On Futurism

When the media reports on the future, reporters pretty much only ever quote these sort of futurists, who have hijacked the future to support their side of certain current disputes. Truth be told, folks who analyze the future but don’t frame their predictions or advice in terms of standard ideological categories are largely ignored, because few folks actually care much about the future except as a place to tell morality tales about who today is naughty vs. nice. (more)

That was me almost two years ago. Here are three more observations on futurists:

1) Most folks I know who self-describe as future-oriented seem obsessed with the latest tech press releases. They constantly circulate links on new tech gadget demos and analyses. Which might make sense if “the future” meant the next ten years. But if “the future” means the next century, this makes far less sense. Long term future oriented folk should focus on basic theory and long term trends, and pay little attention to daily tech fluctuations. Press-release-focused futurists seem more interested in affiliating with the idea that “tech is our future” than in actually understanding the future.

2) Few ever gain fame in futurism on the basis of what they say about the future. Almost everyone “known” for thoughts on the future first gained status and notoriety in some other area, and then started being heard on the future. Folks who talk about the future but don’t have another status base are almost completely ignored. It seems that while positioning ourselves regarding the future, we like to affiliate with high status folks, but don’t see such future positions as conferring status.

3) It is often said that futurists forecast big things to happen in twenty years because their careers will be done then, and they’ll suffer few consequences from mistaken forecasts. But human lifetimes are actually long enough to fit not one but three cycles of tested twenty year forecasts. People could make forecasts at age 20 that are checked at age 40, make another set of forecasts at 40 that are checked at age 60, and then make a third set of forecasts at age 60 that are checked at age 80. We could then pay special attention to the forecasts of eighty year olds who have had a good track record over three cycles of twenty year forecasts.

Yet I’d bet that even if some folks went to the all trouble to collect such a track record, we’d mostly ignore them, unless they had some other strong status base. If they disagreed with the current fashion on the future they’d be mostly dismissed as lucky old codgers who just didn’t “get” the new new thing.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • J Storrs Hall

    1. Check out the year’s worth of Nanodot posts I made as Foresight president versus those before (and after).

    2. Only if you claim that writing science fiction isn’t “saying anything about the future.”

    3. This seems to assume that there’s no common agreed basic substance to futurism, but only individual mavericks. To some extent that’s a fair take; but to the same extent it says that the field is still in its alchemy phase. Development of a more rigorous futurism will require elucidation and testing of basic principles rather than individual talent.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      On 1, happy to grant you might be an exception. On 2, science fiction authors gain fame primarily for telling entertaining stories, rather than for realistic depictions of the future.

  • Ely

    Concise and useful post. Only one small point: If a person is ‘generally interested’ in the future, they may regard the near-term future as more salient than the long term, which intuitively seems reasonable to me. The near term future has a higher chance of impacting me than the long-term future does. I only offer this as an explanation for why future-minded people (even legitimate ones) might have a propensity for the latest technology news. I also feel like cutting edge tech news can also be a fairly functional and social way to have an interest in the future that is both expressible without alienation and also a “non-trivial” social issue.

  • Mark M

    It sounds like these 80 year old futurists only made 3 cuts. I would bet against the old codger successfully making a 4th cut.

    You might adjust your model for annual 20-year forecasts. Forecasts made from age 20 to 60 can be checked for accuracy at age 80. 40 successful years of forecasting would mean something.

    Not that I believe this will ever be achieved. Nature is unpredictable, humans are irrational, and world events unfold at surprisingly fast and slow rates. The information required to make successful 20 year predictions simply does not exist. Even the best possible 20-year model would need to be adjusted over time to reflect knowledge acquired during that time.

  • dufu

    Was Alvin Toffler especially high-status or notorious before Future Shock was published? He was a columnist for Fortune and then did research and consulting for IBM, Xerox and AT&T. Is that enough to predict him becoming a bestselling author of futurist books?

    Also, since he’s been around so long he’d be a good subject for your 20-40-60 test.

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    A person seems like a weird unit to use for testing future predictions. The identity of a single scientist doesn’t matter as much as the methods used when we want to determine the predictive power, etc. of a study. A person is a sort of black box.

  • Russell Wallace

    Nobody knows what’s going to happen in a hundred years. Attempts to guess do worse than random chance. Even for twenty years, nobody knows what’s going to happen other than that the world will be mostly as it is today except for a few things we can’t predict in advance; we already know the former, and the latter, well, we can’t predict.

    Given that, anybody talking about the future is necessarily either talking about the next few years (on which timescale the latest gadgets are relevant) or telling stories (whose purpose is entertainment and affiliation signaling), so I’m not sure there’s much irrationality going on here.

