Futurism is a Thing of the Past

Futures can lie.

Because portrayals of the future are usually full of science-y things, we are inclined to see them as objective — as the product of something like the scientific method — instead of the marketing or political persuasion efforts they often are.

Advertising in “Minority Report”

Making insightful and compelling futures is a difficult art to master. It demands all sorts of horizon-scanning, systems-thinking and storytelling skills. Few professionals with these hard-won skills use them to weave visions of the possible without an agenda.

Often that agenda involves personal satisfaction: company X will pay me for this, government Y will change its policies in a way I support, whatever… Sometimes the agenda is explicitly agreed upon by participants (as is often the case with futures created by NGOs and advocacy groups). But all too often, the agendas being served by futures are unconscious: they’re carried in the very tropes, assumptions and conventions of futurism itself.

Anytime you’re presented with a future (or set of futures), it’s worth asking “What am I being asked to see, what am I being asked to un-see and who is being served here?”

My point is not that we ought to “politicize futurism.” It’s that futurism is inherently political, and has been from its first days. Futurism has always been used to push political and economic agendas. Only now, with a century of futurism behind us, many of those agendas are so taken for granted — so frequently woven into the visions of tomorrow that surround us — that they’re invisible to us.

And in democracies, hidden agendas are always the most pernicious. This is doubly the case when they’ve appropriated the mantle of scientific and technical authority.

More dangerous still is what the hidden agendas of futurism do to our societal ability to anticipate change. Having entered what is beyond doubt a period of tumultuous upheaval, we need good cultural and political understandings of the systems and processes at work. Yet our tools and institutions of foresight are almost all riddled with assumptions that are in many cases more than a century old and (despite their robot-chrome-radical-gloss) which serve the current political and economic structures. Our future, as I’ve said, is a thing of the past.

If it is, as Whitehead said, the business of the future to be dangerous, what does it say that so much futurism threatens the status quo so little?


Alex Steffen is a planetary futurist and creator of the books Worldchanging and Carbon Zero. Follow Alex on Twitter or to sign up to get his free weekly newsletter.

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