How Not To Predict the Future
The Future by Committee: The Collective "Wisdom" of the U.S. Intelligence Community
They call themselves the U.S. “Intelligence Community,” or the IC. If you include the office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which in 2005 began as a crew of 12 people, including its director, and by 2008 had already grown to a staff of 1,750, there are 17 members (adding up to an alphabet soup of acronyms including the CIA, the NSA, and the DIA). The IC spends something like $70 billion of your taxpayer dollars annually, mostly in secret, hires staggering numbers of private contractors from various warrior corporations to lend a hand, sucks up communications of every sort across the planet, runs a drone air force, monitors satellites galore, builds its agencies multi-billion-dollar headquarters and storage facilities, and does all of this, ostensibly, to provide the president and the rest of the government with the best information imaginable on what’s happening in the world and what dangers the United States faces.
Since 9/11, expansionhas been the name of its game, as the leading intelligence agencies gained ever more power, prestige, and the big bucks, while wrapping themselves in an unprecedented blanket of secrecy. Typically, in the final days of the Obama administration, the National Security Agency was given yet more leeway to share the warrantless data it scoops up worldwide (including from American citizens) with ever more members of the IC.
And oh yes, in the weeks leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump, several of those intelligence outfits found themselves in a knock-down, drag-out barroom brawl with our new tweeter-in-chief (who has begun threatening to downsize parts of the IC) over the possible Russian hacking of an American election and his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the process, they have received regular media plaudits for their crucial importance to all of us, our security and safety, along with tweeted curses from the then-president-elect.
Let me lay my own cards on the table here. Based on the relatively little we can know about the information the Intelligence Community has been delivering to the president and his people in these years, I’ve never been particularly impressed with its work. Again, given what’s available to judge from, it seems as if, despite its size, reach, money, and power, the IC has been caught “off-guard” by developments in our world with startling regularity and might be thought of as something closer to an “un-intelligence machine.” It’s always been my suspicion that, if a group of smart, out-of-the-box thinkers were let loose on purely open-source material, the U.S. government might actually end up with a far more accurate view of our world and how it works, not to speak of what dangers lie in store for us.
There’s just one problem in saying such things. In an era when the secrecy around the Intelligence Community has only grown and those leaking information from it have beenprosecuted with a fierceness unprecedented in our history, we out here in what passes for the world don’t have much of a way to judge the value of the “product” it produces.
There is, however, one modest exception to this rule. Every four years, before a newly elected president enters the Oval Office, the National Intelligence Council, or NIC, which bills itself as “the IC’s center for long-term strategic analysis,” produces just such a document. The NIC is largely staffed from the IC (evidently in significant measure from the CIA), presents “senior policymakers with coordinated views of the entire Intelligence Community, including National Intelligence Estimates,” and does other classified work of various sorts.
Still, proudly and with some fanfare, it makes public one lengthy document quadrennially for any of us to read. Until now, that report has gone by the name of Global Trends with a futuristic year attached. The previous one, its fifth, made public just before Barack Obama’s second term in office, was Global Trends 2030. This one would have been the 2035 edition, had the NIC not decided to drop that futuristic year for what it calls fear of “false precision” (though projections of developments to 2035 are still part of the text). Instead, the sixth edition arrives as Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress, an anodyne phrase whose meaning is summarized this way: “The achievements of the industrial and information ages are shaping a world to come that is both more dangerous and richer with opportunity than ever before. Whether promise or peril prevails will turn on the choices of humankind.” According to the NIC, in producing such documents its role is to identify “key drivers and developments likely to shape world events a couple of decades into the future” for the incoming president and his people.
Think of Global Trends as another example of how the American world of intelligence has expanded in these years. Starting relatively modestly in 1997, the IC decided to go where no intelligence outfit had previously gone and plant its flag in the future. Chalk that up as a bold decision, since the future might be thought of as the most democratic as well as least penetrable of time frames. After all, any one of us is free to venture there any time we choose without either financing or staff. It’s also a place where you can’t embed spies, you can’t gather communications from across the planet, you can’t bug the phones or hack into the emails of world leaders, no drones can fly, and there are no satellite images to study or interpret. Historically, until the NIC decided to make the future its property, it had largely been left to visionaries and kooks, dreamers and sci-fi writers -- people, in short, with a penchant for thinking outside the box.
In these years, however, in the heartland of the world’s “sole superpower,” the urge to control and surveil everything grew to monumental proportions leading the IC directly into the future in the only way it knew how to do anything: monumentally. As a result, the new Global Trends boasts about the size and reach of the operation that produced it. Its team “visited more than 35 countries and one territory, soliciting ideas and feedback from over 2,500 people around the world from all walks of life.”
As its massive acknowledgements section makes clear, along with all the unnamed officials and staff who did the basic work and many people who were consulted but could not be identified, the staff talked to everyone from a former prime minister and two foreign ministers to an ambassador and a sci-fi writer, not to mention “senior officials and strategists worldwide... hundreds of natural and social scientists, thought leaders, religious figures, business and industry representatives, diplomats, development experts, and women, youth, and civil society organizations around the world.”
