From the Ground Up

What is futurism? For much of the population, the answer isn’t obvious. Also called future studies, futurism is the study of likely or preferable futures. It’s sort of like history in reverse. But even that explanation can be broken down.

How is futurism different from, say, crazy old ladies with Crystal balls? No one can say for certain what the future will hold, and futurists acknowledge that. A good futurist acknowledges that, based on the past, a certain trajectory seems likely but is by no means guaranteed. Or if they’re looking at a preferable future, it may be even less certain than that: they may say “I think we can achieve a future roughly like such-and-such if we do these specific things.”

And the “roughly” part is important, for all futurists. Specific histories of the future, snapshots of what the world will be like, are the domain of fiction. Futurists are vague because only the broad strokes of the future can be predicted based on the past. What will your robot butler look like? A futurist can, at most, say that humanoids fit well in human dwellings and, based on current trends, are likely to be popular for the “cool factor”. Even that is probably a more specific issue than they can predict with any real confidence.

Now, some futurists will indulge in writing fiction to help their predictions seem more real, concrete, and understandable. They’ll say “here’s a future that might happen, that’s in line with my predictions but has a lot of uncertain details added to make it feel real.” These can be wonderful tools to spark people’s imaginations, but you have to remember it’s a sort of “artist’s impression”.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the further into the future a prediction is, the less certain it is. Let’s demonstrate this with an example, say: “in the future there will be cars”. If you’re looking at next year, 2020, you can be pretty darn certain cars will still exist. Maybe not, maybe we’ll have invented teleporters or the zombie apocalypse will have happened and cars will still technically exist but be unusuable – but probably not. But what about in 2050? Well, that’s more time for teleporters to be invented in, or for zombies to rise, or for a billion other unpredictable things to happen that might result in a world without cars. But it’s still pretty likely cars will exist. 2100? Well, there’s even more time for something unexpected to happen, but you’ve still got a decent chance at cars. By now they may look very different – they may be self-driving, and rented instead of owned, and totally electric – but they’ll still be cars, basically.

But what about in the year 2500? Well, then we’re getting a lot less certain cars will exist. Roughly 500 years is a very, very long time for technology to change in, for culture to change, for something completely unexpected to happen. If there’s a 0.5% chance every year for something to happen that makes cars go away, that’s about a 250% chance – a certainty at least twice over – that cars will be gone by 2500. Now, that calculation I just did wasn’t based on any research, and assumes the same chance each year, and generally is something ridiculous pulled out of a hat – but it still demonstrates pretty well how over a long time, very unlikely things are almost guaranteed to happen.

So with all that said, why even bother with futurism? It can’t make guarantees, it can’t tell you what stocks to pick, it can’t even really tell you what a day in your life will be like 50 years from now. It seems pointless. And yet, futurism is in high demand all over the world! Futurists advise businesspeople and governments, and write bestselling books, and hold expensive conferences that people flock to. What’s the big deal? Well, even going into the future with a vague, uncertain idea of what’s going to happen is better than going into the future with no idea at all. A map scribbled on your napkin by a drunk is better than driving around blind, if you don’t know where you’re going.

Plus, predictions about the very near future, say one to five years, can turn out to be startlingly accurate. There’s a pretty good track record to all the famous futurists, which I highly recommend you look into yourself if you’re curious. Having a rough idea of where the immediate future is going can make a big difference in your life, because you’re not caught flat-footed. Futurism can’t tell you to invest in Microsoft, but it could and did tell people computers were going to be a big deal. It can’t say Apple smartphones are the next big thing, but it could and did promise affordable cellphones. Admittedly, the predictions that turned out to be right were not always the most popular ones. The future is, ultimately, very difficult to predict. But knowing the likely possibilities for the future, instead of assuming the future will be pretty much like today, is one more tool for you to take advantage of.

Plus, some of the stuff they predict is just cool.

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