Category Archives: Futurism

Back to the Future Day

Today is “Back to the Future Day,” the day Marty McFly travels forward to in the 1989 movie, the second in the series.

Like all futurist movies, “Back to the Future” wasn’t meant to be a forecast. Many of its future elements — the flying cars, the garbage-powered fusion — were meant more as jokes on futurist tropes.

The movie succeeds in some of its forecasts by simply envisioning what might be useful — a legitimate futures technique, when married with a sense of plausible timeframes. Thus, we see a news drone filming live shots. The movie also foresaw ubiquitous connectivity, but based it on the exciting new technology of … fax machines. In fact, these would spread, peak, and then recede between the movie’s release and today.

Curiously, an item thrown in as pure fantasy, the hoverboard, has so appealed to people that a minor industry now churns out faux versions such as the self-balancing skateboard and the mini-helicopter hover contraption. Though the real thing still defies our command of physics, this is a great example of science fiction inspiring actual innovation.

And see this video for a bit of futurist wisdom from the movie’s designer, John Bell. In the 11th item, it cites his “15/85 rule,” that items in the future scenes should be 15% unrecognizable and 85% recognizable, to provide a comprehensible future.

This raises the question: how long a time period can the 15/85 rule realistically remain true in a sphere of study? It might be 10 years for electronics but 100 for geopolitics.

Fun with Apocalypses: 2012

Mayan templeA journalist recently asked me to comment as a futurist on the supposed disaster that some foresee for 2012.

In the Drake Magazine article “The Sky Is Falling” (under Features) I am quoted as saying:

Not everyone reading into the Mayan calendar sees the end of the world. Josh Calder …. doesn’t think anything will happen. To him, the Mayan-calendar madness is just another in a long line of end of the world theories. As a futurist, Calder’s job is to predict the future for corporations and government agencies. When examining trends in consumer behavior or national security, the 2012 date has never come up in his work. “Full destruction might be achieved by an astronomical event or a physics accident, but both of these seem a very low probability,” he says.

Calder believes worrying about 2012 is a waste of time and energy. “There has never been any solid evidence of magical foreknowledge of the future,” he says. “It is illogical to think that this will suddenly change.” Astronomically, he says the end of the world is set for billions of years in the future and, though he knows of a few ways we could be in trouble, Calder doesn’t seem too worried. “With luck, we will avoid them,” he says.

Image courtesy Torley (Flickr)

“The Futurist” — or not

I would read and review Othmer’s The Futurist, but by all accounts it isn’t necessary: it isn’t about futurism and its foibles.

Futurism does have its quirks, but the novel’s protagonist suffers from more universal failings: he lacks professional and intellectual integrity, and puts self-interest ahead of a search for truth.

That would be a problem in futurism, but the same issues afflict many professions, from science and accounting to law and journalism.

For more on what futurism is and isn’t, see yesterday’s entry.

On Slate’s “The Future of Futurism”

Slate had a little piece on “The Future of Futurism” this week.

Oddly, it never quite discusses futurism as it now exists.

The author, Reihan Salam, spends considerable space on bloggers: the thoughtful John Robb of Global Guerillas, and the less-thoughtful (or at least less wise) Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit). Salam cites Reynold’s boosterism of the invasion of Iraq as an example of poor forecasting.

And indeed it was. But InstaPundit is not a futurist: he’s an ideologue, and ideologues tend to practice bad futurism, as they are blinded by their own limited notions about reality.

(Incidentally, I was at a meeting of working professional futurists shortly before the Iraq war. Not a single one thought an invasion was a good idea, as they could clearly see what was likely to unfold.)

Salam also cites the two poles of neo-Malthusians (who focus on scarcity and ecological disaster) and Cornucopians (who believe in the saving power of technology).

Again, however, he is a bit off the mark: those are ideological positions.

Good futurists aren’t ideologues, and aren’t convinced that any vision of the world is certain.

Nor are we merely “techno-realists,” whom Salam commends. Futurism encompasses — by necessity — much more than technology. And that is why a group of futurists had doubts about Iraq: we did what we are supposed to do, combining knowledge of the Middle East, military technology, nationalism, and even historical analogues to discern the most likely scenarios.

Our clients pay us to tell them about likelihoods, uncertainties, and improbabilities, and to know something about which is which. We try to warn them about what they can’t control, and point them on paths to their desired futures. We know something about the speed and shape of change. We know very well that we can’t “predict” the future — and we understand why.

“The Reality of Science Fiction”

Writer Brenda Cooper had an interesting chat on the Post today.

As a futurist, Cooper disabuses people of some of their wilder ideas:

Atlanta, Ga.: What far out science fiction idea(s) do you think could be in our future? Warp Drive, Anti-Gravity, Teleporting????

Brenda Cooper: I’m not sure about any of those three. I am willing to bet on nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and better/faster ways to get to and around in space. We may see space elevators.

One question does not quite get answered:

There was a time when much SF took place in a post-war future, at least internal to Earth or human societies (think Star Trek). But now, almost a decade into the 21th century, not only do I have neither flying car nor cyborg monkey butler, but I don’t think we can see any end in sight for war and armed conflict on massive scales (geographical, technological, or otherwise). Do you see this changing in SF?

The conditions for a future without war are not hard to imagine (despite all the alarming things going on), and so it is hardly a stretch for speculative fiction to explore those conditions. Many trends are driving us toward such a future, and I can believe that there might be a year within a few decades in which there are no real armed conflicts occurring anywhere.