The Strange Future

Why futurists from the last 20 years were wrong – or right, but nobody listened.

Written for MONOCLE 2017

It’s a strange thing with »The Future«.
Everybody has one, known or unknown. On every business congress we hear enthusiastic talks about the glorious perspectives of tomorrow – audience yawning included. The future is always exiting, but the problem is: It came too often not as expected. And in a magic way it always stays the same.

In an interview with the German newspaper »DIE ZEIT« William Gibson, Autor of “Neuromancer” (maybe the only “real” futurist of our time) talked about the “Fieberanfall von Volksfuturismus” (the fever attack of popular futurism) in the 60ties and 70ties. In this time, everybody believed in flying cars, glorious rockets, and funny home robots. In many ways, this future stayed with us. The future seems conservative in its own way…

Beyond the Delphic Oracle and myriads of soothsayers and clairvoyants, the idea of “a future” started in the Renaissance. The first Futurist in modern industrial time was H.G. Wells, a semi-depressive universalist, who was interested in medicine, madness, poetry and time traveling. He predicted the “Things to come” in the early industrial age, including the fears and trouble of modernity. The Italian originated art movement of the “futurists” then praised the speed and turmoil of modernity.

Orwell and Huxley, the gurus of a future dystopia, never saw themselves as futurists, but are still celebrities today, because fear needs a narrative. In the sixties came Hermann Kahn, the “Monster from the Pentagon Think Tanks” predicted effective slimming pills (he weighed 180 kilos). Bestseller-Author Alvin Toffler made himself immortal by inventing the term “Future Shock”: The future is always too fast to follow. Toffler predicted helicopters for everyone, throw-away-clothing, underwater-cities, daily anti-depressant-pills, human cloning and casting shows.

That’s the tricky thing with predictions: you never know if they were right, for two reasons: When their time has come, nobody is interested any more (or dead).
Second: when they can be proven, context has changed. Do we have throw-away clothing today? Yes, but not from plastics. We have Prozac, and some people start to “clone” their children… but not quite. But have predictions to be “right” anyway? What is the real core of prognostics and prediction? Accuracy? “Realness”? Preciseness?

In the Nineties, Futurism went away from flying cars and atomic wars – into the realm of marketing and consumerism. The Future became attitude, gesture, lifestyle – it fell into the present and converged with the word TREND. Faith Popcorn, the New Yorkish Marketing Guru, combined society observations with beautiful namings: Cocooning, Clicking, EVEolution… The future comes, when you name it in a sexy way. In William Gibsons novel “Pattern Recognition” we find Popcorn in the gestalt of Cayce Pollard, a hypersensitive global style hunter , who creates “the next big thing for the fashion- and Design Industry. Cayce is a megastar, because she is “allergic to bad taste”. In reality, thousands of trend scouts were hires from big companies. A trend which didn’t last either.

Trends are not about the future. Well, not so much. Talking about trends is in fact talking about the present – but pretending not to. Trend-Gurus never can be wrong, they »declare« or »favor« as experts of the new. You can’t predict trends, even if everybody thinks so. You can prolong them, or declare them as »megatrends«; then they become normative and irresistible.

People like deterministic, irresistible futures.

Since the glorious days of trend wording, Future Research had a pretty tough time. History became more erratic, less linear. For example, 9/11: That did not fit in ANY standard model. Who predicted the financial crisis? Yes, some people did, but they were skeptical economists, not futurists. Around 2000 Futurism split into fractions. Basically three »futurisms« are now available on the market:

  • Doomsayers in the tradition of the Club of Rome, fueled by fears of everything
  • Motivation Mavericks shouting about »connected lifestyles«
  • Technological Utopians like Michael Kaku who talk with great conviction about the excitements of a hyper technological future. The old wonderland again.

Long term technology forecasts never can be falsified. The create the »runaway«-narrative: If the technology predicted does not happen, they say it will just come later. In this way Futurism became self-corrupt – and malnourished on technology. It became obese with very simple, linear technological models, turned into banal sensations, which everybody finds exiting AND frightening at the same time.

The standard »Future Talk« (and the standard magazine supplement about the Future) goes like this:

  1. We will all implant chips under our skin,
  2. Robots will be everywhere, and our houses will be fully automated,
  3. Artificial Intelligence will come »over« us,
  4. Cyberspace and selfdriving cars … you name it.
  5. Where does this conformity come from? As a futurist in the over mediated society you are in an entertainment business, and you don’t become famous for WHAT you say (not even about your right predictions), but if people REMEMBER what you said. That is dependent on the loudness and the suspense or thrill of your theme, your narrative. You are known as the famous Ray Kurzweil not because singularity is on its way, but because singularity is a fascinating mad (and sad), idea.

    The Trump age now brings further confusion: »The Future» seems suddenly behind us. Does the widespread rage of populism have also to do with a common »future fatigue«?

    The old promise of a better future seems tired, expired, at least not longer wired. The things to come always come late, like the nice space suits we all would look gorgeous in, or the damned household robot which will clear up our households, so we don’t get into cleaning discussions with our loved ones.

    Utopias turn over to dystopias so fast, that we can´t even rub our eyes. Like William Gibson said in his Interview: “I did not imagine, that (the Internet) also could be about publishing chili-recipes or driving the biggest of the world with bullshit into madness.”

    But one of the most exiting experiments about the future of futurism is on the way: The »super-forecasting«-project of Philipp Tetlock, an American psychologist. Tetlock worked for twenty years on the question, how personal traits and mindsets influence our abilities to forecast. On his website he analyzes permanently, who is right and who is wrong. He identifies – and teaches -so called »SuperForecasters«. Three hundred of them are identified now worldwide.

    They are not the new prophets, but they think a little bit more careful and connected. They are more self-reflective, more self-conscious and self-critical. They avoid linear models and understand the meaning of turbulence. They are careful, what they predict, and in which context – and this means, that nobody knows them – but also because they don´t have to should out loud their findings in public.

    But is Futurism about »forecasts« or »prognostics« anyway? It is, and always was, about storytelling. That does not have to be negative. If we use the future in the right way, it works like a mirror. A tool to create mental complexity, make better decisions, define clearer goals in a global culture.

    Start to ask really interesting questions. What is the connection between technology and human psychology? What role does randomness play in systems? What does resilience in the context of post-industrial progress mean? Lies the future always before us? Or are we surrounded by it? On a planet with a lot of time zones between the stone age and tomorrow we have to learn more about the amazing complexity of life, society and culture. The future is an adventure, not a given fact. How wonderful!

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