Saturday, November 20, 2010

Patterns in History and the Early 21st Century

Do historical events tend to follow cyclical trends over decades long periods? Are there certain opportunities for nations and humanity in general to make sudden, quantum leaps in exploration, large scale development, etc? Ever heard of a "Maslow window"?

Professor Bruce Cordell and a group of contributors maintain a web site called 21st Century Waves which is dedicated to tracking current trends in light of the past couple of centuries and make some interesting predictions about the next 10-20 years.

The authors explain their analysis as follows.
Long-term patterns in the economy, technology, and exploration over the last 200 years appear to have predictive power for the 21st Century. In particular, a roughly 56-year cycle was identified, where macro-engineering projects (e.g., Panama Canal), significant human explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark), and major military conflicts (e.g., Civil War) tended to cluster together, near economic booms. The bottom-line forecast is that the decade from 2015 to 2025 will be the analog of the 1960s, bringing a global focus on achievement in space exploration and a Camelot-like zeitgeist.

The social/psychological force behind this pattern is explained this way.
This long-term approach to 21st Century space forecasting is based on the concept of a "Maslow Window", in which each successive economic boom (typically peaking every 56 years) does two things: 1) it fuels the societal affluence required to spur large-scale technology and engineering activities, and, more importantly, 2) it creates widespread ebullience by briefly elevating society to the highest levels in Maslow’s hierarchy. This ebullience creates the atmosphere of social well-being and confidence vital to undertake and support large, complex, risky, expensive, multi-year programs and explorations. The confluence of societal affluence and ebullience is seen only infrequently in modern times, when peaks in economic activity (following a 56 year cycle) triggered the four great explorations (Lewis and Clark, Dr. Livingstone in Africa, the Polar Expeditions, Apollo Moon) of the last 200 years.

I was in my childhood and early youth during the last "Maslow window", so the excitement and optimism of the early space age seemed normal to me and the following let down was really puzzling and disappointing. This may have shaped my personality and explain how, at least in some respects, I tend to be a stubborn optimist.

As you can see, this analysis does raise questions about events that occur outside of these 50-60 year patterns (e.g. WWII, the late 20th Century computer/information age boom) and how to deal with the downside of how these positive cycles end. What would a major 21st Century military conflict look like with more nations and other forces possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)? How would an expansion into space be sustained after a brief forward thrust? Can greater engagement of the commercial sector be the way to sustain our presence in the Solar System?

The 21st Century Waves site is frequently updated to document how current events such as the recent financial collapse and current economic doldrums and even the recent mid-term elections play into this analysis.

I've placed the site in my side bar in the space section (though it is difficult to easily categorize) so it will be interesting to see if and how these predictions play out over the next few years.

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