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.

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