The Future?

Futurists do not predict the future. The future is unknowable, dependent on random events, decisions not yet made, and the interaction of innumerable variables. Indeed, one of the intentions of futurism is to help people shape the future in a desired direction.

Futurists attempt to think about the future in an organized way, considering:

  • trends
  • variables
  • forces
  • actors
  • timeframes
  • barriers

Out of this, a futurist will try to discern possibilities, scenarios, and probabilities. (It is impossible to go further: anyone who claims direct knowledge of the future through Bible codes, ESP, or whatnot is deluded or a charlatan.)

The summary table for each movie reflects the difference between possibility and plausibility. “Likelihood” is based on the overall chance of it coming about, while “Time frame” suggests when it could happen, plausibility aside.

How to predict badly
Common problems in efforts to think about the future include:

  1. Changing only one aspect of the future—In the real world, everything is changing at once. Society, technology, and demography are all shifting interactively, and developments have secondary and tertiary effects. When a movie shows changes in a lot of things, like Demolition Man, I give it a higher futurism rating.
  2. Failing to anticipate barriers—People fail to anticipate societal, organizational, technical, and other barriers. Change usually takes time, in spheres from value shifts to technological development.
  3. Techno-hype—This is related to the failure to anticipate barriers. The chain from conception of a technology to invention to practicality to reaching the market to importance is usually broken. Much of popular technology reporting does not reflect this.
  4. Compression—People trying to think about the future often cram all the changes they can think of into the time frame they can imagine, which is often short.

Hollywood and the future
Hollywood makes common mistakes in thinking about the future, but also has its own tendencies that skew its vision:

  1. The Hollywood future is almost always dark. This is sensible: a movie about peace, plenty, and justice would be boring. And it is easier to imagine scenarios of society and technology hurting us than making us happy.
  2. Movies often depict discontinuities—sharp breaks with the past that force change and create drama. These are often low-probability events. Most change is part of a gradual process, but discontinuities allow storytellers to explore extreme scenarios.
  3. Moviemakers throw in elements to signify the future: something to clue the audience that they are seeing the future. Timecop is set in 2004, but peculiar humming electric cars still had to appear.
  4. Movies about the future are often set at a near-term date, probably so that audiences can better relate to it, and the desired future development is then arbitrarily inserted. We end up with movies like Soldier, where the vague possibility of genetically engineered troops is grafted to interstellar colonization, all by 2036.
  5. Moviemakers keep many things the same, so that audiences can relate to stories and characters. We would have a harder time relating to cabby Korben Dallas of The Fifth Element if he was instead a froba thinker who worked for 3.7 seconds a day.
  6. Filmmakers quote and echo past artistic visions of the future: the robots and cities of Metropolis are still appearing in the latest films

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The futures depicted in the movies