What happened this year?

History is full of non-events that become events only in hindsight. It is quite a disconcerting thought that whatever you are enthused by today may come to mean little when compared to something you think unimportant. I doubt there’s any cognitive biases here which blind us to the unimportant, it is simply the result of the limits of our knowledge because the future is inherently unknowable.

1979 is quite a good starting point. What does that year signify to you? If you answer anything but the Household Responsibility System you’ve taken your eye off the ball.


Of course, the Iranian Revolution and Iran’s marching crowds were certainly eye catching. The fall of the Shah and the erosion of western influence in the Middle East had large geopolitical ramifications at the time. Nobody can now doubt that the current Iranian regime is at least something of a nuisance and at worst an existential threat to its neighbours.

But all this is unimportant  compared to the experiments taking place in the Sichuan and Anhui provinces of China. In these two provinces farmers were given de facto lease ownership over their land, and the power to sell their surplus crops at a profit. The productivity increases that followed this innovation, and the market reforms it inspired and made possible put China on the path to the Nominal GDP it enjoys now which is nearly 20 times as high now as it was then.

The recent past is full of events which probably matter today but which will fade in significance compared to things which were passed over more lightly at the time. Perhaps controversially, I’m not convinced how big an event the reunification of Germany will be in the future. 1990 was an important year, and the meeting of East and West Germany had a huge symbolic importance but Europe today looks set on a course of Federalism that will send the two Germanies further apart not closer.

Whereas we are here together, you nodding in agreement or tutting in dissent, because of Tim Berner-Lee and the world-wide-web. In 1990 the building blocks were all in place to allow this. The interplay of information, and people which the internet has allowed has changed how we spend our leisure time and how we work from day to day. In the coming decades the internet will grow in importance still more and the significance of Germany’s reunification will further fade.

This year all eyes are on Greece. The profligacy of the previous (conservative) administration has helped to lead to a debt crisis which has threatened to destroy the Euro. The worries over Greece’s solvency and the creditworthyness of most of Southern Europe has led to the IMF putting together the largest bailout it has ever overseen. But another news story may well prove more important.

https://i1.wp.com/www.csmonitor.com/var/ezflow_site/storage/images/media/images/0520-craig-ventner-synthetic-genome/7938403-1-eng-US/0520-craig-ventner-synthetic-genome_full_600.jpgCraig Venter is a name that may well become synonymous with something, but I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that we don’t know yet. In a lab he has created Synthetic Life.

The new organism is based on an existing bacterium that causes mastitis in goats, but at its core is an entirely synthetic genome that was constructed from chemicals in the laboratory.

The single-celled organism has four “watermarks” written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and help trace its descendants back to their creator, should they go astray.

At Marginal Revolution some commenters are unimpressed, but like the French Revolution the point is that it is too early to tell what effect this will have, Venter’s work has potential in abundance. It opens the door to bacteria created to synthesise useful compounds. It also allows for a world populated by plants and animals without ancestors, plants and animals designed to order.

What you think is important right now may not be and I find that both a deeply disturbing and deeply inspiring thing. Have any of my readers got any ideas on what might have been overlooked but which will be revolutionary in the years ahead?


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