promise them anything

Birds entrails, the stars in the heavens, crystal balls: people have resorted to all these and more in an effort to foretell the future. Today of course, with business have market capitalizations in the billions, there are no soothsayers in the corporate office but the seer’s are using charts, statistics, probability analysis, extrapolations. The aim is objective knowledge and the claim is that this knowledge is scientific more or less. It is called futurology.

---Think too of Jules Verne, and the way he imagined the future. Counterfactuals combined with the futurology of earlier times. Retro futures. Anachronistic utopias. When archaeological materialities meet science fiction.---click image for more...

—Think too of Jules Verne, and the way he imagined the future.
Counterfactuals combined with the futurology of earlier times. Retro futures. Anachronistic utopias. When archaeological materialities meet science fiction.—click image for more…

The field has proliferated and crystal balls are think tank size. What what is the psychological aspect here? Is it Snow White’s evil stepmother and the mirror responding in flattering tones, at least up to a certain point. Could it be that the scenarios of futurologists, like the queen’s mirror, merely reflect their own faces? Who could have predicted the financial meltdown of 2008? Certainly not the nerds with their quants and collaterized debt obligations and financial derivatives that no CEO could understand.

Today’s futurologists of course had their predecessors, such as Condorcet and Malthus, both late eighteenth century projectionists who offered competing versions of the future. Condorcet, the philosopher, looked forward to increased equality among individuals and natons and “perfectibility of society.” Malthus, a parson, envisioned a dismal scene where population perpetually outran food supply and starvation corrected any misguided efforts to achieve a more equitable and prosperous social system.

Nouriel Roubini. Click image for source...

Nouriel Roubini. Click image for source…

But futurology is no longer left to the occasional philosopher or parson. Futurology is now a big business. But again, the desire of the clients skews the analysis. In one early famous case, Herman Kahn told his Japanese clients that their growth rate would make them the super power of the world, except unfortunately he overlooked the fuel crisis.

Inevitably, any study of the future brings us back to the present, sometimes to the past, and of course, always to ourselves. Which is the main problem. If futurology tells us something about our dreams and nightmares,about our racial and political biases, our ecological concerns, our identity issues; if it makes us think about what developments we wish to halt, as well as foster, it will be of service. We are back to “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall…”


(see link at end)…We can see now that the golden age of blockbuster futurology in the 1960s and 1970s was caused, not by the onset of profound technological and social change (as its champions claimed), but by the absence of it. The great determining technologies—electricity, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, even manned flight—were the products of a previous century, and their applications were well understood. The geopolitical fundamentals were stable, too, thanks to the cold war. Futurologists extrapolated the most obvious possibilities, with computers and nuclear weapons as their wild cards. The big difference today is that we assume our determining forces to be ones that 99% of us do not understand at all: genetic engineering, nanotechnology, climate change, clashing cultures and seemingly limitless computing power. When the popular sense of direction is baffled, there is no conventional wisdom for futurologists to appropriate or contradict.

There are still some hold-outs prophesying at the planetary level: James Canton, for example, author of “Extreme Future”. But the best advice for aspirant futurists these days is: think small. The best what-lies-ahead book of 1982 was “Megatrends”, by John Naisbitt, which prophesied the future of humanity. A quarter-century later, its counterpart for 2007 was “Microtrends”, by Mark Penn, a public-relations man … “Microtrends” looks at the prospects for niche social groups such as left-handers and vegan children. The logical next step would be a book called “Nanotrends”, save that the title already belongs to a journal of nano-engineering.

The next rule is: think short-term. An American practitioner, Faith Popcorn, showed the way with “The Popcorn Report” in 1991, applying her foresight to consumer trends instead of rocket science. The Popcornised end of the industry thrives as an adjunct o

e marketing business, a research arm for its continuous innovation in consumer goods. One firm, Trendwatching of Amsterdam, …. It is no coincidence that the old standard work on herd instinct, Charles Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, has been displaced by James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”.

The most heeded futurists these days are not individuals, but prediction markets, where the informed guesswork of many is consolidated into hard probability. Read More:

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