If futurism's dead, it's not for that reason

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The December issue of Wired carries an article by Hope Cristol boldly declaring 'Futurism is Dead'. Let's plunge right in...

  • The article begins by slating the World Future Society which is fair enough, and I've had less than kind words to say about them in the past myself; its most populist magazine (The Futurist) and annual conferences manage to extract any semblance of excitement and clue from the field.

  • However, Cristol uses the society's declining membership and influence as a barometer of change in the entire futures field, never mentioning the alternative WFSF or the relatively new APF that seeks to rationalise and define the heart of an amorphous discipline.

  • Crucially, Cristol neglects to mention that she was an Assistant Editor of The Futurist until fairly recently. Do we smell a falling-out and a hint of bitterness behind this article? The closest we get to disclosure is her description of being "once a futurist-in-training". Remember kids: you don't need to train by going to college or working in an industry -- you can just write about it!

  • She describes futurism as a con: "Futurists don't have a crystal ball. They examine trends and play out what-if scenarios. Any hausfrau with gumption and a dialup connection can do it." I'm not sure I'd trust a futurist who declared that futurism is too complex for mere mortals to understand. The principles are very simple and, as courses and books on figuring out one's personal future attest, anyone can do it. But "hausfraus" are also, for example, able to build websites and write magazine articles; it doesn't mean professionals coders or writers are con artists. Experience counts.

  • There are many problems with futurism as a profession, so it's a shame Cristol concentrates on the well-worn complaint that predictions never come true. She acknowledges that "futurists are the first to say that futurism isn't about telling the future; it's about examining trends and fleshing out scenarios," and continues, "yet they consistently spout predictions, somehow confident in their authority as futurists."

    Here she's generalising to support her argument. Any professional futurist worth their salt will indeed acknowledge that predicting the future is a hopeless task. Others, hungry for publicity, will be happy to tell you about the flying nano-cars everyone will be driving next year because it makes for far better copy. The latter will give a great keynote, but you may not want to entrust your business's future to them. To conflate these two breeds of futurist does little for the article's credibility.

  • And finally, while we should all be allowed to forget our pasts, such an article seems a bit rich coming from Wired, the magazine that once brought us an entire supplement on scenarios; has often been a booster of purveyors of futurism such as the GBN; and has itself more than dabbled with the world of failed prediction. A simple acknowledgement wouldn't have gone amiss.

None of this is to say I'm outraged by the article's suggestion that futurism is in trouble, just that Cristol misses the most interesting targets and generalises to the point of worthlessness. There are better stories here.

Had she come clean about her WFS past she could have explained why she felt the organisation is in trouble. She could have explored why there's an apparent need for the APF's mission of "professionalising" futurism. She could have wondered whether the closure of Leeds' futures course and the struggles of Houston's are symptomatic of general education budget cuts or whether they support her case. Looking further afield, are there more or less futures courses in the world than in past decades? If there is a decline in the profession as a whole, she could have avoided the usual cliched criticisms and explored other underlying causes; perhaps companies feel less need to look past next years' results these days. Is this short-sightedness a problem for them and the rest of the world?

But then, that wouldn't have provided her such a good opportunity to rant against her past employers.

Web developer Phil Gyford was once a futurist-in-training in Houston and before that a sys admin for 'Wired'.

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The WFS has posted its own, very good, rebuttal of Cristol's article: http://www.wfs.org/futurism.htm

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