How Futurology Works


December 1960: The entrance to Tomorrowland at Disneyland in California.
December 1960: The entrance to Tomorrowland at Disneyland in California.
Alan Band/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The pages of myth, literature and newspaper horoscopes abound with prophecies, most of them derived from supernatural sources or pseudoscience. Even science fiction, which prefers its predictions plastered with at least the veneer of science, often defers to such tried-and-true tropes as psychic energies or time travel.

And then there's Hari Seldon, the oracle and cornerstone protagonist of Isaac Asimov's renowned Foundation series. Seldon attempts to mitigate a 30,000-year, galaxy-wide dark age using "psychohistory," a mathematical sociology capable of predicting human behavior on massive scales.

Futurology, too, tries to recognize and assess potential future events. Like Seldon's psychohistory, it incorporates science, founders a bit when it comes to specifics and is vulnerable to random events. Unlike psychohistory, futurology relies as much on art and instinct as science.

As anyone who's been to the track, visited Tomorrowland or flipped through an old issue of Popular Mechanics can tell you, predicting the future is tricky stuff. Lacking a time machine or a working crystal ball, we draw inferences from past trends and current events -- hence all those illustrations of personal helicopters.

We humans and our predictions are products of our times. The Gilded Age's exuberant optimism inspired far more grandiose predictions than did the Cold War's paranoia and cynicism.

Even when we nail the broad strokes of future technology, we often misgauge society's reactions. For example, several commentators foresaw automobiles opening up new freedom of movement, but few forecast the advent of bedroom communities, edge cities and dull suburbs. Nor did anyone foresee the eventual urban sprawl of the American Southwest, the interstate crime sprees of John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde, or the shifts in sexual mores inspired by the accessible and semiprivate backseat [source: Benford].

Future technological developments lie implicit in the tech of today, just as the cell phone grew out of the telegraph, which sprung, via a crooked path, from the drum and the smoke signal. It is that crookedness, caused by the forces of human nature colliding with the laws of physics, that muddles futurology. Scientists reveal the possible, inventors dream it into existence, engineers build it and marketers tell us to buy more of it. Human nature, however, in all its fickle complexity, has the final say in what hits, what sticks ... and what drops into the dustbin of history.

Thus, the best predictions must take human, technological, economic and political factors into account and must do so systematically. Futurologists give it their best shot.

The Histor(olog)y of Futurology

Although hints of futurology cropped up in early science fiction and utopian literature, the field didn't solidify until the closing days of World War II, when the U.S. military developed technological forecasting. The technology of warfare was changing faster than ever before, demanding new strategies, but which ones were the best? This was uncharted territory, and any approach officials chose would require a large investment of time and money. They couldn't afford to be wrong.

Technological forecasting achieved its initial successes in 1945, when aeronautical engineer Theodore von Kármán led a team of scientists that predicted supersonic aircraft, unmanned aerial devices, target-seeking missiles and advanced airborne communications. The team also projected that long-distance atomic weapons would profoundly alter aerial warfare [sources: Bradfield et al.; O'Toole; Shor].

Futurology's roots also reach back to the RAND Corp., which grew out of a joint venture between the U.S. Air Force and Douglas Aircraft in 1946. Among other contributions, RAND improved consensus-building by inventing the Delphi technique (see sidebar) and developed systems analysis to generate better scenarios (imagined sequences of events). The number-crunching capacity of computers and the development of game theory raised these two approaches to new levels [sources: Bradfield et al.; O'Toole; Powell].

As the Cold War wore on, nuclear strategists like RAND's Herman Kahn even gained a level of celebrity. In 1961, after publishing his seminal book, "On Thermonuclear War", Kahn left RAND to form the Hudson Institute, where he tackled social forecasting and public policy. His work culminated in a 1967 book, "The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years," which sparked great controversy and inspired such influential (and controversial) futurologist works as "The Limits to Growth" and "Mankind at the Turning Point," both commissioned by nonprofit global think tank, the Club of Rome [source: Bradfield et al.; Kahn].

"Limits to Growth," published in 1972 by environmental scientist Donella H. Meadows and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, catapulted scenarios and futurology into the public consciousness. Based on computer models describing the interplay of global socioeconomic trends, the book painted an apocalyptic picture of global collapse brought about by population growth, industrial expansion, pollution increases, food production shortfalls and natural resource depletion [sources: Meadows; O'Toole].

Meanwhile, two of Kahn's RAND colleagues, Olaf Helmer and T. J. Gordon, had established the Institute for the Future. Urged on by the furor over Kahn's books, they -- along with members of the Stanford Research Institute Futures Group and the California Institute of Technology -- pioneered the use of scenarios in future studies.

Businesses, beginning with Royal Dutch Shell, soon saw the value of scenarios. Just like that, futurology moved out of the military think tanks and into the marketplace of ideas [source: Bradfield et al.].

Forecasting Future Trends

Gordon Moore at Intel's headquarters
Gordon Moore at Intel's headquarters
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Futurologists predict likely futures through refined and systematic versions of the same methods we use every day:

  • brainstorming ideas
  • imagining situations (gaming, scenario building)
  • considering the past (historical analysis)
  • gathering opinions (polling)
  • following trends (scanning, trend analysis and monitoring)
  • picturing desirable futures (visioning)

Of course, they take a wider view and employ more elaborate tools, such as computer models of the economy, but the principle is the same [source: World Future Society].

Some futurologists move in academic circles while others ply their "futuring" trade in business or politics, and still others are simply interested amateurs.

Predictions tend to fall short in a few key areas. Context often eludes futurologists, who color their forecasts with their experiences of the present and recent past, which can't account for shifts in social attitudes, economic forces or political realities yet to come. And then there are those inventions that defy prediction -- the kind that break the rigid cause-and-effect chains upon which many predictions hang.

