Didn’t see that coming, did you? The fall of futurology. The Financial Times, 5 March 2005

In Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Futurological Congress, published in 1971, Ijon Tichy, a Russian cosmonaut on his way to an international gathering of futurologists in the developing world, is so badly wounded in the crossfire of a local revolution that he is cryogenically frozen. When he thaws out, 60 years later, Tichy finds that futurology has advanced far beyond its origins in humble speculation to the status of a natural science. Professors lecture on it. Giant computers decipher human speech patterns for insights into how the future might look. In this brave new world, it is already possible to extend human life by brain transplant, while robots perform the tasks humans find too mundane.
The Futurological Congress is partly intended as a satire on the excesses of futurology, but, in passing, Stanislaw Lem gives one of the most robust justifications for the discipline itself: if we cannot imagine and articulate what the future might be like, we can scarcely hope to achieve it.
At the time he was writing, futurology – the business of looking into the future and attempting to predict it – was making intellectual headway, and its proponents had good reasons for thinking that it might continue to do so. Gradually, however, futurology has changed shape utterly, losing much of its original confidence in the future and its ability to predict what lies in store. Few of us might mourn the fall of futurologists themselves, but we should certainly mourn the passing of the art of futurology, if only because its demise tells us much about how far our own enthusiasm for the future has dimmed.
Futurology is best understood as a catch-all name for a collection of activities that are as old as the modern age. When human lives were nasty, brutish and short, there was little need to speculate about the future. Only in the late Middle Ages did the pace of technological change quicken so much that it became a reasonable assumption that tomorrow might look substantially different from today. By the 16th century, with the increasing elevation of science over superstition, humans began to think they might have a future on the planet and, slowly, the idea of thinking scientifically about how the future might look spread outward from the natural and physical sciences and into the realm of society.
Some date the birth of futurology to the radical pamphleteering of the French Enlightenment. Whether or not this is accurate, by the late Victorian period there was an orgy of future thinking, much of it central to the political propaganda of the time. In his futuristic 1890 novel, News from Nowhere, the utopian socialist William Morris wrote a political menu aimed at whetting the appetites of the masses for socialism. Writing at around the same time, the inventor and businessman John Jacob Astor described a fictional world of 2000 in his novel A Journey in Other Worlds – one in which technology had made it possible for humans to colonise and live on Saturn and Jupiter; steam boilers powered by the sun provided abundant power, and the ocean tides generated electricity. Astor also envisioned a “Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company” whose task was to reposition the globe and ensure that the earth’s climate would make for a universal spring.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, futurology fell largely into abeyance – amid the devastation wrought by two world wars, it was difficult to conjure or sustain much enthusiasm for a sparkling future. And when futurology resurfaced it did so in a peculiar form. In the years following the second world war, the US military began to pour money into futures research, in the hope of gaining military and technological superiority over the Soviet Union. The largesse of the US Defense Department helped propel the discipline to new heights, and its influence and reputation gradually reached as far as the universities and the business world. For the first time, some scientists and intellectuals began to present themselves consciously as “futurists” (a concept borrowed from the ill-fated Italian radical movement) or “futurologists”.
In the 1950s, a Hungarian emigre to the United States, John von Neumann, a mathematician and polymath with close links to the armed forces, was paid by the US military to use computers not only to predict the weather but to control it too. Also in the US, the political scientist and “futurist” Herman Kahn was, by 1968, using “scenario planning” – a forecasting method originally developed by military intelligence – to argue that life expectancy might reach 150 years by the end of the century.
But it was Alvin Toffler who, with the publication of his book Future Shock in 1970 (which predicted we would all be living a life of leisure by the year 2000), popularised the modern discipline of futurology and breathed new life into the discipline. Meanwhile, in the real world, the space race and the moon landings were opening up new avenues for futurological speculation.
