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27 August 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 10:36am

Future-gazing: declassifying nothing in particular

A review of The Future, Declassified by Mathew Burrows

By Robert Macquarie

It is ungraceful to insist on the importance of your task at hand and proceeding to execute it poorly. “There is a difference between prediction and foresight,” Mathew Burrows writes in The Future, Declassified – published on 9th September by Palgrave Macmillan. “Prediction is trying to divine the precise future – an impossible task. Foresight is understanding the factors or variables that can or may produce the future.” Burrows forgivably tries to place himself within the category of reasonable, modest analysis, knowing that forecasters who make exact, bold predictions are an undesirable club to belong to. Avoiding becoming a talking head, the travesties of the social sciences, is paramount.

But the book’s prevailing sense is of ambiguity, with a focus merely on “megatrends that will undo the world” and all the associated alarmism. Burrows possesses a wealth of experience to deploy in a mere 250 pages. Having worked initially in the CIA before moving to the National Intelligence Council, he headed up the publication of quadrennial papers entitled Global Trends, which would inform incoming U.S. presidents on the “forces shaping the world.”

While reading this book, the idea that he would have been in charge of directing a precise, all-bases-covered strategy seems far-fetched. When not swamped by statistics, the reader is left disappointed by uncommitted analysis that nevertheless lacks interesting detail.

This is an issue that permeates throughout the entire industry of books concerned with the future, and books that make large, bold claims in general. There are trade-offs between the certainty of predictions and a desire to remain humble, and between a focus on specific facts and engaging, dramatic prose. It is perhaps healthy cynicism to think that these balances cannot be mastered.

The Future, Declassified demonstrates a complete lack of mastery. In a chapter titled “The Last Days of Pax Americana?” – a striking but rhetorical question that cannot possibly be answered, as Burrows admitted earlier – he writes how “there won’t be any one domineering power” in the future. He flees into the territory of grand or rousing claims because he wants to avoid the dual perils of arrogant, precise prediction, and wonkish discussion filled with caveats. The former is foolish, as mentioned earlier. The latter is simply boring.

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Burrows has an individual approach to the subject matter that he employs in the last four chapters of the book. These stand as four very short pieces of fiction, each based around a speculated direction one of these megatrends could go in. The attempt is to add a personal aspect to his forecasts, thus rendering the analysis more palpable. It fails – Burrows’ wooden prose, written as it is by a technical expert and not a novelist, merely makes his vision of these “alternative futures” feel even more inflated and unrealistic.

The political and scientific topics covered in The Future, Declassified are worthy of extensive research, explanation and debate. Burrows includes the increasing multipolarity of the world order; rising prosperity across a variety of countries creating an inflated middle class; evolving weaponry in warfare; scientific developments in human biology as well as technology; all receive a general treatment alerting us to the idea that some large change is probably underway or en route. But he fails to engage with them in any meaningful way. He urges caution in making predictions then advocates stridently on a range of topics as serious as intervention to prevent nuclear war.

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One of Burrows’ central ideas might reveal why the book belies his strategic expertise to such a large extent. He makes the claim – as if trying to justify his obfuscation in advance – that “we’ve gone from a black-and-white to a grey world.” He predicates this dichromatic nature of the twentieth century on the idea that Soviet containment “gave meaning and direction for all [American] actions in the Cold War.” But history has always featured dramatic change, “megatrends” and sudden shifts. Technological progress and breakthroughs occurred well before the twenty-first century. It is a hallmark of thinking about the future to classify the present as a particularly critical period. If Burrows abandoned this emphasis on the unprecedented nature of current developments, he might keep his analysis from becoming so messy.

These problems all concern the dilemma that affects all writing of this nature. Trying to draw attention to trends in a reasonable, considered way is difficult. Readers want to feel engaged, not like they’re reading a 300 page governmental brief. But avoiding sounding like a raving doomsayer is also hugely important. Most respected authors who try their hand at this craft miss the sweet spot entirely. Burrows is a typical case. Ironically, their failures lead to the suspicion over future-gazing that Burrows is so keen to dispel in the first place.