Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What's "Futurism" Got to Do With Foresight?

Over at Open the Future, Jamais Cascio seems a bit disgruntled:
Why worry about tomorrow? … It's a reasonable question. Consistently accurate predictions about interconnected complex systems are functionally impossible, at least at any real level of specificity. It's long been known that even people paid far too much money to make predictions about a constrained system (such as the stock market) usually do no better -- and typically worse -- than a chimpanzee flinging darts…. One of the best-selling books about foresight in recent years -- The Black Swan -- essentially argued that trying to glimpse the future was worse-than-useless, because it would get you locked onto the understandable (but actually unlikely) and make you miss the seemingly impossible (but actually inevitable). Failed predictions and futurism go hand-in-hand, to the point where the first thing that someone identifying himself/herself as a futurist is typically asked is some variant of "where's my jetpack?" The conventional image of a "futurist" is that of someone who speaks with certainty about the yet-to-come, making bold predictions of headline-generated changes... and never really being held to account when those predictions fail to be realized. (In fact, there's a weird pathology at work in the traditional media and political worlds: the only way to be taken seriously is to be repeatedly wrong, but in acceptable ways...) ... This isn't informative, and it isn't illuminating; at best, it's infotainment. Conventional futurists are the Michael Bays of the intellectual world: what they produce can be spectacular and amusing, but is ultimately hollow and depressing.
Cascio is banging on some of my favorite anti-futurological drums here, but this is a bit perplexing since he is as close to a professional futurologist as you can get.

Since it is far from true that only professional or even armchair "futurists" spend time "worrying about tomorrow" I don't immediately understand the necessary connection of Cascio's opening question with his subsequent observations (all of which seem to me very correct and rather important).

Surely, almost every field of expertise involves a foresight dimension: Doesn't every discipline to the extent that it is an actual discipline contribute some measure to our foresight? -- roughly, our capacity to understand how what we are doing enables and disables other things we are doing and hence to anticipate the impacts of what we are doing on where we are going and where we want to be going. If that is true, then there are real questions about just what "futurological" expertise uniquely consists of, how "futurists" contribute to foresight in a way that might not be better covered simply by applying to the expertise of folks in the actual disciplines actually concerned with the actual stuff "futurologists" happen to be talking about from topic to topic.

I can see why self-identified "futurists" would get frustrated at being taken to task for all the predictions they get wrong, but it seems to me that the reason they get taken to task is largely the same as the reason so many would-be "futurists" are prone to making the predictions in the first place: because in the absence of the prophetic drag show it is not easy to see what futurism actually brings to the table.

If futurology is really about mastering the literary or argumentative genre of "the scenario," for instance, isn't there a danger that futurology amounts to little more than a literary salon or even a fandom devoted to a marginal science fiction subgenre, or, worse, perhaps little more than a subdivision of corporate marketing subculture?

Too often, the worst futurology comes off as little more than the extreme edge of our already hyperbolic and deceptive advertizing and promotional discourse, and at its best and most thoughtful it often comes off as a kind of dilettante philosophizing sprinkled with a little pop psychology and the sort of cultural theory everybody picks up nowadays by reading movie reviews by folks who couldn’t find anything else to do with their high-theory English and Women's Studies PhDs.

I've always found Jamais Cascio to be one of the few actually interesting futurologists, but that has largely been because he seems so darned skeptical about what he is up to, skeptical to the point of being a kind of futurological friendly opposition inside the belly of the beast. I wonder how many of my own futurological brickbats Cascio would end up sympathizing with, and how many he can sympathize with while still identifying as a futurologist in the first place?


Lorraine said...

Utopia means nowhere and jamais means never.

jimf said...

> I wonder how many of my own futurological brickbats Cascio
> would end up sympathizing with, and how many he can sympathize
> with while still identifying as a futurologist in the first place?

Not too many, if he wants to keep getting invited to the
usual parties. ;->

Dale Carrico said...