Popular culture and the media could hardly remain immune to this revived enthusiasm for the future in the postwar period. In 1965, the BBC launched a new futurology programme, Tomorrow’s World, which confidently predicted that intelligent artificial life would arrive by the end of the century and, rather exotically, that the world’s first international city would be situated on the South Pole ice cap. At the same time, in the US, Walter Cronkite was fronting a show called At Home 2001, promising American housewives a future of disposable dishes and robot butlers. “It’s all possible in the home of the 21st century,” was Cronkite’s catchphrase. And in the cartoon The Jetsons, which premiered in 1962, American children were exposed to the idea that one day they would fly to work, erase housework with the touch of a button, and go for weekend breaks to Neptune.
Then, as the century drew to a close, futurists became part of the dizzying rise of the internet. The belief that an array of new technologies would lead the world into an exciting new “long boom” saw futurists being hired in increasing numbers on both sides of the Atlantic.
For the first time, universities began to offer courses in “Future Studies”, in which professional futurists were trained to advise companies and governments on everything from the future of renewable energy to e-commerce. Advertising agencies – especially American ones – began to create whole new departments staffed by so-called “oracle workers” to predict future consumer trends. Prognosticators such as Faith Popcorn and Marian Salzman in the US became sought after, and occasionally successful. Salzman, for example, claims to have correctly predicted the huge market for pet accessories (in keeping with the growing number of single American women) and the fact that many leading brands (think of early iMacs and Bluetooth) would make blue their colour of choice in the run-up to the millennium.
In Europe, the mobile phone company Orange built a circular room in an office on London’s Baker Street called “The Imaginarium”. It was staffed by a futurologist and a young group of “imagineers”, with job titles ranging from “ambassador of strategy” to “knowledge consul”, who worked on a range of scenarios for “what happens next”.
What happened next was that the bottom dropped out of the technology market and many futurologists suddenly found themselves unemployed. University departments, such as the course in Foresight and Future Studies at Leeds University, were abruptly shut down. In the advertising and marketing sector, the oracle workers who still had jobs were moved back to the less glamorous discipline of strategic planning, there to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of immediate business strategy.
Now, as we reach the halfway point of the first decade of the 21st century, the future of futurology still looks bleak. For one thing, the jet packs, the holidays on Neptune and home robots that the futurists were so sure were coming our way in the postwar period have yet to materialise. Tomorrow’s World was axed in 2003, its audience having slipped from a peak of 10 million to about 3 million before it was taken off air. The technologically utopian The Jetsons was overtaken by The Simpsons, in which Homer Simpson grumbles about the mishaps in the nuclear power plant where he has the misfortune to work as a safety inspector. And compared with John von Neumann’s Promethean ambition to control the climate, our current struggle with global warming is deeply humbling.
Futurology may not be dead yet – the World Future Society, a kind of industry association, boasts 16,500 members in 80 countries (most of them in the US) and companies are still keen to predict the immediate future of their own markets – but full-throttle futurology is certainly no longer with us.
One plausible reason is the regularity with which the predictions of futurologists failed to materialise. A special millennium survey conducted by the British women’s magazine Bella in 2000 found that Britons were disappointed with how the future had turned out. At the age of 15, half of those surveyed had been led to believe that moon travel would now be routine, and one in 10 thought that taking a trip to Jupiter or Mars would be just another package holiday. Nearly one in five believed they would be doing the daily commute by flying car. More than a third had counted on scientists discovering a cure for cancer. For the vast majority, the brave new world promised by the futurologists in the 1950s and 1960s had been a fib of spectacular proportions.
But the failure of futurology’s predictions should not on its own have been enough to shake it so badly. The discipline has, after all, been failing to make its predictions come true for centuries. In the past, glorious failures simply sent its practitioners back to the drawing board. What is on the defensive now is not so much the discipline of futurology itself as future-thinking, the creative evaluation of possibilities for improving the human condition. And in place of future-thinking, many of the forecasters have changed tack and are propagandising about the myriad ways in which the human race might wipe itself out.
