Back to the Futurists

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED: DOGGED BY MISSTEPS OF PAST, PROGNOSTICATORS DEBATE OUR FUTURE

Chicago Tribune, Jul 24, 1998

By David Futrelle.

Though people have been predicting the future ever since the first caveman stuck his head out of the family cave and forecast rain, the profession of futurism is a relatively recent invention. The World Future Society, which held its annual conference this week in Chicago, was founded in 1966, several years before Alvin Toffler published "Future Shock," the first popular presentation of modern futurism.

You may recall some of the predictions made in the early, heady days: Underwater cities. Automated highways. Missions to Mars. Self-cleaning apartments. The eradication of the housefly. Giant domes sitting atop our cities like overgrown umbrellas. Sitting under our domes, freed from the necessity of doing anything but the most minimal of work, we would all be desperately trying to find ways to deal with our terrible surplus of leisure.

If these marvels are a little tardy in arriving, well, chalk up the mistake tothe natural enthusiasm of youth. (The futurists also got some things mostly right, like the birth of "telecommuting.") The first wave of futurism had the misfortune to wreck itself on the reef of the 1970s -- a time of increasing technological pessimism and environmental anxiety. By the 1980s, visions of a bountiful technofuture were overtaken in the popular imagination with post-apocalyptic horror stories: Disney's Tomorrowland gave way to "The Road Warrior."

In some ways futurism has never recovered from its early errors -- and even though the public perception of technology is increasingly positive these days, the profession remains a chastened one. Today's futurists tend to avoid making flamboyant predictions about moon colonies, instead choosing to address such topics as "Future PlaceSpace Dynamics." And while the Internet has brought new fame to a host of silicon gurus, not much of this new excitement has rubbed off on the World Future Society itself, which seems relatively untouched by the Internet revolution.

Indeed, despite all the futuristic notions bandied about in the halls of the Chicago Hilton and Towers, where the conference took place Sunday through Tuesday, this was a decidedly low-tech affair. Listeners scribbled notes on hotel stationery; no more than a relative handful had laptop computers (though one fellow was spotted with a calculator-stopwatch). The closest thing I saw to multimedia presentation was when one of the event's speakers held up a picture for all to see.

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Though subjects discussed and debated by the 1,000 futurists in attendance included everything from life extension and artificial intelligence to the chemical control of criminals and the imminent death of the printed word, virtually everyone seemed excited by the impending arrival of the big 2-oh-oh-oh. There were sessions devoted to "Marketing Strategies for the New Millennium," "Maintaining Financial Well-Being in the New Millennium" and "Shaping the Global Agenda for a New Millennium." Browsers at the Futurist Bookstore could choose from a wide assortment of books with titles like "2025: Scenarios of U.S. and Global Society" or the slightly more futuristic "The World of 2044." There was even a talk on "What to Expect from Robots in the New Millennium," given by Joanne Pransky, who describes herself as the "world's first robotic psychiatrist."

And then there was the Great Millennium Global Singalong. Spearheaded by a Canadian group, the event is designed to unite the world's people in song on Jan. 1, 2000, led by children's choirs who would greet the new century in turn as it arrives in each nation. Expounding upon the idea to a small but seemingly eager group, David Woolfson of the Global Institute for the Future in Toronto explained that the group had originally intended to have the world erupt in sequential song "at noon, 12 sharp" on that fateful day, but then decided midnight made a little more sense -- even though that meant the young singers would have to stay up past their bedtimes. (While some in the audience were troubled by this, most seemed to agree that it might be OK for the kids just this once.)

Those bored by the next millennium could of course move on to the one after that. In a session devoted to "The Year 3000: A Fresh Look at Humanity's Future," Washington, D.C., futurist (and all-around gadfly) Joseph F. Coates invited participants to explore such possibilities as "what would happen . . . if all current problems such as racism, disease, war, deprivation, poverty were alleviated."

Most futurists, if pressed, will deny making predictions at all: They merely describe scenarios. But don't let this semantic two-step fool you. Futurists love to predict. And there were predictions galore at the conference.

William Crossman, the frizzy-haired founder and director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures, predicted that in the next century voice-in/voice-out computers (VIVOs) will make written language obsolete. After all, as he explains in a synopsis of his forthcoming book "CompSpeak 2050": "Written language is essentially a technology for storing and retrieving information; it was created 6,000 to 10,000 years ago to address a very specific set of changing historical conditions and needs."

Meanwhile, a group of futurists queried by the George Washington University Forecast of Emerging Technologies proclaimed, among other things, that there is a 58 percent probability that Mag-Lev trains -- that is, trains that are magnetically levitated above the tracks to avoid friction, and a futurist favorite for years -- will link most American cities by 2017.

Human longevity also came in for a long look. World Future Society business manager Jeff Cornish predicted in an interview that in the next century people will live to 150 -- including quite a few alive today.

Not everyone at the convention was quite so enthusiastic about what the future will bring. Deborah Sawyer, a futurist consultant and the author of "Sawyer's Survival Guide for Information Brokers," warned that excessive dependence upon, and faith in, the computer has hidden dangers. "No other society on this planet is so besotted with the computer," she lamented. And no other society, so ready and eager and willing to believe anything it sees on the computer screen, is perhaps riper for exploitation.

Meanwhile, Canadian anti-technology activist Michael Rosenberg spent the convention, his fourth, asking contrarian questions and passing out leaflets purporting to show that "Advancing Technology Causes Scarcity and Unemployment." Rosenberg, a thin man with a nervous manner, argues that technology is a lot like the sorcerer's apprentice made so famous by Walt Disney: easy to unleash but impossible to rein in.

"We are not able to control technology so we get what we think we're going to get from it," he said after handing out copies of his various manifestos to futurists leaving the final plenary session. "Each new generation of technology produces less for human beings than the last generation of technology." But futurists, he explained, tended to be blinded by the razzle-dazzle of the new technologies, looking upon them with a naive optimism. And while there are some futurists who "look at the negative consequences (of specific technologies) on an isolated basis," he argued, for the most part "they still believe that technology can be controlled so that it will be beneficial." For his part, Rosenberg isn't so sure.

Sawyer and Rosenberg were in the decided minority at the conference. "Futurists are in general optimistic," Cornish said. "And as for myself, I am very optimistic. I think that the developments of the last 30 years or so have generally been quite positive."

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Still, one of the most striking aspects of the conference -- and one that points to the continuing malaise among futurists -- was the relative absence of young people. In the computer industry, the entrepreneurs pushing us and our technology the hardest and fastest into the future are almost inevitably in their 20s, and there were precious few of them in evidence at the Hilton.

Well, there was at least one: Omar Wasow, an MSNBC commentator whose role at the conference seemed to be to play Young Internet Whiz for the benefit of the elders, as he himself noted during a talk on "The Future of the Media."

"It's a reasonable observation," Cornish said in an interview when the delicate issue of age was raised. "The group here tends to be older than the general population. But I don't see it as a real problem." According to Cornish, older futurists are somewhat overrepresented at conferences because only the older folks are at the stage in their careers when they can afford the time and expense of trekking to a national conference. And besides, he said, futurists' careers tend to peak somewhat later than in other professions; it takes time to build up a track record of publications and predictions.

Perhaps. But even this less-than-compelling argument suggests a somewhat disquieting conclusion: The futurists may or may not be right about robots or talking computers or high-speed trains, but unless the World Future Society is able to win over more of Generations X, Y and beyond, its own future may be dim.