It's interesting. I posted this content as a comment on Cascio's blog and it has yet to appear. He moderates his comments (as do I, there are good reasons to do so!) and he may simply be away from his blog or something, but it may also be that this post fails to "pass muster" according to his moderating criteria. He provides those criteria here: "Comments telling me that global warming isn't real, that evolution isn't real, that I really need to follow [insert religion here], that the world is flat, or similar bits of inanity are more likely to be deleted than approved. Yes, it's unfair. Deal. It's my blog, I make the rules, and I really don't have time to hand-hold people unwilling to face reality." I daresay nothing I say remotely approached the kind of anti-evolutionary, climate-change denialism, or religious proselytizing he derides and wonder if he's still in a snit about my disagreements with him on geo-engineering as a kind of greenwashing. Sometimes I think these think-tank intellectuals really wouldn't last a second in the contentious give-and-take that takes places in the seminars and talks and hallways of the actual Academy!

jimf said...

I think he must think you think the world is flat, "or similar bits of inanity". **And** he's still in a snit. ;->

jimf said...

By the way, I got a warning 4 years ago (I think that must have been the only time I ever posted comments on Cascio's blog) when I was insufficiently respectful toward a pal of ours.
Michael Anissimov wrote:

> Ultimately, my life is my own and I wish that others would respect me
> (and other Singularitarians) for our activist choices. . .

No can do. This plea sounds like Tom Cruise remonstrating with
Matt Lauer that critics of Scientology are exhibiting the same
simple religious intolerance that anti-Semites exhibit toward

You guys are out there in the world, touting your wares, using
the leverage provided by the Internet the same way an earlier
generation of lay preachers used the medium of TV.

And you're hankering after a big windfall of money. Maybe
from Larry Ellison. Or somebody equally billionairish.

> . . .and realize that our overriding motivation is a better world
> for all. . .

That may really **your** motivation (or at least part of it);
I don't know you well enough to say.

I **can** say that, in the case of some others, "a better world
for all" is only window-dressing (not consciously so, perhaps,
but window-dressing nevertheless) for some pretty nasty
(and unexamined) stuff.

> . . .not fear of death or yearning for an escape. . .

Psychologically and historically implausible.

> . . .or whatever perverse motivations are unfairly
> projected upon us.

Not unfairly. Not "projected".

Posted by: Jim Fehlinger | July 13, 2007 2:31 PM

Hey, hey, let's try not to make this personal. I appreciate the passionate argumentation, but only when it's about ideas, not about the people arguing.

No more insults, or I'll have to turn this car around.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio | July 13, 2007 2:40 PM

But he started it! I'm thirsty. Are we there yet?

Dale Carrico said...

I think he must think you think the world is flat

Well, if you're right, that certainly is a reasonable position.

After all, he thinks the answer to catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is for hyper-industrial mega-corporations to save the world with non-existing mega-engineering projects intervening into complex ill-understood geophysical dynamics at unprecedented levels for profit, even though the parochial profit-taking of such industrial concerns caused and continues to cause that climate change -- and in order to stay profitable many of these concerns lard PR firms with cash to fund climate change denialism and public misinformation schemes that stand in the way of sane environmental regulation and government education programs and public investments in energy efficiency, mass transit, sustainable agriculture, and renewable energy infrastructure.

Of course, all this non-existing mega-profitable mega-technofuturological mega-engineering when it actually does come to exist in a form more palpable than the CGI-renderings of which futurologists are so fond will be regulated by political processes to ensure it is safe, effective, not corrupt, impacts the vulnerable no more harmfully than the powerful and so on... even though geo-engineers always begin by pointing out that such politics has and must utterly fail, which presumably is why they advocate geo-engineering techno-magick instead of the government regulation, education, public programs, and renewable energy investments more conventional environmentalists do in the first place.

Raising concerns about such views is exactly like claiming the world is flat. It's only reasonable that Cascio would refuse to provide a forum for such patent inanities.