Take the aforementioned "Limits to Growth," which vastly overestimated the depletion of oil, natural gas, silver, uranium, aluminum, copper, lead and zinc. It belongs to a tradition of doom-and-gloom scenarios extending back to English scholar Thomas Malthus. In 1798, Malthus predicted that exponential population growth would soon outstrip more gradual increases in food production. Along similar lines, British economist William Stanley Jevons made his fame with "The Coal Question" (1865) by predicting that Britain would run out of coal within a few short years. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced in 1939 -- and again in 1951 -- that America had only 13 years' worth of oil left in the tank [source: The Economist].

Though wrong -- often because they underestimated or ignored changes in known reserves, economic forces or technology -- many of these ideas and their underlying arguments are still quoted by pundits, environmentalists and high school debate teams [sources: The Economist; Simon].

Conversely, Moore's law, which predicts that the number of transistors on integrated circuits in computers doubles every two years, has held up better over time, in part because it assumes technological innovation -- and in part because Moore revised his timescale [sources: Kanellos; Moore].

The 1970s and 1980s saw a flowering of famous futurologist books, including "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society" (1973) by Daniel Bell, "The Fate of the Earth" (1982) by Jonathan Schell and "Green Machines" (1986) by Nigel Calder. Some include Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" (1970) among this group, while others consider it a work of sociology.

Today, many technology forecasters have a fiduciary stake in their predictions. One such person, Paul Saffo of the Silicon Valley investment research firm Discern, bases his outlook on four indicators: contradictions, inversions, oddities and coincidences. Others use the following strategies [source: Pearlstein]:

  • viewing developments from an outsider's perspective
  • questioning assumptions about continuity
  • studying the present
  • understanding basic human qualities, interests and drives
  • watching household buying patterns
  • looking for breaks in current trends

Futurology in Literature

Arthur C. Clarke, the author of more than 70 books of popular science and science fantasy and a pretty good futurologist to boot, in his office in November 2003
Arthur C. Clarke, the author of more than 70 books of popular science and science fantasy and a pretty good futurologist to boot, in his office in November 2003
Luis Enrique Ascui/Getty Images

Although some practitioners admit that future studies rely as much on art as on science, many dismiss writers, particularly science fiction authors, as prophets. They argue that fiction, whether historical or futuristic, is in fact a commentary on the author's own life and times.

Maybe so, maybe not. If science fiction writers lack a solid grasp of the indicators used by futurists, then they also do not suffer from the futurists' limitations, such as the need for measurable data, or for an evidence-based link between roots and outcomes, which leaves little room for the unexpected. After all, the famous futurologist Herman Kahn, in his 1972 book "Things to Come," missed the energy crisis waiting just around the corner.

Besides, whoever predicted the future without considering the times in which they lived? Certainly not futurologists.

Sci-fi writers might get the future wrong more often than not but, unlike futurologists (whose track record is hardly without blemish), they're free to think laterally and, more importantly, to focus on ineffable human factors, such as desire. They can postulate futures they don't believe in and need not justify. Thus, they can explore interesting ideas or warn of dire possibilities. As Ray Bradbury put it, "I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it" [source: Moore].

In any case, few sci-fi writers have claimed prophetic powers. In fact, a running inside joke goes that a story is just a story until it happens to come true -- then it becomes a prophecy.

To doubt the influence of these authors, though, is to ignore Arthur C. Clarke's nonfiction prediction of telecommunications satellites or the influence of Jules Verne's mid-19th-century vision of a (literal) moon shot (his spaceship is shot from a gigantic gun in Florida, near the future location of Cape Canaveral). It is to disregard H. G. Wells's forecasting of tanks (1903), aerial bombing (1908) or the atom bomb (1908), or Czech author Karel Capek's prediction of something akin to the A-bomb, or his imagining, and naming, of robots in 1921.

Edwin Balmer dreamed up the lie detector, based on "involuntary reactions in the blood and glands," in a 1910 detective story. Hugo Gernsback, the great proponent of putting more science in science fiction (and Hugo award namesake), foresaw numerous advances in his 1911 book, "Ralph 124C 41+", including television, fluorescent lighting, plastics, tape recorders, rustproof steel, synthetic fabrics, jukeboxes, tinfoil and loud speakers [sources: Gernsback; Nicholls].

Are these authors visionaries, perceiving the inevitable? Or do they inspire future generations, who then act on their visions? If so, then might their inspiration be more powerful than the futurists' forecasts?

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it," said American computer scientist Alan Kay in the Nov. 1, 1982, edition of the Financial Times.

Maybe he was on to something. Why predict a course that flows deterministically from cause to effect when you can warn of a future worth stopping or envision a world worth building?

Author's Note

Back in 1929, when people still took book titles from the Book of Common Prayer, British physicist John Desmond Bernal wrote a work that Arthur C. Clarke, no slouch in the extrapolation game himself, would later call "the most brilliant attempt at scientific prediction ever made." "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" opens with the following statement:

"There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man's reason has never learnt to separate them."

Bernal goes on to argue that the future is produced by the collision, or perhaps tension, between two forces: nature, which we (especially at the time) barely comprehended, and human desires, which we understand even less.

To me, human desire is the key to the future. Unfortunately, we tend to set it aside because we cannot fathom how it might play out -- an approach that strikes me as 180 degrees out of phase with the truth, which is this: Even as we drive our bland, outdated gas-guzzlers and dismantle our space program, some part of us will always want daft, cool things like flying cars, zeppelins and domed cities with pneumatic tubes, monorails and mile-high people movers. As long as we do, I think there might be hope for us yet.

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