The NIC’s two-year intelligence voyage into a universe that, by definition, must remain unknown to us all, even made “extensive use of analytic simulations -- employing teams of experts to represent key international actors -- to explore the future trajectories for regions of the world, the international order, the security environment, and the global economy.” In other words, to produce this unclassified report on how, according to NIC Chairman Gregory Treverton, “the NIC is thinking about the future,” it mounted a major intelligence operation that -- though no figures are offered -- must have cost millions of dollars. In the hands of the IC, the future like the present is, it seems, an endlessly expensive proposition.
A Grim Future Offset By Cheer
If you’re now thinking about tossing your Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler novels into the trash bin of history and diving into the newest Global Trends, then I’ve done you an enormous favor. I’ve already read it for you. And let me assure you that, unlike William Gibson’s “discovery” of cyberspace in his futuristic novel Neuromancer, the NIC’s document uncovers nothing in the future that hasn’t already been clearly identified in the present and isn’t obvious to you and just about everyone else on the planet. Perhaps Global Trends’ greatest achievement is to transform that future into a reading experience so mind-numbing that it was my own vale of tears. A completely typical sentence: “The most powerful actors of the future will be states, groups, and individuals who can leverage material capabilities, relationships, and information in a more rapid, integrated, and adaptive mode than in generations past.”
Admittedly, every now and then you stumble across a genuinely interesting stat or fact that catches your attention (“one in every 112 persons in the world is a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum seeker”) and, on rare occasions, the odd thought stops you momentarily. Generally, though, the future as imagined by the wordsmiths of the IC is a slog, a kind of living nightmare of groupthink.
Whatever quirky and original brains may be hidden in the depths of the IC, on the basis of Global Trends you would have to conclude that its collective brain, the one it assumedly offers to presidents and other officials, couldn’t be more mundane. Start with this: published on the eve of the Trumpian accession, it can’t seem to imagine anything truly new under the sun, including Donald J. Trump (who goes unmentioned in this glimpse of our future). Even as we watch our present world being upended daily, the authors of Global Trends can’t conceive of the genuine upending of much on this planet.
Perhaps that helps explain why its leadership felt so caught off-guard and discombobulated by our new president. In him, after all, the American future is already becoming the unimaginable American present, tweet by tweet. (And let me here express a bit of sympathy for President Trump. If Global Trends is typical of the kind of thinking and presentation that goes into the President’s Daily Brief from the Intelligence Community, then I’m not surprised that he chose to start skipping those sessions for almost anything else, including Fox and Friends and spitball fights with Meryl Streep and John Lewis.)
As the IC imagines it, the near-future offers a relatively grim set of prospects, all transposed from obvious developments in our present moment, but each of them almost mechanistically offset by a hopeful conclusion: terrorism will undoubtedly spread and worsen (before it gets better); inequality will increase in a distinctly 1% world as anti-globalist sentiments sweep the planet and “populism,” along with more authoritarian ways of thinking, will continue to spread along with isolationist sentiments in the West (before other trends take hold); the risk of interstate conflict will increase thanks to China and Russia (even if the world will not be devastated by it); governing will grow harder globally and technology more potentially disruptive (though hope lurks close at hand); and the pressures of climate change are likely to create a more tenuous planet, short on food and especially water, and filled with the desperate and migrationally inclined (but is also likely to foster “a twenty-first-century set of common principles”). In essence, in the view of the National Intelligence Council, for every potentially lousy news trend of the present moment projected into the future, there’s invariably a saving grace, a sense that, as the report puts it, “the same trends generating near-term risks also can create opportunities for better outcomes over the long term.” In fact, by 2028 according to one of its scenarios, we could be “entering a new era of economic growth and prosperity.”
In truth, even the grimmest version of the IC’s future seems eerily mild, given the onrushing present -- from a Trumpian presidency to the recently reported reality that eight billionaires now control the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the planet’s population. (Only a year ago, it took 62 billionaires to hit that mark.) According to the Engelhardt Intelligence Council, the likelihood is that we’re already entering a future far more extreme than anything the NIC and its 2,500-plus outside experts can imagine.
The Global Trends crew seems incapable of imagining futures in which some version of the present doesn’t rule all. Despite the global wars of the last century that leveled significant parts of the planet, the arrival of climate change as history’s possible deal-breaker, and the 9/11 attacks, disjunctures are simply not in their playbook. As a result, their idea of futuristic extremes couldn’t be milder. In one of the report’s three scenarios, even the surprise use of a nuclear weapon for the first time since August 9, 1945 -- in a 2028 confrontation between India and Pakistan -- is relieved of most of its potential punch. The bomb goes off not over a major city, killing hundreds of thousands, but in a desert area. And at what seems to be remarkably little cost, the shock of that single explosion miraculously brings a world of hostile powers, including the United States, China, and Russia, together in a strikingly upbeat fashion. (By 2028, it seems that Mr. Smith has indeed gone to Washington and so, in Global Trends, “President Smith” heartwarmingly shares a Nobel Peace Prize with China’s president for the “series of confidence-building measures and arms control agreements” that followed the nuclear incident.)
