Predictions? No thanks

“Is futurology just a mug’s game?
Yup – pretty much.”

Fascination with past images of the future (see previous post) seems to induce more than just nostalgia. It has given a new edge to scepticism about any future-related claims. The accumulated, and nowadays always accessible, collection of past predictions is easy fuel for attacking new ones. As the comment above suggests, it invites scepticism about the whole enterprise of futurology, as well as any specific predictions.

I tried this line on a gathering of the UK Futures Analysts’ Network recently. A well-regarded futurist came up afterwards and said it is not a problem in a professional context. Most serious work is done for organisations and institutions who well understand that all is uncertain, but also that thinking about possible futures can help them shape their strategy – at least better than not thinking about them.

Looking at the way the small but growing band of professional futurists usually approach their work, I can see this is probably true. But my point relates more to how futurology plays in public. And it is reinforced (why I cite it!)  by the response to a recent report from UK outfit Fast Future on “The Shape of Jobs to Come”. A  comment thread on the Guardian website covers a range of responses – but mostly a range from sceptical to derisory dismissal.

Two caveats. The report was cheap and cheerful (one commentator reckons it cost £7.5k), and designed to be eye-catching as part of the government’s  Science, So What? campaign to help induce young persons to study something scientific –  a somewhat problematic effort but lets not go into that just now. So it is easy to report it sensationally, and the lead author has found himself misquoted here and there, not least in the Guardian, about spare body parts for footballers. That Guardian blog summary gives the flavour:
“Putting the final nail in the coffin for the idea of a traditional career for life is a new report that makes bold predictions about the complexion of the future jobs market. The government-commissioned Shape of Jobs to Come, from research company Fast Future, predicts that students coming out of university now could have eight to 10 jobs in their lifetime, across five different careers.
These “future thinkers” say those careers may include being a body-part maker, a space pilot or an insect-based food developer, thanks to advances in science and technology, the growth in space tourism and the challenge of feeding the population.”

The full report is not the best thing in futurology, but is mostly more sensible than that sounds – pointing out that demographics suggests a large increase in jobs caring for the elderly, for example.
The other caveat is that  Comment is Free is not a site known for the civility of responses – though there’s plenty worse out there – so who knows what these comments actually mean in terms of public opinion. Still, there were 100 or so…  Here’s a handful of them. You can find the whole lot here, and, incidentally, a more sympathetic response from another Guardian commentator here and a summary from Popular Science here.

Representative comments on the other Guardian post, though, say things like:

“I wouldn’t put any faith in what some government thinktank says as they invariably get it spectacularly wrong. I remember many of the so called future predictions made from the 1950s onward and few if any have come to pass.”

or simply take the piss…

“Futurology is awesome. I plan to be a cyborg bounty hunter. And we’ll probably have cracked gene-splicing and what have you by then, so I’ll also be a werewolf.”

or essay humour..

Space tourism?
“The South-West Interstellar Express, scheluded to arrive at 15:00, is running approximately 25 (figures two-five) light-years late due to encounters with the wrong kind of asteroid. Please listen for further announcements. We apologise for the delay and any inconvenience caused.”
“Spaceport 3 for the 17:15 Star Liner to Venus. Customers are reminded that Intergalactic Saver tickets are not valid on this service.”

While some look back at the retrofuture stuff which now abounds…

“I have been waiting for decades see hover cars in cities, moving walkways and weird looking cities. Oh, and lots of mono rails. Sadly, Newcastle, London, Manchester and Liverpool along with Venice ( which would find moving mono rails difficult and can’t be improved upon ) look more or less the same as decades ago. As a child I was promised the ‘Jetsons’ but we still live like the ‘Simpsons’ “.
In fact that kind of nostalgia/scepticism is pretty popular…
“everything will be so efficient we will not know what to do with our spare time, where silver body suits, travel on hover scooters and live in pods on the moon. Oh wait that was 30 years from the 60s wasn’t it. Just shows how accurate these are.”

and has some citing suitable sources like this bit of Modern Mechanix from 1968 about life in 2008

It leads to strong rejection now…
“Futurologists are always wrong, the future is always more mundane that what is predicted. I remember the prediction that my generation would work ten hours a day with a couple of months holiday per year. The problem was going to be, not what work one would do but how to find something constructive to fill ones spare time. Rember that more mundane prediction, computers were going to create paper free offices? All computers have done as far as I can tell is create more unnecessary work. So much for future predictions.”

and suggestion of cheaper methods…

“£30 spent ten years ago on a random selection of SF paperbacks would have given the same answers at a fraction of the price…” (from an SF writer, as it happens)

Overall, this comment seems a fair summary of the most common sentiment expressed here:

“Futurology nowadays provides an excellent pre-career for comedy writing.”

I’m wondering why this comes across so strongly just now. Some suggestions about that to follow when I have time to sort them out. Any ideas in the meantime?

ADDITION: the report which prompted these sceptical comments has also attracted some more serious futurological criticism, e.g. here

Explore posts in the same categories: futures past, things not understood, Uncategorized

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3 Comments on “Predictions? No thanks”

  1. Richard Says:

    Just an idea, but I’m struck by the word “promised” that crops up frequently in the response to this kind of work – there’s an idea that “they” promised “us” ease, leisure and fulfilment through the proxies of jetpacks and bacofoil suits and so on.

    I wonder if what we’re seeing in the negative response to popular futures like these isn’t just resistance to change (change in the future script as well change in present circumstances), but evidence of the huge cultural weight carried by post-war techno-utopian claims? Our cultural fabric still retains the imprint of these ideas of white-hot progress, even if they’ve gone.

    In the future, WordPress will underline not just spelling mistakes but mixed metaphors.

  2. jonturney Says:

    yes, wouldn’t want to singe that fabric now… might end up with the Turin shroud

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