Saturday, July 01, 2006

The meming of futures

The first novel by a former ad-man, James Othmer, has been published, with a soulless corporate bastard as the protagonist. It's called The Futurist. Here's a partial synopsis from a recent book review:

"At one time, Yates was an idealist, an optimist who really believed in the futures he spun for people. But he's become morally malleable and, under the surface, it's starting to bother him."
. . .
"Working the Futureworld conference in Johannesburg, Yates drains the hotel minibar and gives a speech in which he recklessly tells the truth, admitting that he doesn't know anything -- that we don't. He declares himself the founding member of the Coalition of the Clueless."

The Coalition of the Clueless? Sign me up.

To professional futurists, if this book has a broad impact, it may well be seen as largely negative, adding to what some experience as a serious drag of having constantly to reassert their legitimacy against the taint of charlatans and frauds using the same labels. So, two responses occur to me.

First, even if that's the case, there may be a silver lining here, in that the book has apparently been optioned to be made into a film, with screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich; Adaptation; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) rumoured to be considering the project. Anything with Kaufman's name on it is bound to be worthwhile, even if it inadvertently were to rain disgrace on my chosen profession.

Second -- and for real now -- it opens up the mainly interesting, only slightly arcane debate ("latent tension" may be a more accurate phrase) in this field between those who embrace the term futurist, and those who shun it. For instance, Paul Saffo, with whom I discussed this as recently as yesterday, prefers the term "forecaster" for his own job title, because "futurist" to him implies advocacy of a particular outcome, which he wants to avoid. I'm sympathetic to this rationale, but have a different sense of the two terms. To me a futurist is someone engaged in thinking about futures broadly; while it's forecasters who have a special commitment to projecting "the right future".

Anyway, it's not that I don't understand or even share the strong impulse to dissociate oneself from self-appointed soothsayers and gurus, and to insist on quality and rigour in futures work. (Quite a few of the futurists I know actually err on the side of paranoia about being seen as careful thinkers.) Academic values are inseparable from how I have gone about learning the trade. Professor (of Foresight) Richard Slaughter's article concerning the three categories of depth in futures work, which are vastly different in scope and intention -- pop futures, problem-oriented futures, and critical/epistemological futures -- clearly underlines a need to look deeper than the advertised labels. Futures ain't futures.

Ultimately the qualities ascribed to or associated with the terms must depend to a fairly high degree upon the characteristics and qualities of the people using them. That's the main point: be sure you're doing good work. We'll come back to that. Because I'm not entirely indifferent on the labelling issue. Yes, the contents matter more than the label, the steak more than the sizzle, and the book more than its cover -- but in each case the latter is not so easily separated from the former, and nor should it be. I think it's not good enough for well-meaning "futurists" (whether they like that name or not) to abandon a swath of space -- words like "futures" and futurist" -- which is prime mental real estate in the popular discourse, to cynical corporate drones or syrupy seers. The world needs those words, because the ideas they represent belong to us all. In my opinion, it's incumbent upon thoughtful practitioners and advocates of foresight to take back these memes, refusing to let them be held hostage by whoever it is that they think is giving them a bad name.

I say, take back the meme "futurist", so that unless you're discussing 20th century painting, the meaning "professional futures thinker" eclipses any association with the defunct quasi-fascistic Italian art movement. I say, take the word "futures" back from the corporate world, so it comes to be more commonly associated with the systematic exploration of possible worlds to come, than with contracts to buy and sell non-existent commodities (this link is currently the top google hit for "futures").

Other contenders in the labelling of the field? "Foresight" is apparently becoming a more popular term, particularly in Europe; but I think the privileging of the sight metaphor may be a problem. There's more to the future than "vision"; we have five senses -- and that's not including humour (which frequently trumps the others on the count of usefulness, in futures as in other things). "Futures studies" is fine, but anything "studies" sounds a bit like a hodge podge or a plea for special interests, rather than the mature, coherent perspective in its own right, which futures certainly is if you know where to look. "Future studies"? Singular -- scratch that. It misses what to me is the main point of looking ahead; helping to make meaningful choices between alternatives. "Futuristics" and "futurology" are both so absurdly retro they're actually kind of cool. I might look for chances to engineer a comeback for them in the next few years. Meanwhile, though, my sense is that simply the term "futures" says pretty much everything that needs to be said in a name for the study, invention and design of alternative possibilities.

Now, as implied above, at one level what you call it all doesn't matter. The quality of the work -- including a distinct and deliberate lack of astrology, Nostradamus references, and overblown predictive pontification -- should speak for itself. The big challenge for those of us who would help create a wiser culture through working in this field, whatever you call it, lies partly in earning respect by doing good work. The other part of the puzzle is in lending that reputational capital to the (I trust we all agree) wrongfully and unfairly discredited enterprise of thinking ahead, by not avoiding the use of perfectly good words, like futurist. There seems to be a complex economy at work here, whereby the prestige and content of the name, and the work carried on under its auspices, are in tension. If being a "futurist" were universally regarded as vacuous and silly, then the charlatans wouldn't bother using the term. But to the extent that they do, it may deter good thinkers from referring to themselves that way. The meming of futures (whatever) remains unfinished, with perhaps frustrating results at times; but paradoxically it can be taken as an encouraging sign that it's resisted disciplinisation, ossification, and is to that extent still a conversation space worth exploring.

Zia Sardar (editor of the top scholarly journal Futures) observed at the WFSF conference in Budapest last year, that futures is much like philosophy, in that anyone can do it, and there's no formal patrolling of the label; yet there's evidently a world of difference between the best and the worst. You can't stop bad philosophers from using that job description, even as the geniuses and world-shaping intellectuals use it too. Language being as irreducibly treacherous as it is, the best we can do may be to ensure the quality of our work makes the case for us.

So, I look forward to a chance to read this new novel, and to the many future conversations that it is sure to feature in, ready or not, if a film adaptation gets made. And if it were to wind up promoting widespread contempt for self-proclaimed futurists; well then, misconceptions, unfortunate though they may seem in one respect, always present a great learning opportunity. At least it would make futures a more prominent subject of discussion. Oscar Wilde: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

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