Can you foresee the future?

aut4 1 2015 A book by Jacques Attali1
The true philosophy of life in society should be... rational altruism.

In his latest book "Peut-on prévoir l’avenir?", Jacques Attali tells us about his reflections as a free man. By foreseeing your own future, he claims, you can be ahead of yourself – or avant-garde – and not submit to this future but decide instead the course of your life.

To the uninitiated, Jacques Attali2 is a French economist, writer and senior civil servant including former adviser to President François Mitterrand and first President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. A prolific writer, he has written fifty books, translated into more than twenty languages, with over six million copies sold all over the world, including essays (dealing with a wide variety of subjects ranging from mathematical economics, to music), plus biographies, novels, children’s tales and plays.

In his latest book, Attali explains that there is a difference between predicting, trying to grasp what will happen without being able to do anything about it, and foreseeing, which means trying to understand the future and act on it.

The triumph of the instant is a great tragedy of our time, linked to happiness, as well as to the triumph of individual freedom, which authorizes continuous changes of mind and a succession of decisions, even in opposite directions. The market and democracy develop an unlimited reversibility of choices. The victory of freedom thus leads thus to a harmful dictatorship of the instant. All great things accomplished by humanity (whether works of art, infrastructure, education and healthcare systems), have been done while thinking about the future, about the next generations.

Young people leave the countries which have paid for their education, shamelessly and ungratefully; elderly people finance their lifestyle on debt, on the backs of future generations. According to Attali, there is generalized egoism, to the common victory of the instant and me first. “The true philosophy of life in society should be what I would call the rational altruism: I act for the good of other people because it is in my own interest”.

How is it that foreseeing, imagining and writing about one’s future can contribute to building it? Foreseeing oneself is a dimension of becoming oneself. Understanding what is going to happen allows you to accept it or orient it, to act like a filter on events, like a radar that detects weak signals. If you foster this prevision of one’s own future, it acts like an ice breaker, it opens the way. Jacques Attali also claims that a very slight level of mythomania is useful if it remains lucid: you have to tell yourself stories, be your own poet so that what is good becomes reality.

aut4 2015 So won’t computers help us decide what’s good and what’s not when the future is concerned? To this, Attali warns us to be careful of dictatorship by machine! We are more and more foreseen by artificial intelligence, we are being calculated, as young people say. Our health, our desires as consumers, even our potential crimes are foreseeable. Based on statistical occurrences, we know that a burglary or a murder will occur in a particular area, and provided we have enough data on people living in the surroundings, we can even say who is going to commit them! In a world of big data, correlation replaces causality, which is a fundamental change in forecasting.

In his book, Jacques Attali recommends to individuals, companies and nations a forecasting method combining 5 different analyses:

  • retrospective: knowing one’s invariants;
  • vital: establishing a diagnosis;
  • environmental: assessing one’s environment;
  • affective: studying the behavior of one’s circle of acquaintances;
  • projective: listing the events to come ie. a method combining reason and intuition, to help us decipher what our destiny will be.

Asked whether he agrees with Nietzche’s words ‘you have to love your destiny’ to the question amor fati, Jacques Attali answers : “If this means we have to resign ourselves and accept our fate, no. But if, as Nietzsche says, it means doing everything we can to create the conditions of our destiny, and when it has become inevitable, to welcome and appreciate it, I agree”.

1 Peut-on prévoir l'avenir?, author Jacques Attali, published by Fayard, August 15.
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2 Jacques Attali is an editorialist for the magazine L’Express. This book was reviewed in L’Express on 17/09/15 -