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The West’s “Killer Apps”

Ever since Niall Ferguson was a boy, and still to this day, the Harvard historian says he has looked to the BBC’s Dr. Who as his superhero role model. Why? Unlike Superman and Spiderman, Dr. Who had the ability to travel through time. History is a very powerful tool for Ferguson, who has spent his life looking back in order to make sense of how to look forward. In his most recent interview with Big Think, Ferguson walks us through the six “killer applications” that made the Western world dominant through the past 500 years.

The question Ferguson poses is a valuable one: is it the end of Western ascendancy? “It seems quite plausible to think that it is because, after all, these killer apps are no longer monopolized by the West. The rest have basically downloaded them all to varying degrees, but with a pretty high degree of success. And that means it’s unlikely that the west will continue to occupy that position of extraordinary predominance that it had, say 100 years ago when maybe 20% of people of the world lived in western empires, western societies, but the accounted for more than 50% of all global income. I think that’s pretty much coming to an end now.”

Ferguson goes on to compare today’s China to Germany in 1910. “When I look at China today, I see a similar combination of rapid economic growth, impressive innovation, social transformation, but also political system that doesn’t want to change. That wants to essentially retain the institutions of 40 years ago, which was essentially what the Kaiser wanted too. And I also detect a real resemblance in the somewhat shrill nationalism that emanates from some parts of Chinese society, notably from relatively young Chinese.” So maybe we shouldn’t be too worried about China’s rise as a superpower. 

What’s next in store for the U.S.? Ferguson thinks we have two potential futures. Let’s go with the cheerful one for now: In the “good” future, the United States, because it still has a political institutional advantage, addresses its own problems, achieves radical fiscal reform, streamlines its tax system, cuts entitlements that are about to bankrupt it, rejuvenates its politics, and embarks on a new era of optimism, propelled forward by the technological innovation and entrepreneurship. In the “bad” scenario, well, not so much.


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