Thursday, September 14, 2006

My Life as A Futurist

by Sara Robinson

You will not offend me if you give me That Look when I tell you what business I'm in.

After all, my own mother still gives it to me. "Tell me again....just what is it that" she queries me now and again, her voice a nuanced blend of confusion, incredulity, and a sincere desire not to hurt my feelings. At least she doesn't smirk or giggle out loud (which has been known to happen with less gentle acquaintances). Not that I would blame her if she did. I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm going to get That Look every time I introduce myself, probably for the rest of my days. It's an occupational burden I'm learning to bear.

Everybody knows this. Futurists are crazy old men with wild white hair and bow ties and pockets full of cool micro-gizmos who go around talking about flying cars. (In fact, the very phrase "flying cars" is a standing joke in the professional futurist trade, the signifier for all the usual and stereotypical things the media wants to talk to us about, even when we're desperate to talk about something far more important or interesting.) Bucky Fuller was a futurist. Ray Kurzweil is a futurist. Here in Vancouver, we have Dr. Tomorrow, a colorful character who's been the town's iconic (and iconoclastic) "futurist" for about 30 years.

But that middle-aged mom over there with the dimples and the tumbled thatch of auburn hair? No. She is not what comes to mind when you think of a futurist. At all. Which is why I get That Look.

The picture only gets fuzzier when you understand that there are futurists and futurists -- and sometimes even they themselves aren't quite sure where the line between them falls. On one hand, anybody can hang out their shingle and call themselves a futurist. There are urban futurists and media futurists and space futurists and fashion futurists: a motley crew of people who are united by their optimism about the future, and their eagerness to share (or sell) their visions of how it might take shape. Imaginative and intelligent, these people are full of creative ideas about how things will become. They also tend to make more earthbound types a bit...uncomfortable. "Flaky" is a word that's sometimes used. "Wild-eyed" is another. "Professional"...not so much.

Which rather annoys those on the other hand, who are indeed real-life professional futurists. Most of these are serious people who spent years in graduate school and professional practice mastering a large body of foresight methods that have emerged over the past century, and which were refined into usefulness at places like the Department of Defense, RAND, and the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. While no less imaginative -- and often at least as idealistic -- these highly educated guessers are focused on scanning the horizon and tracking actual signs of change, separating the truly plausible from the not very likely, and helping their clients systematically prepare for a wide variety of possible futures. The biggest of big thinkers, they operate in a weird overlapping space that's part sociology, part technology, part policy analysis, part economics, part environmentalism, part research, part instinct, and part voodoo.

I'm the second kind of futurist. Or, more precisely: I'm a professional futurist-in-training, hard at work on a masters of science in Futures Studies at the University of Houston.

Professional futurists do a vast range of things, most of them fascinating. Some of my colleagues and mentors work in-house for large corporations like Kimberly-Clark, IBM, Dow, and Pitney Bowes. (The future of postage? Yes. And it's actually pretty intriguing.) Others work for foresight firms that advise US agencies or foreign governments. A handful teach futures studies courses, which are increasingly being offered in graduate business, urban planning, and public policy schools. Quite a few are happily swimming in think tanks; and others are independent researchers, writers, and consultants.

Surprisingly, while we're all at least somewhat engaged with technology, not all futurists are technologists (or even technophiles). There are energy futurists, transportation futurists, food and agriculture futurists, urban futurists, medical futurists, retail futurists -- you name it, and there's a futurist somewhere keeping a weather eye on developments in the field. While we all pay close attention to technology shifts because they're typically a leading change driver, we're also watching how the effects ripple out to create change in other areas that most people wouldn't have imagined might be affected.

Me? I'm a social futurist. My area of interest is authoritarian movements -- fundamentalisms initially, but the field is broadening in time. That's what brought me to Dave's blog in the first place. It's also why I stuck around and became part of the ongoing dialogue. And, since Dave has given me my own key to his whaling shack, it's something you're going to hear me hold forth on now and again. That's why I'm taking this opportunity to explain, in a little depth, what I do and where I'm coming from.

It's a settled fact among most futurists that we are in an era of unprecedented technological change. My friend John Smart at the Accleration Studies Foundation says that on just about any front you can name, our ability to process matter, energy, space, time, and information is expanding at an exponential rate. We will create more change in this decade alone than humanity saw in the entire first 1500 years AD. There's lively argument about whether that rate of acceleration is sustainable, and for how long. But most futurists agree that the pace of change is many orders of magnitude faster now than it's ever been in history -- and will likely continue to pick up speed at least through the rest of our lifetimes.

Smart also set down several "laws of technology," one of which is that all new technology is inherently destructive and dehumanizing in its first generation. There are always problems we could never have anticipated, economic upheavals as old technologies are supplanted, badly-planned responses simply because nobody's ever done this before, and cultural convulsions as the new invention demands people to form new social rituals and customs around it. For a while, things get strained while we figure out what this new thing is, what it does, how it harms, how it helps, what its limits are, and how we might optimize it to maximize the good features and minimize the bad.

