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Fifteen Minutes into the Future

One of the hardest things to grapple with as a futurist is the sheer banality of tomorrow.

We live our lives, dealing with everyday issues and minor problems. Changes rarely shock; more often, they startle or titillate, and very quickly get folded into the existing cultural momentum. Even when big events happen, even in the worst of moments, we cope, and adapt. This is, in many ways, a quiet strength of the human mind, and a reason for hope when facing the dismal prospects ahead of us.

But futurism, at least as it's currently presented, is rarely about the everyday. More often, futurists tell stories about how some new technology (or political event, or environmental/resource crisis, etc.) will Change Your Life Forever. From the telescopic perspective of looking at the future in the distance, they're right. There's no doubt that if you were to jump from 2008 to 2028, your experience of the future would be jarring and disruptive.

But we don't jump into the future -- what we think of now as the Future is just an incipient present, very soon to become the past. We have the time to cope and adapt. If you go from 2008 to 2028 by living every minute, the changes around you would not be jarring; instead, they'd largely be incremental, and the occasional surprises would quickly blend into the flow of inevitability.

There is a tendency in futurism to treat the discipline as a form of science fiction (and I don't leave myself out of that criticism). We construct a scenario of tomorrow, with people wearing web-connected contact lenses, driving semi-autonomous electric cars to their jobs at the cultured meat factories, and imagine how cool and odd and dislocating it must be to live in such a world. But futurism isn't science fiction, it's history turned on its head. The folks in that scenario don't just wake up one day to find their lives transformed; they live their lives to that point. They hear about new developments long before they encounter them, and know somebody who bought an Apple iLens or package of NuBacon before doing so themselves. The future creeps up on them, and infiltrates their lives; it becomes, for the people living there, the banal present.

William Gibson's widely-quoted saying, "the future is here, it's just not well-distributed yet" is suggestive of this. The future spreads, almost like an infection. The distribution of the future is less an endeavor of conscious advancement than it is an epidemiological process -- a pandemic of tomorrows, if you will.

If futurism is more history inverted than science fiction, perhaps it can learn from the changes that the study of history has seen. One of the cornerstone revolutions in the academic discipline of history was the rejection of the "Great Men" model, where history was the study of the acts of larger-than-life people, the wars fought by more-powerful-than-most nations, and the ideas of the brilliant shapers of culture. Historians have come to recognize that history includes the lives of regular people; some of the most meaningful and powerful historical studies of the past few decades, from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States to Ken Burns' popular "Civil War" documentary, focused as much or more on the everyday citizens as they did the "Great Men," and as much on everyday moments as on the "turning points" and revolutionary events.

What might a "people's history of the future" look like?


To quote Pink Floyd:
'They flutter behind you your possible pasts
some brighteyed and crazy some frightened and lost
a warning to anyone still in command
of their possible future to take care

(Would an 'iLens' be the apple of your eye, then? ;-)

A brilliant post. Says things I've been thinking... but haven't expressed.

My favorite nuggets:

"[F]uturism isn't science fiction, it's history turned on its head."

"The future creeps up on them, and infiltrates their lives; it becomes, for the people living there, the banal present."

We futurists will be more respected and credible if we talk about the long, plodding march into the future (punctuated with a few surprises) rather than predicting jet packs and food pills.

As I understand this article, am I mistaken to equate the onset of the future as more a slow infection, much like the spread of plague, weather it be a benign one, or not?
Hence the concept of "Futurism" is to be the study of the future by viewing it as the a point in the past, and working backwards?

George, I was using the epidemiological metaphor to suggest how the future doesn't just hit us in one massive thwack, it spreads slowly but relentlessly.

And the futurism-history connection doesn't mean to "study the future by viewing it as a point in the past," but to recognize that the same incremental steps we see when we look back should apply when we look forward.

The cutting-edge manifestations of "the future" will remain the domain of futurists, idea people, science fiction writers, innovators and early adopters until the "general public" finds a good reason to adopt it into their daily lives. Some developments will persist but will rarely cross the threshold into daily utility, ie reel-to-reel tape decks or green living(!)

Even then, most will use the technology or system in the most simple and yet often unpredictable ways. Even today, most computer/internet users cannot cope with the volume. They check their email, buy some stuff and look at a few videos on YouTube. They use GPS for directions, would never Twitter from their phone but they could be connected to a global group of macrame enthusiasts through social networking. It is indeed not evenly distributed and may never be.

