Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?

Last week I found this piece in The Atlantic: Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?. Taking the introduction of Facebook’s Moneypenny (presumably a prototype of M, which was just being launched around the time the article was published) as a point of departure, writer Rose Eveleth picks apart the lack of women in the field of futurism. “Both the World Future Society and the Association of Professional Futurists are headed by women right now,” she writes, “but most lists of ‘top futurists’ perhaps include one female name. Often, that woman is no longer working in the field.”

I got excited by the article because a) I’m female and b) I have, at various times, self-identified as both a futurist and someone who finds the whole subject, and particularly the label, kind of silly. It’s like magician or hacker. You have to be careful about using those terms; it’s too easy to arouse suspicion that you’re a weird person or trying to look like a weird person, neither of which are really desirable if you’re actually hacking, practicing magic, or studying the future. When that’s the case, it’s in your best interest to try to blend in with the crowd.

The words hacker, magician, and futurist have a few things in common: they’re specific enough to be meaningful but vague enough to be powerful. They also refer to the unknown: deep technical infrastructures, the occult, our grandchildren’s generation. And although those words are technically gender-neutral, it’s far more common to find male hackers, magicians and futurists than those who ID as female or other genders.

The vagueness of the term futurist seems to have something to do with the gender disparity. At least, Eveleth devotes a bit of her article to it. “It turns out that what makes someone a futurist, and what makes something futurism, isn’t well defined,” she says. “When you ask those who are part of official futurist societies, like the APF and the WFS, they often struggle to answer.” Apparently some think of transhumanists as futurists, and some futurists hate that; many people consider science fiction authors to be futurists; some think that a degree in foresight (an emerging academic field that draws on business and technology studies; this one is exemplary) qualifies one as such.

According to her, everybody basically agrees that the following people are futurists: Aubrey de Gray, the chief researcher at theStrategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation; Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX; Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google; and Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google. (Fun fact: I saw Ray Kurzweil give a lecture on the singularity in 2010. I had a good time, but my friend told me she thought he was an asshole).

Aubrey de Gray, Elon Musk, Sergey Brin and Ray Kurzweil are all men, which is of course important to the conversation about women and futurism. “The thing is,” Eveleth writes, “the futures that get imagined depend largely on the person or people doing the imagining.” No kidding. She then launches into a discussion of how futurism is inevitably linked with the male-dominated fields of science and technology, and has also struggled with a major legitimacy crisis since the 1960s. She quotes Amy Zalman, CEO of the World Futures Society: “Like magicians, crystal ball gazers, sort of flakey, that’s the reputation that followed the WFS for awhile. Because the field itself had to struggle to be taken seriously, that put more pressure on folks to demonstrate that they were scientific. And it was coded masculine,” Zalman says.

There’s nothing quite like adopting a masculine image to legitimize your field. There’s also nothing like tech savviness to affirm the seriousness with which you pursue your interests. If you write poetry and make music, people tend to offer you more respect as a creator when you say that you build websites to display your poems and digitally mix and produce your own songs (just trust me on those counts). So perhaps futurism came to associated itself with not only masculinity, but also science and technology, for respectability purposes.

Eveleth also discusses how leaving women out of the futurism conversation means that the futures we imagine and build wind up excluding women (again, no surprises there). She quotes Madeline Ashby, a futurist with a degree in strategic foresight, on this. “For a long time, the future has belonged to people who haven’t had to struggle,” Ashby says. Indeed, all of the futurists listed above are not only men, they’re white men with lots of money. The futures they imagine draw on life histories most people can’t relate to.

I think it’s important here to emphasize the necessity of female and minority perspectives in futurism without conflating womanhood with an intrinsic preference for arts and humanities (especially insofar as those interests are typically seen as being exclusive of interests in science and tech). That’s a little too close to second-wave feminism for my comfort level. Eveleth interviewed several women who are either self-identified futurists or who work in associated professions to get a well-rounded set of viewpoints. The picture that emerges is nuanced. It’s not at all what she was going for in her article, but this still bears mentioning — it’s just too easy to confuse the fact that women and gender minorities have to deal with a lot of social issues that men do not with a reductive vision that sets women up as being more altruistic or having “softer” concerns than men.

I kept thinking about this when I read this quote Madeline Ashby: “the one reason why futurism as a discipline is so white and male is because white males have the ability to offer the most optimistic vision,” she says. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the brightest possible futures when you’re of the gender, race and income level that offers you the power to build it.

I initially thought it remarkable that Ashby seemed to take for granted the fact that futurists must be optimists; actually Ashby and Eveleth responded to me when I posted this blog out on Twitter. “People ask for the optimism. I don’t impose it,” Ashby explained. People like optimism, as a general rule, and it seems pretty important with respect to futurism. Maybe this, too, has something to do with futurism’s legitimacy crisis: historically doomsayers aren’t known for attracting widespread audiences, except to be held up as cultural or religious heretics or even straight-up conspiracy theorists. Eveleth points out that “TED speakers always seem to end their talk, no matter how dire, on an upward-facing note.” Indeed, TED built its brand on feel-good, easily digestible futurism. I have yet to watch a TED talk that made me feel worse about humanity.

It can be hard to stir up feelings of optimism about the future if you aren’t male and white, if you’re under the poverty line, if you are disabled or chronically ill. This is well-known territory for many of us, and it’s important to keep saying these things.

It’s also important to remember that women and demographic minorities do the invisible work that keeps the world turning: domestic and affective labor. Drudgery and dirty work. It’s hard to pitch your mind into visions of the future when you are stuck taking care of the Here and Now, which is often far less interesting, but that caretaking work happens anyway, of course, because it has to.

When you lack control over your own destiny, when you’re forced into life circumstances you wouldn’t choose, what gives your life meaning has to be a little bit different for you than for those who do have power and agency. Instead of getting excited about a brilliant future, perhaps you find enchantment in more seemingly mundane things. Or are interested in living by timeless values, principles that need no funding, research, or engineering. Again, it’s not easy to make this argument without falling into a narrowly-construed vision of women and other minorities. I’m not trying to say that women fail to participate in futurism because they’ve been trapped in the Here and Now as a function of intrinsic gender qualities, but that — if it relates to anything beyond preference on an individual level at all — it’s a matter of circumstances beyond their control.

…and, also: as with many of the women interviewed by Eveleth, my vision of the future is very different from that of Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Gray, and whoever dreamt up Facebook’s M. I would argue for a futurism that examines arts, social structures and respect for the environment of our planet more so than one that accelerates the development of augmented reality or life-extending technologies. I would like a futurism that sees in human beings the same enchanting qualities that we see in new technologies while also recognizing the primacy of timeless principles.

I’m not sure it’s possible to promote a futurism that re-enchants the human as long as we’re all living in this secular, culturally heterogeneous modern world — just like I’m not sure that my gender has anything to do with my opinion on futurism overall (I suspect it doesn’t, honestly). But it’s not a bad idea to think about. It seems like a lot of people are already doing the work, even if they don’t ever want to call it “futurism.”

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