The Future of Futurists

Last week Farhad Manjoo, the technology columnist for The New York Times, had a thoughtful piece on the death of the early futurist Alvin Toffler, most famous for his book Future Shock.  

Toffler’s thesis back in 1970 was simple: “Change is avalanching upon our heads,” he wrote, “and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”

Forty-six years later, says Manjoo, ” seems clear that his diagnosis has largely panned out, with local and global crises arising daily from our collective inability to deal with ever-faster change.”  Yet at the same time fewer and few institutions are even thinking about the future in substantive ways.

It wasn’t always thus: in the Seventies, various organizations, such as RAND and SRI worked for the government projecting the future of global politics and nuclear weapons. The Office of Technology Assessment was established by Congress in 1975 to look at the future impact of impending legislation.

But by the mid-90’s, when the OTA was shut down, the idea of futurism was distinctly tarnished.  Says Manjoo:  “Futurism’s reputation for hucksterism became self-fulfilling as people who called themselves futurists made and sold predictions about products, and went on the conference circuit to push them.” 

Alas, too true.  When I began speaking about the future I was most reluctant to use the futurist word.  Having spent twenty years in hands-on work inventing new media, I didn’t take futurists seriously: they often lacked technical understanding, or real business experience (or both).  Too often their predictions veered off into either science fiction or simply what they’d like to see happen.  Futurists became famous for their perennial predictions of flying cars.  (The one below was supposed to arrive in 1967.)

Thus, when The New York Times asked me to be Futurist-in-Residence, I tried to talk them out of that title. I’d been around journalists for a long time and I feared that no one in the NYT newsroom was likely to take someone called a “futurist” very seriously.  But the newspaper insisted, and in the end I decided that when The New York Times wants to call you something, you might as well go with it.   

As it turned out, the title worked.  When there is a “futurist” in the room, it gives everyone permission to untether, at least briefly, from quarterly reports and annual budgets.  The time spent thinking out five to eight years is then very helpful when discussion returns to the here-and-now.  A number of the organizations I’ve worked with in the past few years have initiated real changes in directions and strategy after a few hours of contemplating the world of the early Twenties.

Futurism is not dead; rather, as foresight has left the political process it has instead become more local.  And it's still a very good discipline for organizations and corporations to pursue. 

As another early futurist, Kenneth Boulding, once said: “The future will always surprise us, but we must not let it dumbfound us.”  That's the very least we should ask from our futurists.