    • David Mould

      Russell — what do you mean by “do worse than random chance”? How do you define the proper state space to sample from?

      I agree with most of your comment, BTW, just hoping you can unpack this part a little bit.

      • John Maxwell

        According to the recent Freakonomics prediction podcast (which Robin appeared on), expert forecasts do worse than just assuming things will stay the way they are (or something like that).

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Regarding 3- If the signal to noise ratio for future predictions is really bad, it makes sense to pay more attention to people who have demonstrated some general competency and intelligence than random people who have zero track record of anything.

  • Evan

    2) Few ever gain fame in futurism on the basis of what they say about the future. Almost everyone “known” for thoughts on the future first gained status and notoriety in some other area, and then started being heard on the future. Folks who talk about the future but don’t have another status base are almost completely ignored. It seems that while positioning ourselves regarding the future, we like to affiliate with high status folks, but don’t see such future positions as conferring status.

    I don’t think this is just status affiliation. I think that if you’re going to listen to someone about the future, it makes sense to pick someone who has demonstrated that they are intelligent in some other more tangible and measurable area first. The correlation obviously wouldn’t be anywhere near 100%, but I’d give the opinion of an intelligent person who’s an expert on something slightly greater weight than the opinion of someone selected by random chance. Especially if it’s on a topic relevant to predicting trends, like econ or tech. I’m sure status affiliation is part of it too, of course.

  • mjgeddes

    In visions and dreams, I see the future.

    I see a civil war in China that eventually engulfs the world in strife. I see Europe shattered asunder into a myriad of ideological movements old and new – I see a hackers revolution beginning in Edinburgh, Scotland , and an attempted fascist coup in England. I see I see the overthrow of the Bayesian paradigm and the emergence of a new theory of everything based on radical new ideas from ontology and semantic web, I see Thailand as the hub of illegal transhumanist tech- hidden cryo-facilities and stacks of illegal cognitive enhancers in jungle Buddhist temples vie with hookers and henchmen, and behind it all shadowy forces are awkening…the mysterious guiding intervention of what could be hidden seed-AGIs .

    A storm is coming. The hackers revolution begins with simple red-lettered graffiti seen scrawled on an Edinburgh wall: ‘Live Free Or Die’.

    Do I get any points for predicting all this? ;)

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Reduce your intake of hallucinogenic substances.

      Also, the slogan belongs to New Hampshire.

      You can get points by assigning dates.

  • http://nextbigfuture.com Brian Wang

    3) there can be multiple overlapping cycles.

    You can predictions for twenty years in the future with major revisions every 5 or ten years or even more frequently and new predictions can be added on a rolling basis.

    It is difficult and time consuming to make a high volume of accurate and non-trivial predictions. (from my experience as a futurist and predictor)

    By keeping in tune with current developments and the current large scale view of the world it is possible to determine what are the high impact trends.

    Looking at the current world and trying to regress back 5 or ten years or 20 years to pull out what should have been the most useful predictions. Is a difficult but instructive exercise.

    If someone was asking what will be the most important technology for 2016, 2021, 2026, 2031, then it would be good to answer what was the most important technology for 2011 that made the most difference since 2006, 2001, 1996, 1991.

    also adding one word in the question changes the answers.

    If someone was asking what will be the most important NEW technology for 2016, 2021, 2026, 2031, then it would be good to answer what was the most important NEW technology for 2011 that made the most difference since 2006, 2001, 1996, 1991. (have to add explanation) The technology could not have been commercialized yet in the year it was predicted.

    also changing the scope from technology to societal change is major difference.

    If someone was asking what will be the most important societal change for 2016, 2021, 2026, 2031, then it would be good to answer what was the most important societal change for 2011 that made the most difference since 2006, 2001, 1996, 1991.

    also there would be a difference between what is the biggest change as perceived by most people versus what is biggest impact on business or on geopolitics or on economics or on science or on an industry.

    Having the right questions with the right definitions and qualifiers is important. Being able to produce the historical analysis would be relevant for a projection into the future. You can accurately trend out the projections until that area hits a disruption big enough that the macrotrend becomes invalid. You have to have done enough analysis to have identified the accurate and relevant trends.

    You can analyze the quality and usefulness of predictions by whether they are falsifiable with a regression. If they are accurate enough to be a guide that eliminates other scenarios. Some technology predictions may be falsifiable in the year that they are made. Something already happened but was not known by the predictor. The prediction is predicated on a worldview that is inaccurate.

  • Pingback: Människa+ » Arkiv » När kommer framtiden?