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‘Email will never catch on’: why are we so bad at predicting the future?

Who can resist this hinge in time, when one year ends and another begins, without indulging in a bit of light speculation about the future, if only to contemplate where, if anywhere, on Earth might be a safe space at the end of March.

This interregnum between Christmas and new year is also when Whitehall’s records of old arguments and negotiations and decisions are released, at least partially. It’s a moment usually treated as an exercise in history, but really it’s a snapshot of the way people anticipate the future. The latest releases, published at the end of last week, are particularly interesting because they reflect the way Whitehall copes at a moment of extraordinary upheaval. They cover the early 1990s, the years after the Berlin Wall was breached. The Soviet Union was tottering. Nelson Mandela was newly freed, and a technological revolution was waiting to be unleashed. Yep, a new world was waiting to be born.

So on the one hand there’s what to do about this extraordinary and unfathomable thing, the internet, and the “email will never catch on” view of Whitehall officials in 1994 (a view widely shared even by people who claimed to understand it, if only because its implications were so alarming). “One issue is whether we should advertise that it is possible to send messages to the prime minister, and – presumably – get a reply,” wrote John Major’s principal private secretary, Alex Allan. “I am cautious about rushing into it.”

On the other, in an exchange from 1990, Mandela is seeking to persuade Margaret Thatcher that although she had previously considered him a terrorist, he could in fact be South Africa’s Mikhail Gorbachev, someone she could do business with. Britain’s ambassador to South Africa, Sir Robin Renwick, was a big fan. “Mandela has a natural dignity and authority. He is not as intelligent as Mugabe but a great deal nicer.”

The two judgments mirror the classic futurologist insight, that the way you see the world now shapes the future that you imagine. Whitehall does power and bureaucracy: no surprise that it was better at thinking about Mandela and his part in the future of South Africa than it was at anticipating the disruptive power of digital communication.