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Reading Society’s Palm

Opinion | November 12, 2013

Why we should and how we can productively think about the Future.

Futurism is an odd term. In the early 20th century, it belonged to an Italian art movement that evoked an atmosphere of speed, youth, and technology to match the contemporary world in which it was born. Manifesto of Futurism, a treatise written by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, heralded the perpetually approaching era of the future, rejecting the past as stagnant. The idea spread like a miniature cultural renaissance, incorporating the arts, architecture, and even a vibrant politics that promoted confrontation and conflict as a means to generate new creations and ideas. Liberated from the heavy ropes of tradition, self-selected “futurists” drew inspiration by looking along the other direction of time: toward the promise of what was to come. Over-eager, they tried to pull the future into the now.

The movement died after a generation, giving way to new artistic movements that cherished similar abstract character and vibrant expression. The term “futurism” fell by the wayside. However, I think it needs a new purposing, for a new kind of discipline. A couple of years ago, I helped start the Futurism Society at Tufts. I registered the website FuturismSociety.org, and this year I’m teaching a freshman seminar on the topic.

I should be clear: I’m not much of an artist, but I do get pretty enthusiastic talking about the future. The Futurism I do is a bit of a different art—exploring the ethics of our dreams of the future. Drawing more from the fields of science and philosophy, the self-selected “futurists” of today would trace their conceptions to a different locale: the 1932 BBC broadcast by author H.G. Wells that called for the creation of a “Department and Professors of Foresight” to address the dire needs of a society moving too quickly, and too blindly, into the future.

Futurology, a precursor to the kind of Futurism I am advocating, was formed as a field several decades later to finally answer H.G. Wells’ call. Its name was first coined in the 1940s by Professor Ossip K. Flechtheim, who saw the power of probabilities to predict large-scale future trends.  Sometimes also known as Future Studies, the field is rigorously interdisciplinary look at the recent past and current trends and an attempt to use those observations extrapolate possible visions of the future. Futurologists attempt to read the palm of society, and see where we might end up. Predicting the future in terms of what will happen is a hard task. The number of variables involved far exceeds those limited values that we can currently estimate. However, as an increasing amount of historical information is digitized and our computational capacity grows, greater and more powerful data trends can be calculated and recorded for posterity. As an ongoing goal, futurologists try to refine a rigorous mathematics of history, searching for a form of societal truth beneath the data. Futurology, at least in ideology, looks at the past and does not condemn it. Rather, it revels in the way society has already progressed.

Futurology, in short, tries to be a science, though it is not beyond speculative claims. It claims an ethically neutral landscape and then tries to build a roadmap of possible futures. In the process, they quantify culture and apply quasi-ethical judgments in evaluating the productivity of possible futures. As a science, it shares proverbs and philosophies with the various social sciences as well as the emerging field of Complexity Sciences.

Futurism, by extension, might be considered applied Futurology. Futurism applies normative ethics to an otherwise spotty science populated by unchecked idealist speculation and bitter pessimism. If Futurology is the cartographer, Futurism is the explorer, marching through the branching roadmap of the future, learning which paths are easier to traverse and which are more pleasing to our sensibilities. Futurism unapologetically introduces the human factor, digesting the science and criticizing its methodology and conclusions. Borrowing pages from the philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, ethics, sociology, and social psychology, these self-selected futurists deal in speculative thought experiments, so as to evaluate contemporary society and the possible futures on the horizon. The goal: let’s figure out what implicit assumptions Futurology holds, try to understand what the future could have in store, and work toward a future destination that’s worth the trip.

What we are doing here is not textbook academia; rather, it’s politics ahead of the curve. There is a lot of pessimism out there about the future and a lot of unbridled optimism that disintegrates like a sculpture of dust at any subversive prodding. Futurism, as a dedicated field, is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor that stresses critical inquiry into society’s current, past, and near future interpretations of the Future at large. This includes the digestion of science fiction, utopian and dystopian literature, and pop-science/technology magazines, to furnace the power plants of productive imagination.

A prime example is the Futurist discourse on transhumanism. Today, there is a movement of “transhumanists”, a biotechnical segment of futurists, who see the future as a cyborg haven of biomechanical engineering. Some are working on putting computer chips in their arms; others are slicing up their fingertips to install a sense of electromagnetism. The search for indefinite life extension thrives in countless niche communities and specialized fields. Though the technology is often cutting-edge, these ideas are not new. Gilgamesh wanted immortality circa 1700 BCE, as did the 15th century alchemists. The use of tools to modify the human physique and psyche has driven our collective imagination and innovation for at least the duration of written history and pre-history.  Nick Bostrom has a great piece on the history of transhumanism that covers these examples and more.

Futurologists try to predict what new technologies will allow society and the individual to do. Futurists look at what those before us have done or dreamed of, what we currently do or fetishize, and what we plan or want to do. In the hodge-podge of literature and convoluted imagery, futurists cull the technologies and innovations that seem most ideal and most in-line with an overarching image of the future that we would enjoy reaching.

Very often, this means prioritizing future interests over short-term gratification. Futurists engage in a patient philosophy that orients priorities in terms of progress and orients progress according to common cross-cultural dreams of future prospects. While such a goal is challenging and overladen with philosophical ambiguity, it nonetheless serves as an excellent casual guidebook to determining future developments and policies.

I say developments and policies because, at the end of the day, Futurism operates most effectively as a think tank to actualize the speculation that many of us privately and colloquially pursue. In this sense, Futurism is a productive venture. For example, consider some fancy helmet of magnets that has been shown in labs to make the wearer less susceptible to frustration in the face of stress. Reading about that technology, a Futurist’s thought process might be as follows:

That’s a cool article; I wonder what it’d be like if technology like this ever became mainstream. It’d be pretty awesome, like something out of The Jetsons. Yes, we’d all definitely be better off … hey, you ever notice how the family structure of The Jetsons is totally locked in the 1950s heterosexist capitalist conception of the nuclear family? Yeah — like how the father obviously favors the son and how the wife takes the husband’s wallet and goes shopping all day while he goes to work, all in the opening credits. You know what else is screwed up? That the stock-clip-art image used in that article is of a man satisfied that his purchase will make his commute easier. This technology is totally more useful in a classroom helping kids get the hang of everything. Though, to put it in public schools would require a radical reinterpretation of the way schools should be implemented…

What is happening in such a thought process? We started with a cool new feature technology, covered by a presumably well-presented article. It felt like there wasn’t much more to contribute in the discussion. All of a sudden, a casual analogy to the science fiction show The Jetsons deconstructs into an awareness of severe “present-day” cultural influences in an otherwise “futuristic” dream of the future. In the process of that conversation, it becomes clear that there might be better uses for the technology in the article, simply by consequence of a savvy analysis of the tools we use to talk about the future in the first place. We leave the thought at a much more productive point in the conversation—in which new understandings of the role of education are essential to effectively utilizing a new technology in its best capacity. That’s Futurism—leaving each imagination of the potential future at a more productive point than where it starts.