Culture & ideas Ideas

Eurozone crisis: Panic – hottest all-time business model

30 November 2011
Berliner Zeitung Berlin

Contemplating the European debt crisis. A still from Airplane 2
Contemplating the European debt crisis. A still from Airplane 2

Fear, alarm, apocalypse: moods rather than facts steer mankind, writes futurologist Matthias Horx. This holds true for the eurozone crisis as well.

In his new thriller, historian and bestselling author Robert Harris describes how a man can get filthy rich off pure fear. The plot goes like this: Brilliant physicist Dr. Hoffmann (a nod to Edgar Allan Poe), former worker at the Large Hadron Collider, develops a hedge-fund computer.

VIXAL-4 scans the worldwide web at millisecond-speed for signs of panic, hunting for words such as “terror”, “alarm”, “horror”, “end”, “downfall”, “crisis”, “bankruptcy”, “danger”, “abyss”, “anxiety”, and “core meltdown”. When the fear spikes, Hoffman can swiftly place bets in falling markets – raking in billions in mere seconds. Annually, the hedge fund brings in a return of more than 80 percent.

Naturally, things get messy. The machine starts to speculate on its own initiative and sparks an epidemic of fear. Hoffmann’s marriage, house and psyche hit the rocks, along with the entire world economy.

Escalating headlines

Imagine for a moment that this work of fiction has long been a reality. The cause of the euro crisis would simply be a result of a collective generation of fear. Oscillating fear. Copied fear. Marauding fear that leaps from mind to mind. Mass contagion. One wouldn’t even need a central computer bank in the style of Big Brother or HAL to feed into this entire system. The “crisis” would only be a crisis because everyone believed it was a crisis.

Hold on just a minute. I can hear the pundits on the crisis asking: And what about the plain facts? Haven’t the banks, for instance, triggered the housing crisis? Haven’t they driven the European states into debt? Or – the other version – haven’t irresponsible European politicians always taken an adversarial approach towards the markets and merrily squandered taxpayers’ money at the expense of future generations?

Perhaps it hasn’t mattered for a long time now. The futurist John Casti, a maths genius, shows in his new book “Mood Matters: From Rising Skirt Lengths to the Collapse of World Powers” how the moods of a society govern its history. Casti’s argument is a radical one: it’s not events in the real world that shape the future, but solely collective expectations. As Epictetus said over two thousand years ago, “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.”

Not just wicked speculators are betting against the euro. A fear-and-anxiety industry among the media, which depend above all on escalating headlines, has been with us a long time.

Fearconomy

The Euro Apocalypse, the Twilight of Money, the End of Prosperity. Angry professors come on talk shows to grandstand with their I’ve-known-it-all-along gestures. In every debate the organ notes piping out doom and gloom have to be cranked an octave higher. Has this “Fearconomy” not already been the true economy a long time, a much stronger economy than one that relies on change, improvement and renewal? Is “Terror, alarm, horror, end, downfall, crisis, bankruptcy, danger, abyss, anxiety, core meltdown” not the hottest business model of all time, because human beings, at their deepest level, are simply creatures of panic? “Our most profound conviction,” says Dr. Hoffman in the novel by Robert Harris, “is that digitisation itself, universal connectivity, will provoke a global panic wave. And that’s how we’ll make money – a hell of a lot of money!”

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

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