Even before September 11 2001, a few influential futurologists were beginning to betray a significant lack of enthusiasm for the future. In a now-seminal April 2000 article for Wired magazine called “Why the future doesn’t need us”, the co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, Bill Joy, argued that new technologies – nanotechnology, genetic engineering – were preparing not to power humanity into a glorious 21st century but to render it useless. Also before September 11, professional futurologists such as Eric Drexler of the Foresight Institute in California were speculating about self-replicating machines that might overtake humanity and render the entire planet a sticky mess of “grey goo”. In retrospect, it seems the only difference September 11 made was that it enabled many of our anxieties about the future to morph into an all-encompassing fear of terrorist catastrophe.
If the demise of futurology cannot be explained by the failure of its predictions, then perhaps a more profound insight into its decline can be gleaned from its relationship to political thought. Remember that politics, too, has depended for its existence for most of the modern period on a contest between competing, rosy visions of the future.
Spurred on by the technological optimism during the postwar period, politicians were fond of promising the masses unlimited goods and wealth in return for hard work in the here and now. In 1956, in his book The Future of Socialism, the Labour party intellectual Tony Crosland assured the British working classes that they were heading for cheap foreign holidays and a life of consumer plenty. Likewise, in his famous Great Society address, delivered in 1964, Lyndon Johnson promised to use the US’s growing wealth to provide “abundance and liberty for all” within the following 50 years.
Cut loose from those ideological moorings, however, the politics of the future take on a very different role. Almost invisibly, and in the course of just two decades, governments in Europe and North America have shifted from promising us good things over the rainbow to protecting us from future dangers. They no longer motivate us with the promise of jam tomorrow, because few of us would believe them if they did. Instead, they are prone to arguing that contemporary society is characterised by an accelerating pace of change; that we are hurtling into a dangerous future at an unparalleled speed.
This idea has been repeated so regularly by politicians and futurologists that it has become one of the cliches of our time. If things are moving so fast and the future is so unpredictable, runs this reasoning, then there is very little that politicians can do.
But the notion that we are experiencing a rate of social change comparable to that which separated depression-era Britain from the affluence of the postwar generation is simply absurd. Many of the advances in biotechnology or reproductive sciences that raise public concern are still at the laboratory stage and may never materialise. Beyond all the hype about the internet – and the real benefits it brings – its impact on our lives scarcely rivals the invention of the colour TV or the simple washing machine.
Our failure to find inspiration in a robust vision of the future today is evidence of a profound political conservatism. Amid a mood of public cynicism about their promises and motivations, most politicians have retreated to the safe ground of promising not very much. During the British party conference season last autumn, our political leaders vied with each other to decry any grand visions of the future. Michael Howard, the Tory leader, used his conference speech to eschew “grandiose” political visions in favour of a back- of-the-envelope checklist of hot-button political issues – crime and taxation, for example – which ran to only 10 words. After focus groups commissioned by the Conservative party revealed that voters no longer trust the promises of politicians, Howard came up with an alternative “timetable for action”. He argued that the electorate did not expect miracles, but craved instead “a government which is generous in spirit and competent in action. A government which is honest. A government they can trust.”
Tony Blair begged to differ. In a rejoinder delivered several days later in which he set out his agenda for a third term, Blair castigated Howard for his “minimalist politics” and promised to pursue “grand visions and great causes” in Labour’s third term. But his alternative – an “opportunity society” and an attempt to rejig the welfare system by fiddling with tax credits – seemed every bit as minimalist as that of his Conservative counterpart.
For a brief moment back in 1997, the Labour party’s campaign anthem, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, touched a nerve with its promise of a brighter future. But it didn’t last. At a 1998 conference held to discuss the progress made by New Labour after a year in office, the former spin-doctor Derek Draper warned impatient delegates that the brief of New Labour was “not to build heaven on earth, but to prevent hell”. Seven years later, heaven seems further away than ever.