Futurists and futurology – the cult of progress
Teresa Cottam looks in her crystal ball to glimpse the future of futurology.
Somebody asked me last week if I were a futurologist. I tried hard not to cough my cafe latte all over them as I struggled to maintain a professional demeanor.
I know that when you work in a corporate environment sometimes you need to invent very complex or novel labels for yourself – I once met a man with a job title that bled over onto the back of his business card – but futurist and futurologist are two of the most irksome new entrants IMHO.
In a sense all analysts are futurists – we look at how the market is developing, what future need is likely to be and then figure out what has to be done. We create forecasts, predict trends and highlight important new technologies. But any analyst worth their salt has their feet firmly planted in reality. We know that technology for technology’s sake doesn’t work. We learnt the Betamax lesson that superior technology does not equal a technology winner. In fact I spend much of my time pouring cold water on exciting new technical concepts, and debunking “paradigm changing” breakthroughs.
In contrast a futurist is someone who looks into the future unhindered by reality or the need to earn a living. They are paid dreamers. They wear nuclear powered suits, eat food pills, drive personal rockets to work, live under electric powered suns and recycle their underwear into candy(!). There is a valuable if highly limited role for such blue sky thinking. We need dreamers to create visions for technicians to turn into reality. The problem is I think we are now devaluing the concept – what was once the unnamed job of a handful of really informed and imaginative folk is now becoming an increasingly common job title. Yet the supply of informed and imaginative folk hasn’t suddenly increased.
While there are some of the genuine article about, many futurists are fakes – ill-informed fantasists with a sexy-sounding job title that gives them an air of authority. Worse still, they are paid large sums simply to fantasise, when their fantasies are either pedestrian or so off-the-wall that if you could capture all the energy generated from cumulative head shaking over the next 50 years you really could power an electric sun (eg “We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” Arthur Summerfield, US postmaster general, 1959.)
Want to know the difference between a futurist and an analyst?
- Deluded analyst: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Western Union internal memo, 1876.
- Arrogant analyst: “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer, British Post Office, 1878.
- Cynical analyst: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” Richard P. Feynman
- Practical Futurist: “I’m sure that in 1985 plutonium is available in every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it’s a little hard to come by.” Dr Emmett Brown
- Self-styled futurist: “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years.” Alex Lewyt, 1955, president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corp.
- Delusionist: “Last night, Darth Vader came down from planet Vulcan and told me that if I didn’t take Lorraine out that he’d melt my brain.” George McFly
- Wise man and true futurist: “Heresies are experiments in man’s unsatisfied search for truth.” H. G. Wells
The funny thing is that HG Wells and the like were never styled futurists in their own lifetime. Take from that what you will. My view is: “The future is a funnel: a very few dream productively; a few more analyse and translate into strategy; others implement and deliver into reality; and the majority benefit – most of them passively.” Teresa Cottam