Jamais Cascio points out that our vision of the future of technology is the same as it was twenty years ago. But our ability to predict social and cultural change is becoming more and more important, and that is way harder. Why?:
Some of it comes from a long-standing habit in the world of futurism to focus on technologies. Tech is easy to describe, generally follows widely-understood physical laws, offers a bit of spectacle (people don’t ask about “jet packs” because they think they’re a practical transit option!), and — most importantly — is a subject about which businesses are willing to pay for insights. Most foresight work is done as a commercial function, even if done by non-profit organizations. Futurists have to pay the rent and buy groceries like everyone else. If technology forecasts are what the clients want to buy, technology forecasts will be what the foresight consultants are going to sell.
Another big reason is that, simply put, cultural/political/social futures are messy, extremely unpredictable, and partisan in ways that make both practitioners and clients extremely vulnerable to accusations of bias. We’re far more likely to make someone angry or unhappy talking about changing political dynamics or cultural norms than we are talking about new mobile phone technologies; we’re far more likely to be influenced by our own political or cultural beliefs than by our preferences for operating systems. One standard motto for foresight workers (I believe IFTF’s Bob Johansen first said this, but I could be wrong) is that we should have “strong opinions, weakly held” — that is, we should not be locked into unchanging perspectives on the future. Again, this is relatively easy to abide by when it comes to technological paradigms, and much harder when it comes to issues around human rights, economic justice, and environmental risks.
Lastly, there’s a strong argument to be made that futurism as practiced (both the the West and, from what I’ve seen, in Asia) has a strong connection to the topics of interest to politically-dominant males. It would be too easy to caricature this as “boys with toys,” but we have to recognize that much of mainstream futures work over the past fifty years (certainly since Herman Kahn’s “thinking the unthinkable”) has focused on tools of expressing power, and has been performed by men. This is changing; the Institute for the Future employs more women than men, for example. In many respects, futurism in the early 21st century seems very similar to historiography in the post-WW2 era: still dominated by traditional stories of power, but slowly beginning to realize that there’s more to the world.
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