In 1997, “Wired” anticipated an era of global prosperity…unless one of these 10 things happened

It’s a fascinating dive into the liberal optimism of the 1990s: twenty-five years ago, the American magazine “Wired”, organ of cyberculture, promised us… twenty-five years of prosperity. This July 1997 cover file, entitled “The Long Boom” and whose imposing smiley has re-emerged in recent days on social networks, is signed by two futurologists and entrepreneurs, authors at the same time of a book taking up the same theses , “Great growth” (published in France by Robert-Laffont in 2000), bible of the “new economy”. “We are living the beginnings of a period of unparalleled expansion. We are surfing on the nascent wave of twenty-five years of planetary growth”, then assure Peter Schwartz, founder of the Global Business Network, and Peter Leyden, editorial director of “Wired”.

“A dirty trend, a contagious idea began to spread in the United States in the 1980s”deplore the authors. “America would be in decline, the world would be heading for hell, our children would be destined to live less well than us.” But another narrative appears in parallel in this post-fall of the Wall context: that of a gigantic hope for renewal, driven by technological revolutions and the growing openness of the countries of the world to democracy and the market economy, destined to give birth to a new world civilization. “If this is true, historians will regard our time as an extraordinary moment. They will describe the forty-year period from 1980 to 2020 as the key years of a remarkable transformation”want to believe Schwartz and Leyden, who insist:

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“This is not a prediction, but a scenario, both positive and plausible. »

The authors emphasize the “five great technological waves” at work: the rise of personal computers, telecommunications, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies and alternative energies, a cocktail supposed to propel the economy to new heights without altering the environment.

What if a new “golden age” was at hand?

And to venture to draw a prospective timeline of the 2000s and 2010s. European Union to the East, maddening growth in China, finalization of the sequencing of the human genome (“Wired” sees it in 2002, it finally happened in 2003), the appearance of “videophones” around 2005 (the first iPhone came out in 2007). But from the second half of the 2000s, the story goes off the rails and the reader of summer 2022 can only display a tight smile: “Taiwan absorbed by mainland China”, “global growth at 6%”, “the elimination of birth defects”. In the 2010s, “gene therapy against cancer is improving”, “human life expectancy reaches 120 years”and around 2020 “a world population stabilized at 11 billion” witnesses the “first steps of man on Mars”while the nation-states, Italy in the lead (because why not), begin to dissolve.

“The 10 scenarios that could ruin everything”

But let’s not accuse the two authors of blissful optimism. “The future could turn out to be totally different”, they warn. The file also closes with a large threatening red insert entitled “The 10 scenarios that could ruin everything”.

Here they are :

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  1. “Tensions between China and the United States are degenerating into a new Cold War, on the verge of an open conflict”
  2. “New technologies are disappointing. They bring neither the expected increases in productivity nor great economic impulses”
  3. “Russia is turning into a mafia-run kleptocracy, or retreating to quasi-communist nationalism that threatens Europe”
  4. “Europe’s integration process is coming to a standstill. Eastern and Western Europe are failing to sustain their reunification, and the mechanisms of the European Union themselves are collapsing”
  5. “A major ecological crisis is causing global climate change that is disrupting food supplies, causing sharp price increases and sporadic famines”
  6. “A major increase in crime and terrorism is forcing the world to cower in fear. People who are constantly worried about dying in an explosion or being robbed are not in the mood to reach out and open up”
  7. “The exponential escalation of pollution causes a dramatic increase in cancer cases, which overwhelms the ill-prepared health system”
  8. “Energy prices are exploding. Middle East convulsions disrupt oil supply and alternative energy sources fail to materialize”
  9. “An out-of-control epidemic – Spanish flu-like – is spreading like wildfire, killing up to 200 million people”
  10. “A social and cultural backlash halts progress in its tracks. Human beings must choose to move forward. They might just decide not to…”

To live old and healthy, let’s be optimistic!

A reading that proves strangely familiar to the reader of 2022 when Sino-American tensions have never been so high, Russia has invaded Ukraine and renewable energies fail to replace hydrocarbons, including a world that struggling to recover from a pandemic that has killed more than 15 million people and is heading towards an uncontrolled climate runaway amid the backlash of populist nationalisms, severe water shortages and food and migration crises.

“The most obvious mistake is the magazine’s belief that technology and the affluent economy would erase social and economic inequality”commented David Karpf, associate professor at George Washington University, to the magazine “Usbek and Rica” in 2020. “Our idea was to expose a positive narrative”recently defended Peter Leyden to the German magazine “Die Zeit”.

“But to the readers of the time, we also wanted to say: not everything is going to go perfectly. There will be many obstacles along the way: here are ten of the ones we think will be the most problematic. »

A “Long Boom”, but not for everyone

Evoking the American writer William Gibson, figure of the cyberpunk movement who had attracted attention at the beginning of June on Twitter by sarcastically sharing the “10 scenarios” of “Wired”, Peter Leyden brushes aside the criticism: “As a science fiction writer, he has a more negative view of what’s going on in the world. He can say that the ten have somehow come true. But the most important thing is that these obstacles have not prevented the digital revolution, globalization, the rise of China, and all these other things. »

Pablo Servigne, a life as a collapsologist

“For some, the ‘Big Growth’ has been a reality”also points out, but with radically different conclusions, the British magazine “New Statesman”, which devoted an article to the subject at the beginning of July. “As early as March 2009, US and UK equities experienced a ten-year bull cycle, the longest period of uninterrupted bull markets in history”. But not because technology has suddenly made everyone more productive: “Productivity growth fell during this period, while real wages stagnated. » If the financial elites have benefited from the “Long Boom”, it is not through the triumph of free trade, technological innovation or green energy, but mainly thanks to the real estate bubble and the generous monetary policy major central banks following the financial crash of 2008.

But, even in the era of collapsologists and various apocalypse prophecies, Peter Leyden never gave up. His latest book, a series of articles written from the perspective of a centenarian of Generation Z and titled “The Transformation”, imagines how, in 2100, the current generation has solved all economic and environmental problems – thanks to technological innovation, of course.

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