of the nation state will slide, cracked open by independent institutions, popular sentiment and 21st-century communications .

The Economist also predicts something like an imperial revival in the Spanish-speaking world ("Hip, Hip, Hispanidad"). Present estimates suggest that by the year 2050 there will be 100 million Hispanics in America, and that Spanish will be an important, if not the dominant, national language in the United States. Spain has recovered fast from its Franco-imposed exile from world affairs, and is now - through the single currency - in one of Europe's driving-seats. Its position of economic leadership in South America will make Madrid one of the key movers and shakers on the international stage.

All of these visions seem rich and suggestive. What a prospect: an Asian- Spanish-Muslim world, with a few tawdry and worn-out industrial nations (the once-proud West) sprinkled around the North Atlantic, playing their lotteries and watching their dismal football teams. But we only have to glance at last year's edition of the same book, The World in 1999, to see that prediction is a dangerous game. The magazine picked a few winners (Australia to make the World Cup finals in both cricket and rugby; the total eclipse) but its bankers slipped up badly.

"In 1999 there will be a lot of bare bottoms," it wrote, a reference not to some exciting new twist in the fashion industry but to Warren Buffet's investment quip that when the tide goes out, you can see who's been swimming naked. "1999," the magazine swore, "will be a thin year. Economic growth will slow right down."

This gloomy prediction was written slap bang in the middle of the dramatic financial crises in Thailand, Korea, Malaysia and Russia, so a degree of pessimism was more than understandable. But the book sounds utterly convinced of the inevitability of something that did not, as it happens, occur. It doesn't necessarily mean it is wrong (it may mean only that its timing is out by a month or two). But it does remind us that the future has a nasty habit of remaining for ever beyond our ken. After all, last year's book was adamant that "Australia will vote to get rid of its monarch"; it even suggested, as part of its portrait of bubbly multiracial Britain, that Paul Ince would captain England again.

The trouble with the future is that, even rationally imagined, it is a contest between competing prophecies. The 1999 edition tried gamely to hedge its bets. We were in, we were told, for "a thin year", "a crunch year", "a tough year", "a crucial year", "a rewarding year", "a roller- coaster year", "an anxious year", "a vintage year" and (if you were unlucky enough to be Russian) a "bleak and miserable year".

That should have covered pretty much every angle. But one of the problems that bedevils all trendspotters, of course (especially in the Economist, which likes to be crisp, and is far too busy to waste any time on tentative thoughts) is that they have to say something. It wouldn't quite do to forecast that it would be "another year", "a typical year" or "a calendar year". It wouldn't even work to speculate that it might be a confusing, contradictory, muddled, routine or (what the heck) unpredictable year.

Futurology has brazenness built into its design, and that indeed is part of the fun. Not that we can afford to laugh too soon. It is not too late for one of last year's central forecasts to come true. "Expect a major world recession to start towards the end of 1999," said the oracle, "set off by the end of the Wall Street bubble." Who could swear that this might not, even with only a few shopping days left before the start of the next millennium, still come true?

Perhaps it would be enough if the small things turned out to be true. Look out for the first lawsuit against an American arms supplier, probably brought by a child, alleging that the supplier failed to point out with adequate severity that guns could seriously damage someone's health. Be alert for first signs of the forthcoming water shortage induced by global warming and falling aquifer levels, and for the freak floods inspired by melting glaciers and a rise in sea level.

Check out the extra pounds 50 sneaked on to the cost of a holiday next year, to compensate for the loss of the pounds 5bn duty-free market from airport revenues. Say hello to the dollar coin. Spot the difference between the two main rivals for the American presidency ("two nearly identical candidates, each of whom will have his views carefully honed to a meaningless average"). Stand by to watch the Daily Mail choke on its rusk when news filters through that more than a third of British children are born outside marriage. Shed a tear for the nation's Christian minority, the fewer-than-a-million regular churchgoers for whom the millennium is a holy, not merely a holi- day.

I suppose it would be nice to know exactly when all these things will come to pass. But the next century will be here soon enough. We'll just have to wait and see.