Forecast for 2010: It will be unpredictable

It’s the start of a new year — even a new decade, if you don’t accept the math-geek argument that this is really the final year of the past decade.

So it’s the time when a lot of folks — pundits, politicians, economists and others — make bold predictions about what will happen with elections, stock markets, jobs, sales or foreign affairs.

We offer today, a cautionary tale, instead.

Most readers will recall that 10 years ago today, the world was breathing a collective sigh of relief. The dreaded Y2K computer catastrophe proved to be a bust. No nuclear missiles launched unexpectedly because the computer systems that operated them went ballistic after failing to account for the date “2000.” International banking systems didn’t collapse. Government agencies, hospitals, police departments, even most private computers, were adequately prepared for the monumental date change and continued to function normally.

The great meltdown of modern technology that many people had predicted ended a fizzle.

What we didn’t know on that happy New Year’s Day 10 years ago was that a little more than 19 months later — on Sept. 11, 2001 — the entire world would change far more drastically and permanently than what resulted from Y2K’s fleeting impact.

It’s true that a tiny group of experts warned of an increasing threat from Islamic terrorists prior to 9/11. Some even suggested terrorists might use airplanes as weapons. But no one predicted the catastrophe that occurred on that September morning.

Nor did anyone foresee the consequences of those attacks: Two international wars, massive changes in our security systems, even a new Cabinet department to oversee security. The fact that there are continuing threats to our security, and questions about how well the new systems work, were demonstrated with a nearly successful Christmas Day bombing attempt on a U.S. airliner.

The idyllic notion that the United States is safe from the violence that has plagued much of the rest of the world is gone forever.

Here are a few other things that prognosticators a decade ago failed to predict.

✔ A presidential election that, because of voting irregularities in Florida, ended up being decided by a split vote of the U.S. Supreme Court.

✔ An economic recession that was the worst since the Great Depression and prompted government bailouts of banking firms, insurance companies and the auto industry.

✔ A little-known Illinois state senator from Chicago would end up being the nation’s first black president.

✔ iPhones, YouTube, Kindle, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Since the beginning of time, humans have looked to the stars, tea leaves, animal bones, crystal balls, anything to give them insight into the future. We still do so today, only now we pretend there is a scientific basis for it that comes from melding historical data with statistics.

Historical trends can be determined and extrapolated into the future using such methods. And those trends may even be accurate, at least until the next totally unforeseen event catches us all by surprise.

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it “The Black Swan” effect, noting that people in Europe believed there were only white swans until Australia was discovered and black swans were found there.

The coming year and the coming decade will have plenty of those sorts of events. There will be new international crises no one now anticipates. There will be game-changing technological advances that come from someone working independently in his or her garage, instead of from researchers at a major university or large corporation. There will be unanticipated political and economic developments.

So read and listen to all of the forecasts that you care to. Some will be carried on the pages of this newspaper.

Then hold on for a happy, if unpredictable, New Year.


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