Unblinding Our Admin Futures

Our job as futurists is to forecast the future. Not exactly of course, but at least to cut the uncertainty. And one of the simplest way to do that is to take relatively stable and robust past long term trends and project them into the future. Especially if those trends still have a long way that they could continue before they hit fundamental limits. For example, futurists have tried to apply this method to increasing incomes, leisure, variety, density, non-violence, automation, and ease of communication and transport.

It seems to me that one especially promising candidate for this method is also plausibly the fundamental cause of the industrial revolution: bureaucracy. For centuries we humans have been slowly learning how to manage larger more complex networks and organizations, via more formal roles, rules, and processes. (That is, we have more “admin”.) As a result, our orgs have been getting larger and have wider scope, governments have been doing more, and government functions have moved up to larger scale units (cities to states to nations, etc.).

For example, a twitter poll just found respondents saying 1o-1 that the org they know best has been getting more, as opposed to less, bureaucratic over the last decade. And our laws have been getting consistently more complex.

If formal roles, rules, and processes increase over the next century as much as they have over the last century, that should make our future quite different from today. But how exactly? Yes, we’ll use computers more in admin, but that still leaves a lot unsaid. You might think science fiction would be all over this, describing our more admin future in great detail. Yet in fact, science fiction rarely describes much bureaucracy.

In fact, neither does fantasy, the other genre closest to science fiction. Actually, most stories avoid org complexity. For example, most movies and TV shows focus on leisure, instead of work. And when bureaucracy is included, it is usually as a soul-crushing or arbitrary-obstacle villain. It seems that we’d rather look away than acknowledge bureaucracy as a key source of our wealth and value, a pillar and engine of our civilization.

To try to see past this admin blindspot, let us try to find an area of life that today has relatively few formal rules and procedures, and then imagine adding a lot more of them there. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this area of life becomes more restricted and limited compared to today. But it does mean that whatever processes and restrictions there are become more formal and complex.

Public conversation comes to my mind as a potential example here. The rise of social media has created a whole lot more of it, and over the last few years many (including me) have been criticized for saying things the wrong way in public. The claim is often made that it is not the content of what they said that was the problem, it was the way that they said it. So many people say that we accept many complex rules of public conversation that are often being violated.

Thus I’m inclined to imagine a future where we have a lot more formal rules and processes regarding public conversations. These might not be seen as a limit on free speech, in that they only limit how you can say things, not what you can say. These rules might be complex enough to push us to pay for specialist advisors who help us navigate the new rules. Perhaps automation will make such advisors cheaper. And people of that era might prefer the relatively neutral and fair application of these complex rules to the more opportunistic and partisan ways that informal norms were enforced back in the day.

Now I’m not very confident that this is an area of life where we will get a lot more bureaucracy. But I am confident that there will be many such areas, and that we are so far greatly failing to imagine our more bureaucratic future. So please, I encourage you all to help us imagine what our more admin future may look like.

Added 11a: I’m about to attend an event whose dress code is “resort casual”. Whatever that means. I can imagine such dress rules getting a lot more explicit and complex.

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