I could go on forever, but I'll leave you with this: There are big changes and small changes. Buying your underwear on the web is a big change. Looking at your phone when someone asks you what time it is is a small one. They all add up in a lumpy and often unpredictable sort of way.
Makes it a tough call for futurists.

It's not enough to just describe "there"; You have to know have to know how to get there from here.

tell it to those who endured the teens (WWI), the 30s (Depression), the 40s (WWII), the 60s (Vietnam). sometimes the future bitchslaps us.

September 11 was jarring and it changed our lives forever. I think your analysis of how we perceive new developments and difficulties is idealistic, bordering on naive. I agree, we cannot live our lives in fear of the future promised to us by what we see, particularly in constructed mediums such as television and the internet, but there are, and will continue to be (potentially with ever-increasing frequency), moments in time that will change all the rules.

Mike, Russ, the point of this essay was not that big changes don't happen. It was that all of the changes, even the ones we found the most disruptive, could be readily understood in the context of what came before -- and even the ones that seemed surprising actually weren't.

WW1, the Great Depression, WW2, Vietnam -- these are more examples of being bitchslapped by the present than by the future. (And, once again, give too much emphasis to war as a signal of history.) You'd get more traction out of citing numerically-controlled machines in factories displacing low-education workers, or Internet file-sharing destroying the corporate music industry.

As Nato says above -- the emphasis needs to be on understanding how we get from here to there, not just on what "there" looks like.

As for 9/11 -- even setting aside the whole "Bid Laden determined to strike inside US" memo, there was a major report in Spring 2001, from a committee led by former government insiders, identifying an al Qaeda attack on US soil, likely involving aircraft, and likely in NYC, as a massive threat. So, not a surprise, at least for people paying attention.

Jarring? Yes, temporarily. Changed our lives forever? As a society? Not really. (It certainly changed the lives of a number of individuals.) Very few of us live any differently than we did pre-9/11, beyond the changes to lifestyles and technologies that had no 9/11 connection. Katrina changed more lives than 9/11.

I know that runs against the popular political wisdom, but 9/11 really wasn't a significant cultural turning point.

9/11 is the epitome of media hype.
OK, that the three towers actually collapsed was quite a surprise.

It is also possible to go too far in rewriting the great battles type of history. There are fads in history as well.

I found my way over here from a post on How the World Works at Salon.com and have been dropping by for updates ever since...

Interesting article. I'd like to add two basic thoughts:

1) Regarding 9/11: change is indeed often a matter of perspective. I was made keenly aware of this as my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) is French. Her country's different history, particularly its struggle and friendship with parts of the Middle East and Africa (ie. Lebanon and Algeria), and the fact that terrorist attacks had already taken place in Paris meant that her reaction to 9/11, though it included shock, was tempered by a broader context of geopolitical awareness than my own. For me, it was indeed as if the world had changed... But looking back now I think a more accurate description would be that the realities of the rest of the world finally caught up to us, Fate issuing us unwanted membership into a club of which everybody else was already a begrudging member. Nonethless, the profound personal effects that 9/11 had on me endure, growing in dimension and meaning.

2) Eventhough the 'how' of being human has changed at a blinding pace since the industrial revolution, the artifice and depth of our humanity has not. The ways we go about seeking answers to life's fundamental questions (or the distractions we seek as alternatives to the asking) have evolved... the questions, however, lie at the immutable center of our very being.

One of the reasons I think we see so much of the sudden, jarring depictions of futures like they just fell out of the sky is that these exercises are often done, in commercial settings, as an effort to spur new "product" innovation, loosely defined. As such, I think there is a subconscious desire to describe the future in terms of "killer products" or projection (in the psychological sense) of the sorts of disruptions the scenario authors (or buyers) fear today. They are sometimes more like product placements and less like realistic narratives of a different history. More like a Bond film where advertisers pay to place a new model of car, a watch, a cellphone or a drink, and less like 12 Monkeys, where the future is pretty gritty and difficult to navigate (just like the present). Also, many scenario consumers find it difficult to play in a world without clear markers of threats, opportunities, winners and losers, so it comes across more cartoony than reality.

This is why I've pulled my practice back to the near future, where its more interesting to focus on identifying critical elements in the present that are weak but potentially important indicators of change that will impact the near term as well as the deeper future.


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