Twelve Things Journalists Need To Know to be Good Futurist/Foresight Reporters

Originally published (in somewhat modified form) June 14, 2006

J. Bradford DeLong and Susan Rasky, at the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, compiled lists of what economists need to know about journalists, and what journalists need to know about economists, in order to result in useful and accurate economic reporting.

This is a remarkably good idea, one with direct application in a number of disciplines that are important for society but prone to obfuscation and confusion in the press. Such lists could be valuable to journalists who are, by and large, generalists talking about fields that they probably didn't study, under time and financial pressure from editors and publishers who almost certainly know even less.

  1. "Prediction is very hard, especially when it's about the future." -- Yogi Berra Completely accurate foresight is a rare thing; most of the time, good futurism means getting key elements right, even if the superficial details are wrong. Predictions based on physical principles and scientific knowledge tend to do better than those based on "trendspotting" and "cool hunting," and are more likely to be corroborated by other specialists. In every case, however, the most important question to ask is "why?" Why would the suggested change happen? Why would people make the predicted choice? Why would we see this particular outcome?

  2. Not everyone is surprised by surprises. The corollary to #1, be on the lookout for people who saw early indicators of surprises before they happened. Just like an "overnight success" worked for years to get there, the vast majority of wildcards and "bolt from the blue" changes have been on someone's foresight radar for quite awhile. When something happens that "nobody expected," look for the people who actually did expect it -- chances are, they'll be able to tell you quite a bit about why and how it took place.

  3. Even when it's fast, change feels slow. It's tempting to assume that, because a possible change would make the world a decade from now very different from the world today, that the people ten years hence will feel "shocked" or "overwhelmed." In reality, the people living in our future are living in their own present. That is, they weren't thrust from today to the future in one leap, they lived through the increments and dead-ends and passing surprises. Their present will feel normal to them, just as our present feels normal to us. Be skeptical of claims of imminent future shock.

  4. Most trends die out. Just because something is popular or ubiquitous today doesn't mean it will be so in a few years. Be cautious about pronouncements that a given fashion or gadget is here to stay. There's every chance that it will be overtaken by something new all too soon -- and this includes trends and technologies that have had some staying power.

  5. The future is usually the present, only moreso. Conversely, don't expect changes to happen quickly and universally. The details will vary, but most of the time, the underlying behaviors and practices will remain consistent. Most people (in the US, at least) watch TV, drive a car, and go to work -- even if the TV is high definition satellite, the car is a hybrid, and work is web programming.

  6. There are always options. We may not like the choices we have, but the future is not written in stone. Don't let a futurist get away with solemn pronouncements of doom without pressing for ways to avoid disaster, or get away with enthusiastic claims of nirvana without asking about what might prevent it from happening.

  7. Dinosaurs lived for over 200 million years. A favorite pundit cliche is the "dinosaurs vs. mammals" comparison, where dinosaurs are big, lumbering and doomed, while mammals are small, clever and poised for success. In reality, dinosaurs ruled the world for much, much longer than have mammals, and even managed to survive a planetary disaster by evolving into birds. When a futurist uses the dinosaurs/mammals cliche, that's your sign to investigate why the "dinosaur" company/ organization/ institution may have far greater resources and flexibility than you're being led to believe.

  8. Gadgets are not futurism. Don't get too enamored of "technology" as the sole driver of change. What's important is how we use technology to engage in other (social, political, cultural, economic) activities. Don't be hypnotized by blinking lights and shiny displays -- ask why people would want it and what they'd do with it.

  9. There will always be avant-gardes and backwaters. Important changes can't happen quickly and universally. Any important social change will create at least some reactionary counterforce.

  10. "Technology" is anything invented since you turned 13. What seems weird and confusing will become familiar and obvious, especially to people who grow up with it. This means that, very often, the real utility of a new technology won't emerge for a few years after it's introduced, once people get used to its existence, and it stops being thought of as a "new technology." Those real uses will often surprise -- and sometimes upset -- the creators of the technology.

  11. The future belongs to the curious. If you want to find out why a new development is important, don't just ask the people who brought it about; their agenda is to emphasize the benefits and ignore the drawbacks. Don't just ask their competitors; their agenda is the opposite. Always ask the hackers, the people who love to take things apart and figure out how they work, love to figure out better ways of using a system, love to look for how to make new things fit together in unexpected ways.

  12. "The future is process, not a destination." -- Bruce Sterling The future is not the end of the story -- people won't reach the "future" and declare victory. Ten years from now has its own ten years out, and so on; people of tomorrow will be looking at their own tomorrows. The picture of the future offered by foresight consultants, scenario planners, and futurists of all stripes should never be a snapshot, but a frame from a movie, with connections to the present and pathways to the days and years to come.

When talking with a futurist, then, don't just ask what could happen. The right question is always "...and what happens then?"

by Jamais Cascio -- for more information, write to cascio at openthefuture dot com

Copyright 2006 Jamais Cascio