"The future of futurism: Down with the techno-utopians! Up with the techno-realists!"
By Reihan Salam
Slate, Thursday, June 29, 2006
The following is an unedited copy of my response to the above article, posted as "There's more to futures than you think" to Slate's discussion board, "The Fray". Apologies for the overlap with content of recent posts here at The Sceptical Futuryst entitled "The meming of futures" and "Prediction will eat itself". Some of these points can't be reiterated often enough, it seems...
I enjoyed reading this article, but as a futurist in training it is disappointing to me -- and verging on extremely tiresome -- the way the futures field is constantly characterised as the preserve of predictors and pundits only.
The assumption made in this article is that all futurists are interested exclusively in peddling a singular image of the future. The images may differ from person to person, but in Salam's portrayal, every futurist has an agenda to convince as many people as possible that "the future will be x". This is certainly true of some self proclaimed futurists. But as a graduate student at the futures program within the University of Hawaii at Manoa, that has not been my experience at all.
For example, Professor Jim Dator, who founded and runs the futures program, which now sits within the Department of Political Science, taught what is thought to have been the first university level futures class back in 01967. He has also been Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies since it was founded in 01971. Dator has built his career largely on the task of disabusing people of the mistaken impression that a predictive, singular attitude towards "The Future" is a viable and appropriate way to look at the subject. (Dator's so-called "first law of the future" is that "'The future' cannot be 'predicted' because 'the future' does not exist.") Indeed, the very reason for calling the field "futures studies" or simply "futures", is that, since we don't know what could happen, we ought to consider many possibilities (hence the plural "-s"). This is a much more useful way to think about things that haven't happened, because it provides a basis for meaningful choices between genuinely different outcomes. Not all "futurists" think this way, but it's important to realize that simply because some people attempt to make a name for themselves as supposed crystal ball-gazing gurus of the yet-to-be, not everyone with a future focus does the same. For the same reason that one doesn't cite Holocaust-denying "historian" David Irving as an exemplar of the study of history, we ought not to cite Nostradamus wannabes ("alternative-denyers"?) as if they represented futures studies as a whole. They simply don't.
Dator is not the only one who makes his living as a futurist by deepening people's appreciation of the plurality of possibilities, and inventing or pursuing their preferred options. There are hundreds of others, attached to such organisations as the World Futures Studies Federation (has an academic focus) and the Association of Professional Futurists (has a consulting focus).
I'd encourage the author of this Slate piece to check the recent article by Jamais Cascio listing "Twelve Things Journalists Need To Know to be Good Futurist/Foresight Reporters". The first item on Cascio's list: "Nobody can predict the future." Journalists are indulging bad thinking and perhaps intellectual fraud by pretending otherwise.
Salam rightly argues that "we need clear-eyed futurists more than ever", but he attacks one of his targets for evincing "an unrealistic, blue-sky vision that discredits futurism". Lack of realism isn't the issue: wasn't ending slavery a "blue-sky vision" once upon a time? And how realistic was the 9/11 scenario in most people's minds, until it actually happened? No, lack of realism isn't the problem here. A lack of alternatives, rigorously thought out, is the problem -- and the best, clearest-eyed futurists can both discern and communicate multiple futures, instead of rallying converts behind a single one.
The starting point for Salam's article, about how easy it is to discredit futurists, is of course true if we consider only those who make a living out of prediction. Of course they're mostly wrong! But there's a lot more to futures than that, and the sooner and more widely this realisation dawns, the more productive all of our futures conversations can become.