By and by, with all this new information in hand, we go back to the drawing board and create a second-generation version, which typically resolves about 75% of the problems in the first generation, greatly mitigates most of the rest...and usually creates one or two fresh concerns of its own (nothing being perfect). Second-generation technology tends to be much more human-centered, is often far more economically and ecologically sustainable, and usually doesn't create the vast economic upset the first generation did. At that point, we finally refine it into something that genuinely adds positive value to our existence. That, says Smart, is how progress happens.

All this is rattling around the back of my mind when I look at the tech futurists' acceleration J-curves. I don't just see a dizzying launch into a future that's getting harder and harder to predict. I also see vast new waves of first-generation technologies, each one requiring us to go through its dehumanizing early phases (though the good news is that we'll also advance to the second generation much faster than we used to). I also see the growing numbers of people who stand to be left behind by those ever-increasing changes -- people who are comfortable and content now, but are vulnerable to losing it all when some random new development comes out of left field and knocks them out of the economic or social game. It's going to happen more and more often -- perhaps several times a lifetime. Most of us aren't emotionally or financially equipped to handle this, which suggests that the number of seriously dislocated people could become profound -- at least for the couple of generations it will take for society to absorb the pace of change, and start equipping its children with better tools to cope.

The real danger that keeps me up at night is this: If we allow the numbers of the lost and sidelined to grow, that necessary process of cultural adaptation may get derailed. Overall attitudes towards change and progress can sour and harden into anger, bitterness, and resentment of progress. It's not hard to imagine a mass backlash that violently rejects modernism, and creates large cultural movements that operate out of a deep fear of change. Unfortunately, these are also the two most essential characteristics that authoritarian religious and political leaders feed on -- which means it's not an overstatement to say that our capacity to assure that there even will be a future could be overwhelmed by the demands of vast fundamentalist and totalitarian movements unless we get very smart, very quickly, about keeping large masses of people out of those belief systems.

This is, as we say in the futures biz, not my preferred future.

Especially when you consider what we've got coming up on our plate this century. Beyond accelerating technology and all its outfalls, we've got seismic geopolitical shifts, global warming, increasing resource scarcity (water is the big one nobody's talking about), and the necessary transition from hydrocarbons to other fuels. We've got a massive amount of work to do just to keep this blue ball alive and spinning; and the clock is ticking.

Unfortunately -- as we have so painfully learned from the way America's authoritarian leadership botched Iraq -- the inflexibility, irrationality, defensiveness, either/or dogmatism, and epic capacity for denial inherent in authoritarian systems often preclude them from even recognizing actual threats, let alone moving ahead to create clear and effective plans to deal with them. Any system that allows a few amoral opportunists do most of the thinking for the entire group is not only inherently brittle and unstable; it's also profoundly ill-equipped to respond effectively to the kinds of challenges we are going to be facing in the century ahead.

It's obvious that authoritarian leaders and followers, reflexively acting out of their fear of change, will not be the ones to solve our huge and looming problems. Even worse: they've already put us on notice that they're going to do whatever it takes to keep us from even acknowledging those problems, and doggedly work to obstruct our best efforts to do anything about them. There is too much at stake here to waste time on these people. We no longer have the time or the bandwidth to deal with their nonsense.

Ten thousand years of human history, 220 years of modern democracy, and the more recent discoveries of chaos theory have convinced most of the world-- pretty much beyond argument -- that groups and individuals operating within free, open societies are more innovative, prosperous, and creative. They are also more likely to seek and preserve peace, and immeasurably more flexible and adaptive in the face of serious political, economic, environmental, or other threats. Looking ahead, it's clear that if we are going to solve our looming global issues, promoting and preserving democratic societies is the critical precondition for success.

At the same time, we are coming to understand that these open social orders and democratic societies are also complex organic systems that take many generations to come into being, but can be very easily and thoughtlessly destroyed in the space of a few years. These fragile ecologies are global assets need to be protected for the sake of the future of the planet, no less than the rainforests and oceans.

Yet, when it comes to building the kind of open, democratic societies that are our best hope for a prosperous and peaceful future, the world's authoritarians can only manage reactions that range from vague suspicion to outright hostility. It's probably not an overstatement to say that the fate of the planet may well depend on our ability to reliably, intelligently, effectively identify and deal with these enemies of the future wherever they crop up -- and figure out how to create the conditions that will prevent them from arising in the first place.

My wandering explorations of these issues will likely become a dominant theme in the things I write here at Orcinus.. I hope they'll be an interesting counterpoint and complement to Dave's pieces. He understands, more keenly and intimately than most, the past and present of the far-right authoritarians in our American midst. I'm looking ahead to the future -- both the short-term specifics of how we can curb the authoritarian impulse within people and cultures, and the longer-term generalities of why this is important for our collective survival.

As the Democrats rise from the dead, and as more Americans awaken to the true costs of our recent experiments with authoritarianism, I think it's a conversation that will take some interesting turns. Thanks to Dave for giving me a place on his porch to get that discussion started -- and to the rest of you for not giving me That Look.

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