I, of course, don’t have thousands of experts to consult in thinking about the future, but based on scientific work already on the record, I could still create a very different South Asian scenario, which wouldn’t exactly be a formula for uniting the planet behind a better security future. Just imagine that one of the “tactical” nuclear weapons the Pakistani military is already evidently beginning to store at its forward military bases was put to use in response to an Indian military challenge. Imagine, then, that it triggered not world peace, but an ongoing nuclear exchange between the two powers, each with significant arsenals of such weaponry. The results in South Asia could be mindboggling -- up to 21 million direct deaths by one estimate. Scientists speculate, however, that the effects of such a nuclear war would not be restricted to the region, but would spark a nuclear-winter scenario globally, destroying crops across the planet and possibly leading to up to a billion deaths.
Living in an All-American World
Such grim futures are, however, not for the NIC. Think of them as American imperial optimists and dreamers only masquerading as realists. If you want proof of this, it’s easy enough to find in Global Trends. Here, in fact, is the most curious aspect of that document: the members of the U.S. Intelligence Community evidently can’t bear to look at the last 15 years of their own imperial history. Instead, in taking possession of the future, they simply leave the post-9/11 American past in a roadside ditch and move on. In the future they imagine, much of that past is missing in action, including, of course, Donald J. Trump. (As a group, they must be Clintonistas. At least I can imagine Hillary wonkishly making her way through their document, but The Donald? Don’t make me laugh.)
Give them credit at least for accepting the obvious: that we will no longer be on a “unipolar planet” dominated by a single superpower, but in a world of “spheres of influence.” (“For better and worse, the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War...”) But you can search their document in vain for the word “decline.” Forget that they were putting together their report at the very moment that the first openly declinist candidate for president was wowing crowds -- who sensed that their country and their own lives were on the downhill slope -- with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Nor were they about to take striking aspects of present-day America and project them into a truly grim future. Take, for example, something that amused me greatly: you can search Global Trends in vain for all but the most passing reference to the U.S. military. You know, the outfit that our recent presidents keep praising as the “finest fighting force” in world history. Search their document top to bottom and you still won’t have the faintest idea that the U.S. military has been fighting ceaselessly in victory-less conflicts for the past 15 years, and that its “war on terror” efforts have somehow only fueled the spread of terrorist movements, while leaving behind a series of failed or failing states across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa. None of that is projected into the future, nor is the militarization of this country (or its police), even though the retired generals now populating the new Trump administration speak directly to this very point.
Or to pick another example, how about the fact that, in a world in which a single country -- the very one to which the IC belongs -- garrisons the planet with hundreds of military bases from Europe to Japan, Bahrain to Afghanistan, there is but a single futuristic mention of a military base, and it’s a Chinese one to be built on a Fijian Island deep in the Pacific. (A running gag of Global Trends involves future newspaper headlines like this one from 2019: “China Buys Uninhabited Fijian Island To Build Military Base.”) What will happen to the present U.S. military framework for dominating the planet? You certainly won’t find out here.
But don’t think that the United States itself isn’t on the mind of those who produced this document. After all, among all the stresses of the decades to come, as the IC’s futurologists imagine them, there’s one key to positive national survival in 2035 and that’s what they call “resilience.” (“[T]he very same trends heightening risks in the near term can enable better outcomes over the longer term if the proliferation of power and players builds resilience to manage greater disruptions and uncertainty.”)
And which country is the most obviously resilient on Planet Earth? That’s the $100 (but not the 100 ruble or 100 yuan) question. So go ahead, guess -- and if you don’t get the answer right, you’re not the reader I think you are.
Still, just in case you’re not sure, here’s how Global Trends sums the matter up:
“For example, by traditional measures of power, such as GDP, military spending, and population size, China’s share of global power is increasing. China, however, also exhibits several characteristics, such as a centralized government, political corruption, and an economy overly reliant on investment and net exports for growth -- which suggest vulnerability to future shocks.
“Alternatively, the United States exhibits many of the factors associated with resilience, including decentralized governance, a diversified economy, inclusive society, large land mass, biodiversity, secure energy supplies, and global military power projection capabilities and alliances.”
So if there’s one conclusion to be drawn from the NIC’s mighty two-year dive into possible futures on a planet we still garrison and that’s wracked by wars we’re still fighting, it might be summed up this way: don’t be China, be us.
Of course, no one should be surprised by such a conclusion, since you don’t rise in the government by contrarian thinking but by going with the herd. This isn’t the sort of document you read expecting to be surprised, not when the nightmare of every bureaucracy is just that: the unexpected and unpredicted. The Washington bubble is evidently too comfortable and the world far too frightening a place to imagine a fuller range of what might be coming at us. The spooks of the NIC may be living off the money our fear sends their way, but don’t kid yourself for a second, they’re afraid too, or they could never produce a document like Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress.
As a portrait not of the future but of the anxieties of American power in a world it can’t control, this document provides the rest of us with a vivid portrait of the group of people least likely to offer us long-term security.
The last laugh here belongs to Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, and other authors of their ilk. If you want to be freed to think about the many possible futures that face us, futures that we will help create, then skip Global Trends and head for the kinds of books that might free your mind to think afresh, not bind it to a world growing more dismal by the day.