A Futurist call to arms. Time to evolve.
From an early age technology enchanted me. Notions of the future electrified my young mind. Hungrily I watched old reruns of Star Trek and James Bond movies just to catch a glimpse of the gadgets they’d use. When my career transitioned from web development to analytics (SEO) about ten years ago, the title of data scientist didn’t quite fit, so instead I called myself a Futurist.
Back when I declared myself a Futurist my contemporaries were mostly statisticians and fortune tellers. Futurism had not yet become a profession, it functioned more like a fan club. Now it feels like a crowded party with a marine layer of hangers’ on. Over the past few months I have deeply pondered this trend and researched how it started in hopes of trying to understand precisely why Futurism has attracted so many.
How does one become a Futurist?
The qualifications are loosey goosey, especially since nobody can get a degree in Futurism (yet). The easiest way to join the movement is to call yourself a Futurist in your Twitter bio. For some Futurists it’s a checkbox to signify that you’re part of the tech community, but for others like me it’s something much much deeper.
What do Futurists actually do?
They make predictions. When nobody else sees their vision, they compel others to because they can’t help it. There are many different types of us, varying in enthusiasm and technical prowess, from pundits to influencers to scientists… Some simply follow technology, but I believe that a Futurist should also lead. It is a Futurist’s duty to help those who aren’t technologically adept to see the possibilities and to eliminate fear of the undiscovered.
Who was the original Futurist?
This could easily turn into a zesty debate (and I hope it does), but my research has concluded the term was sporadically applied at best until around 1970. The husband-and-wife team Alvin and Heidi Toffler published “Future Shock” which unleashed a worldwide movement. The term Futurism was actually coined in 1963 as “social paralysis induced by rapid technological change” and it inspired the Tofflers to write an entire book devoted to it. Soon the term Future Shock entered the lexicon and outlasted terms like “shell shock” and “culture shock”.
Side note: Although the Toffler’s wrote “Future Shock” together and they collaborated on nearly everything they wrote, many sources (including Wikipedia) have only ever credited Alvin.
What is Futurism, now?
It varies by location and context, but mostly it’s a fancy word for “trend spotting, extrapolation, and analysis.” Statistics are incredibly valuable, as are mathematics and game theory, but the common thread is research. To be credible, you have to do your homework. This isn’t science fiction, this isn’t a psychic hotline, this isn’t a guessing game. The goal isn’t to be 100% accurate, the goal is to make people anticipate the future, hopefully to become excited by it.
Punditry does not equal Futurism. A pundit’s skills travel quite well in Futurist corners. Once you’ve done your research and extrapolated the trends, it’s time to weave a compelling narrative. In a way, Futurists are the antidote to future shock. Many people hate numbers, but everyone loves a story (until it’s too long).
It feels like nearly every book or movie coming out right now is a “period piece” set in Elizabethan England, the nostalgic 1980s, the 1950s, or something kitschy. This could be because technology is moving so fast, that by the time you actually finish writing a book or making a movie, technology has outdated your premise (a la Moore’s law). For instance, how many of your favorite classic movies would end in 5 minutes or less if everyone had owned a cell phone?
Another symptom of the increasing volume of data and speed of technology, is that everyone in Silicon Valley tech considers themselves a Futurist. You’re almost forced to be one, just to survive, however, a collective eye towards the future is generally a good thing. But if everyone is now a Futurist, what does the old guard need to do? How do we push forward and evolve?
Who leads this ragtag cast of characters?
As it turns out, I’ve thought about this a great deal. What am I, and what is my place in the world? How do I accomplish what I’m meant to do? Can we wrest authenticity from technology? What am I really supposed to be doing now other than flapping my gums, hunting for robots at conferences and making money?
SuperFuturists will lead us out of the dark and shallow. SuperFuturism, at the core, is a manifesto, a mindset, a raison d’etre for the modern human. My personal goal is to intellectualize the conversation. Too many shrill voices cause fear, creating resentment, and harm progress. I can no longer sit by the sidelines and watch the values that I hold so dear be bandied about like some kind of Manchurian hacky-sack. Being a Futurist can mean more than something you drop at a party in Silicon Valley to look cool. We have to do better.
Are we but dust in the wind? If so, I’m ok what that. In a way, we are just mortal beings nailed to a wagon wheel along for the ride. The problem is, we’re not in the center of the wheel. We’re at the EDGE. Sometimes it goes forward at breathtaking speed, and sometimes we are swept backwards seemingly just as fast. But the hope is that the wagon is GOING somewhere, and that is the forward march of progress. But if it DOES matter, it is our duty to STEER the wheel. We can’t make it go backwards, we can’t even turn it 45 degrees. We can only alter the future direction.
I fear that we live in a time where Mercury is in perpetual retrograde. The tide of illiteracy, innumeracy, anti-science must be stopped. Not everyone believes they can make a difference and this is a problem. Many voices offline will never be heard, let alone appreciated. It is my belief that if one CAN make a difference in the world, you MUST move the ball forward. Anything else is abdicating your influence.