Jamais Cascio: the future isn’t what it used to be

*I’d agree that futurists talk about what futurist clients want to hear about. Nobody talks about the absolute future, any more than historians would discuss the entirety of all events in all thirteen-point-seven billion years of history.

*The point about the relative lack of novel breakthrough technologies is interesting. Probably it’s because nation-states don’t do Manhattan Projects and secret Sputnik launches any more.


“…if you were to grab a future-oriented text from the early part of the last decade, you’d find discussions of technological concepts that radical futurists and “hard science” science fiction writers were seeing as being on the horizon, developments like:

Molecular nanotechnology
Artificial intelligence and robots galore
3D printers
Augmented reality
Ultra-high speed mobile networks
Synthetic biology
Life extension
Space colonies

“I could go on, but you get the picture. All of those technologies appeared in the “hard science” science fiction game series Transhuman Space, which I worked on in 2001 to 2003. Most could easily be found in various “what the future will look like” articles and books from the late 1990s.

“Since then, some of those concepts have turned into reality, while others remain on the horizon. But pin down a futurist today and ask what technologies they expect to see over the next few decades, and you’ll get a remarkably similar list — often an identical one. As a telling example, the list above could serve as a rough guide to the current curriculum of the Singularity University, minus the investment advice.

“There hasn’t been a ground-breaking new vision of technological futures in at least 10 years, probably closer to 15; nearly all of the technological scenarios talked about at present derive in an incremental, evolutionary way from the scenarios of more than a decade ago. The closest thing to an emerging paradigm of technological futures concerns the role of sensors and mobile cameras in terms of privacy, surveillance, and power. It’s still fairly evolutionary (again, I could cite examples from Transhuman Space), but more importantly, it’s much more about the social uses of technologies than about the technologies themselves.

“For me, that’s an interesting signal. In many ways, we can argue that the major drivers of The Future, over the past decade and very likely to continue for some time, are primarily socio-cultural. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons futurists often are uncomfortable with this line of foresight thinking, and most do it rather poorly. But while those of us in the futures world have been talking about nanotechnology, fast mobile networks, bioengineering and such over the past decade, very few of us even came close to imagining back in the late 1990s/early 2000s that by the early 2010s we’d see:

The effective collapse of American hegemony.
The inability/unwillingness of world leaders to respond to global warming.
The death spiral of the European Union.
Accelerating economic inequality.
Major changes to global demographics, especially population forecasts.
The unregulated expansion of financial instruments based on little more than betting on other financial instruments.
That the Koreas would remain divided.
That there hasn’t been a major biological, radiological, or nuclear terror event.
The speed of urbanization, especially in the developing world.
The Arab Spring, Occupy, Tea Party, and similar bottom-up political movements.

“And on and on. If futurists have become almost too good at technological foresight, we remain woefully primitive in our abilities to examine and forecast changes to cultural, political, and social dynamics.

“Why is this? There isn’t a single cause.

“Some of it comes from a long-standing habit in the world of futurism to focus on technologies. Tech is easy to describe, generally follows widely-understood physical laws, offers a bit of spectacle (people don’t ask about “jet packs” because they think they’re a practical transit option!), and — most importantly — is a subject about which businesses are willing to pay for insights. Most foresight work is done as a commercial function, even if done by non-profit organizations. Futurists have to pay the rent and buy groceries like everyone else. If technology forecasts are what the clients want to buy, technology forecasts will be what the foresight consultants are going to sell.

“Another big reason is that, simply put, cultural/political/social futures are messy, extremely unpredictable, and partisan in ways that make both practitioners and clients extremely vulnerable to accusations of bias. We’re far more likely to make someone angry or unhappy talking about changing political dynamics or cultural norms than we are talking about new mobile phone technologies; we’re far more likely to be influenced by our own political or cultural beliefs than by our preferences for operating systems. One standard motto for foresight workers (I believe IFTF’s Bob Johansen first said this, but I could be wrong) is that we should have “strong opinions, weakly held” — that is, we should not be locked into unchanging perspectives on the future. Again, this is relatively easy to abide by when it comes to technological paradigms, and much harder when it comes to issues around human rights, economic justice, and environmental risks….”

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