Umberto Eco in Davos

In the opening plenary of the Annual Meeting 2000, Italian historian and philosopher Umberto Eco provided his “vision of the future”. Time constraints meant the vision was necessarily abbreviated, but here is the full text of his intended remarks, exclusively for Davos Newbies.

***Visions of the future

There are three reasons which entitle one to make forecasts about the future. One is to be a prophet, divinely inspired. The other one is to be Nostradamus and to be able to write predictions which are so vague and ambiguous to apply to any possible event.

I am not divinely inspired and I am not a scoundrel like Nostradamus.
Nevertheless I think that everybody has the right to think that, if things go according to common sense, tomorrow this or that event could happen, in order to be prepared to face it. One can be wrong, it is natural, but it is always better to foresee a possible shower and to go out with a raincoat, than to catch a cold.

Once I�ve made clear that I am not a prophet, let me try to foresee a few possible courses of affairs for the next century (since I am not prepared to go beyond that timeline).

1. The end of the European nation states. The European nations (such as.we know them today) are a rather recent invention (a few centuries for France, Great Britain and Spain, a century and a half for Italy, and even less for Germany, not to speak of Latvia or Ukraine). The less stable European states are already in the process of collapsing. In the telematic universe which is being created, two towns, however far apart they might be from each other, will have the chance to be in immediate contact, according to their common economic or cultural interests. Thus permanent commercial and cultural exchanges will be set up in the four corners of Europe, through a network of associated towns, while the unit represented by the nation state will progressively lose power.

2. The globalization of migration. Migration has nothing to do with immigration. We have immigration when a reduced portion of a population looks for jobs in another nation, as happened with Italian or Irish people in America, or Italians and Spaniards in Argentina during the last century, and even more recently with Turk workers in Germany or Albanian refugees in Italy. Immigration can be controlled by laws and border police. Immigrees are regularly absorbed by the host nation, where they accept language and habits (even while they still cultivate their original identity).

Migrations are a different affair. There were prehistoric migrations of entire populations from Africa to Europe and Asia, and from Asia to America. There were migrations of German populations toward the Roman empire, and I would define as migration the European invasion of the American continent, from Canada to the Cono Sur. When there is migration the migrators do not accept the language and habits of the host. Either they are powerful enough to impose their language and their religion (think of the Arab conquest of part of Asia, Africa and Spain), or they merge, but to such an extent that the culture of the host nation changes radically.

We are today facing an enormous migratory movement from the third world to Europe (not to speak of the increasing hispanisation of various parts of the United States, which are already bilingual communities). Considering the differences in birthrates between migrating and host nations, it seems to me that in the following decades Europe will become a coloured continent. When I say coloured, I am not thinking (or I am not only thinking) of skin colour. There may also be coloured religions. Why not a Sunni Christianity, an Anglican Avicennism, a Buddhist Sufism?

This problem is strictly linked to my first point. Why should a Muslim citizen of Barcelona consider himself as belonging to a different nation from a Muslim citizen of Berlin?

3. The end of the notion of fraternity. To confront the growing world population it will be necessary to take measures like the ones the Chinese have taken: only one child per family. Thus notions such as sister and brother (as well as notions of uncle and of brother- or sister-in-law) for children of the next generations will become something like the fairies and ogres of our own childhood stories. Fraternity will, of course, survive as a metaphor, but it will be difficult to explain to a child what it means to love someone like a sister or a brother.

4. The end of representative democracy. A leader chosen for his communication skills will be elected (probably online) to govern each great global territory. Powerful groups will support candidates who have exactly the same qualities and the same programmes as the opposing candidate. Thus the citizen’s vote (which will be motivated not by political choice but by the requirements of show business) will become a formal gesture which will only sanction a choice made elsewhere (I’ve a tiny suspicion that we’ve already got there).

5. The end of ethics. Any moral doctrine consists in putting forward a model of behaviour which one must try to imitate. Hence the modelling function of the saint, the sage, the guru, the hero. The virtue of the model must be difficult to emulate, and that’s why ethics always was such a difficult art. Now, it so happens that television tends more and more to put forward as models normal people, so that it takes no effort to become like them. We want to become like them because they have received the grace of appearing on screen. In many case persons will become a model not because of their normal behaviour, but rather because of their spectacular sins (provided these sins gave them visibility and success). Thus Monica Lewinsky will be a stronger (and an easier) model than Florence Nightingale or Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

So ethical success (the pursuit of Good) will soon have no link with the pursuit of virtue, only with the struggle to be seen.

I have put my forecasts in order of improbability and desirability. If I have looked too optimistic, I apologise. In any case, estote parati, be ready to face the future.

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