Ever since humans first raised their eyes to the skies and discerned a pattern in the ageless canopy of stars, we have hungered to know the secrets of time yet to come. Throughout history seers have claimed to divine the future by the alignments of heavenly bodies, by the casting of bones, by the whorls and lines and patterns of the human palm, by dregs of leaves in the bottom of a teacup, by shadows in a crystal ball and movements on a Ouija board.
Despite advances of learning in our computer age, we read daily horoscopes with credulity, and we persist in our study of the still-beguiling works of ancient Merlins. On the Internet, mysterious quatrains of the 16th century French physician and prognosticator Michel Nostradamus purport to contain foreknowledge of plagues and fires and even of 21st century politics. Visions of apocalypse in the Bible's Book of Revelation are persuasive enough to inspire generations of doomsayers and to drive some believers to suicide.
Yet not even the closest and most imaginative reading of Nostradamian Centuries or Revelatory verse could have warned Americans that their 2000 presidential election would turn from democratic contest to banana-republic farce. No horoscope foretold the rise of the dotcom companies and the creation of overnight billionairesand if there was one that warned of the dotcom collapse it clearly was not heeded by the vast majority of investors today sitting, forlorn, on their devalued shares. That does not prevent the Internet from buzzing with Nostradamus' apparent predictions of a divided election and the rise of "the village idiot" to the U.S. presidencythough a search of his prolific writings turns up no such text. And a retrospective reading of newspaper horoscopes could be construed to have urged punters to buy Amazon at the equivalent of about $1.50 a share in June 1996 and to sell it at more than $80 last February (just before it sank to its current level of about $20).
But such forecasts of the future are told only in retrospect. Nostradamus wrote in 1555: "Beasts wild with hunger will cross the rivers/The greater part of the battle will be against Hister/He will cause great men to be dragged in a cage of iron/When the son of Germania obeys no law." But nobody stepped forth to warn Germans to be on guard against somebody named Hister or Hitler or something along those lines. It was only after Hitler's Germany had devastated Europe that students of prognostication noticed the references to "Hister" and "Germania" and credited Nostradamus with foreknowledge of World War II.
When seers forecast the future literally instead of metaphysically, they usually miss by light-years. The Buck Rogers comic strip of the 1950s attempted to depict life in the 25th century. But even before the end of the 20th century, Buck's spaceship looked more like a 1956 Cadillac than any realistic vision of a technological tomorrow that is already with us. Nor can the exactitude of modern science save us from silliness in attempting to know what will happen next year, or next week, or even this afternoon. Economics is called the dismal science as much for being dismally wrong as for being excessively gloomy in its visions of Malthusian catastrophe and Kondratieff instability. Weather forecasters, with their satellites, high-altitude balloons and multidimensional computer models, still predict sunny spells just before the deluge, and blizzards just before the thaw.
But even if we could foretell the future exactly and reliably, do we really want to? Sure, it would be nice to know that 6 11 12 21 39 47 will win the lottery jackpot next week (and if that combination does come up next week, remember: you saw it here first). Yes, fans may pray with deep sincerity for Arsenal to defeat Manchester United 3-0 when they meet Feb. 25. But would God really care enough about a soccer match to take the trouble to angle the ball just so off 44 toes hundreds of times in order to bring such a result? And what satisfaction would there be in knowing the outcome anyway? Who would attend a match whose result is foretold and foregone? Who would play it? Not knowing, after all, is what keeps us going.
Knowing the future would be as much a burden as a boon. If we are given the winning numbers in the lottery next week, might we also be told much else about which we would prefer to remain in ignorance? A just God, never mind the demanding and sometimes ironic God of the Old Testament, would surely cause us to know our future failures as well as our future triumphs. Along with the winning lottery number might come knowledge of the day and place and cause of our death, or the loss of a loved one, or details of age and failure and falling hair that no amount of lottery money can forestall.
Yet we still struggle to know what comes next in politics, in business, in fashion, in art. Whole industries are built on predictions of trends and tastes, political parties risk all on forecasts of voters' views, designers cut their cloth on the basis of what a buyer will want to see in the mirror three seasons hence. Currency traders act on a prediction of what will happen to the value of the yen in the next minute, while actuaries construct tables of risk on the basis of an expected rise in sea temperatures over the next 100 years. We cannot resist our urge to speculate on what will happen next, and when, and how much.
So this Special Report is about what Time's editors, writers and correspondents see for the year 2001, in fields ranging from politics to pop music. It is mostly guesswork, of course, but it is guesswork built on the basis of a general knowledge of how the world operates and a specific knowledge of our various areas of expertise. We could be wrong, spectacularly so, and we accept the risk of being called to task when, this time next year, our readers wave this issue beneath our chagrined noses. But we think we'll be right, in general terms at least. We will be happy to take credit for fortunes made on the basis of our forecasts (including the aforementioned lottery outcome). But fortunes lost? Ah, in that case, dear reader, you are on your own.