crystal ball

The Plague-Ground – The pundits pile on.

The past week has seen a sharp rise in the number of cases of punditry. It’s especially harrowing in countries with large numbers of columnists, intellectuals and prophets-for-hire. Hand-washing has had little effect because hand-wringing is the soap and water of pundits, the people who comment with great authority on the future.

But the sad truth is, predicting how the future will turn out is the hardest thing in the world to do. No one ever gets it right.

In 2008 I hosted a RamsayTalk with Dan Gardner whose book Future Babble claimed that experts’ predictions were “about as accurate as dart-throwing monkeys.” No matter, we believe them anyway. This is because not knowing the future is worse than knowing even a dreadful future. Ask a cancer patient which is worse. As Gardner said in The Globe and Mail last week: “Monsters are scary. Not knowing if there is a monster is scarier. Good writers know this. It’s why they mostly keep the monster off-screen.”

I’ve found that expert predictions around COVID-19 come in two kinds:

First, those pundits who predict where, when and how many of us will die from the disease; and second, those who predict what our world will be like once this is all over.

I’ll leave the first to the medical experts, epidemiologists, pollsters and genius-President Donald Trump. But safe to say, when credible models range from 100,000 deaths in America (Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation) to 2,200,000 (Imperial College London), it’s a bit like the real estate agent saying they can sell your home for somewhere between $100,000 and $2,200,000. It’s numerical, but not very useful.

The second kind of expert predictor tells us how the world, and we personally, will change once the pandemic has cleared. It’s here that things start to look like the traffic jam atop Mt. Everest…

We’ll stop polluting the earth. We’ll have more Sunday dinners. We’ll get more sleep, hear more birds, do more dishes. We’ll never shake hands again. Our doctor will make house calls online. Public health, once the back-alley of medicine, will get huge new funding. A sold-out house for a concert means one in every three seats is actually sold and sat in. We’ll read poetry to each other, bake bread for each other, and say please to each other. Truck drivers, nurses and janitors will gain new respect; hedge-fund traders, even less. Social distancing will disappear from the language, not from dis-use, but from too much. Alcoholics will hoard bottles of hand sanitizer. Showy wealth will go into hiding. Exotic travel will only be allowed with social purpose. Travel to New York will be like travel to Chernobyl. Fossil fuel will become as useful as other fossils. Cash will be king. But “cash”, as in bills and coins,  will be useless. Debit cards will be king. Free healthcare in Canada will no longer be the third rail of politics, but the holy grail. Sit-down restaurants will charge quadruple what they did because customers can occupy only one seat in every four. Tomorrow’s Swiss Army Knife will be the 3-D Printer. Crossing any national border will take half a day, unless you have a bio-chip inserted into your arm. We won’t mind that CCTA cameras will be everywhere. We’ll rise up against the fact that CCTA cameras are everywhere. The 2020 Presidential election will be postponed by Donald Trump. Russia will invade Canada from the Arctic  — and America will let them. We’ll become more tribal, more global, more frugal, more……

Stop!!!!!!!!

You see, that’s the trouble with predicting the future. So many things go into the making of it that the slightest change in ingredients will turn a cookie into a monster. And the farther out into the future those predictions go, the more inaccurate they’re guaranteed to be.

So, given that foretelling what tomorrow will bring has brought so many players to the Ouija Board, let’s take comfort in how our world has already changed because of the pandemic.

Simon Kuper wrote a wonderful piece in The Financial Times yesterday about the extraordinary shifts we’ve made in just the past 30 days. Here’s some of what he wrote: “It’s as if we’ve gone from 2020 to 2030 in one weekend”… I’ve tried to capture some of the transformations in western societies since March. What follows isn’t a catalogue of utopian dreams (though we need those), or short-lived moral awakenings. Rather, it’s a list of changes that have actually happened, should last, will save time or money and can mitigate horrors such as carbon emissions, loneliness and homelessness.”

I leave you to find the rest of the piece online (FT is strict about copying and sharing articles holus-bolus). Try here first.

And remember the wisest words ever spoken about tomorrow. “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.’”

Thank you, Yogi Berra.

Here is the link to the Plague-Ground podcast if you want to listen to this blog with your ears instead of reading it with your eyes.

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11 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – The pundits pile on.”

  1. Simon Kuper’s FT piece is the best I’ve read yet on life post-COVID 19. And Yogi’s quotes are, as always, the best.

  2. If you put the title of the article (the pandemic will forever transform how we live) into a google search box, you can access it that way.
    Thanks for your blog post and the article, Bob. Both thought-provoking reading.

  3. Hey Bob, great piece, except for the end. Perhaps you could re-edit to include the relevant bits from Kuper’s piece at the FT, since you feel it completes your essay — and that would be fair use under copyright law. The FT paywall is one I am not willing to fund, as they are the heart of the neoliberal problem that leads us all to a welfare capitalism that has us all sinking on their luxury liner which they failed to equip with lifeboats.

  4. When the going gets tough, the tough get predicting.
    Where is the balance between knowing and not knowing, too much information and not enough information, solicited and unsolicited advice?
    This miasma which haunts us: think of the closing scene of the film, Death in Venice, and the exquisite piece of Mahler’s music which leads us to its inexorable ending.
    Keep your social distance, wash those hands, wear a mask.

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