Collidoscope: Of the Futures People Predict

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Credit: Trina Shankar

Credit: Trina Shankar

Collidoscope is The Wire‘s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society from across the world. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here. If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.

Happy new year! As we move calendars, this week’s edition of Collidoscope looks at the predictions we make – what goes into them, who is driving them and why that’s a problem


The predictions we (don’t) make

Credit: Nick Harris/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Credit: Nick Harris/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

It’s always interesting what people tend to focus on when thinking about the future. Watch any film where someone is trying to get some kind of corporate job, and nine out of ten times they’ll be asked some version of ‘Where do you see yourself in 20 years?’ The answers will be generic, some version of a highly-paid, somewhat powerful position that already exists. But instead, what if you were to ask people something else? Say, ‘What will you be driving in 20 years?’ What kind of answers are you likely to get then?

That’s what Tom Vanderbilt wrote about in an article published nearly two years ago in Nautilus. He has a fascinating take on what he calls ‘futurism’. It’s quite apt that he uses the name of the early 20th century artistic and social movement that originated in Italy and focused on technology, speed and everything industrial – because his argument is that while we make dynamic, even radical predictions about the changes in technology, we’re far more reserved when it comes to predicting cultural and behavioural changes. Even the technological predictions, he argues, forget to take into account how fast-changing technology is likely to radically affect how we interact with the world.

A good example of what he’s talking about is one he gives from a 1960s movie:

…a 1960s film of the “office of the future” made on-par technological predictions (fax machines and the like), but had a glaring omission: The office had no women. Self-driving car images of the 1950s showed families playing board games as their tail-finned cars whisked down the highways. Now, 70 years later, we suspect the automated car will simply allow for the expansion of productive time, and hence working hours. The self-driving car has, in a sense, always been a given. But modern culture hasn’t.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve been guilty of this myself. Of course mostly only in passing, half-jokes made to friends about wanting teleportation to be real. But almost never have I stopped to think about what would happen if teleportation was, in fact, a reality. For most people living and working in urban centres, travel is a big part of any day. Many times it’s a few moments you have to yourself, even when in crowded public transport. It’s often where I catch up on my reading. It’s where we can have sometimes nice, often odd conversations with strangers.

Why do people predict technological change with such ease while forgetting that culture changes too, often eqally fast if not faster? According to Vanderbilt:

For one, we have long tended to forget that it does change. Status quo bias reigns. “Until recently, culture explained why things stayed the same, not why they changed,” notes the sociologist Kieran Healy. “Understood as a monolithic block of passively internalized norms transmitted by socialization and canonized by tradition, culture was normally seen as inhibiting individuals.”

And even if we remember the changes, the trigger is often so small that it seems insignificant, he writes. He has an interesting anecdote to support that:

As the writer Charles Duhigg describes in The Power of Habit, one of the landmark events in the evolution of gay rights in the U.S. was a change, by the Library of Congress, from classifying books about the gay movement as “Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes,” to “Homosexuality, Lesbianism—Gay Liberation, Homophile Movement.” This seemingly minor change, much touted by activists, helped pave the way for other, larger changes (a year later, the American Psychiatric Association stopped defining homosexuality as a mental illness). He quotes an organizational psychologist: “Small wins do not combine in a neat, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal.”

And maybe while that’s what the future is like – non-linear, haphazard, moving in 50 directions at once. Technology, on the other hand, moves according to certain principles: faster, easier, smaller, smarter. Maybe this makes it simpler, even if more boring, to make predictions about.


Liked what you read so far? Consider subscribing to this weekly newsletter.


 Too many white male futurists

Credit: Ingmar Zahorsky/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: Ingmar Zahorsky/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The more I thought about Vanderbilt’s article, the more problems I could think of with the way predictions are made today. I have to admit to my own ignorance here: I didn’t know being a ‘futurist’ was something people actually did for a living, something people put on their business cards. But once I knew that it was, I decided to look into who these people are that shape the world’s predictions of the future based only on technology. Rose Eveleth’s article in the Atlantic brought me a to a completely unsurprising answer: a whole lot of rich, white men.

 To begin with, who qualifies as a futurist? It seems there isn’t complete agreement on that. Eveleth writes:

Some people think of science fiction authors as futurists, while others don’t. Some members of the APF [Association of Professional Futurists] include singularity researchers, others don’t want to. Some people lump transhumanists into a broader category of futurists. Others don’t. Here are some of the people popularly known as futurists: Aubrey de Gray, the chief researcher at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation; Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX; Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google; Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google. They don’t necessarily belong to a particular society – they might not even self-identify as futurists! – but they are driving the conversation about the future – very often on stages, in public, backed by profitable corporations or well-heeled investors.

Which means the media ends up turning to Brin and Musk and de Gray and Kurzweil to explain what is going to happen, why it matters, and ultimately whether it’s all going to be okay. The thing is: The futures that get imagined depend largely on the person or people doing the imagining.

So why are there such few women and people of colour in this field, even within the US? A lot of it has to do with the way the field presents itself, according to Amy Zalman, the CEO of the World Future Society: after being disregarded as weird crystal-ball gazers, they wanted to be seen as scientific, data-heavy, masculine. This also meant that it moved more and more towards technology while ignoring the ‘softer’ aspects of foresight – social and cultural change, family structures and so on have been ignored to focus on mathematical modeling and technology, Eveleth writes.

And there may even be more to it. According to Madeline Ashby, a futurist with a degree in ‘strategic foresight’, white men are often chosen because they are far more likely to be simply optimistic. “If you ask me, the one reason why futurism as a discipline is so white and male, is because white males have the ability to offer the most optimistic vision,” she says. “They can get up on stage and tell us that the world will be okay, that technology will fix all our problems, that we’ll live forever.”

But this isn’t going to last, according to her. “For a long time the future has belonged to people who have not had to struggle, and I think that will still be true. But as more and more systems collapse, currency, energy, the ability to get water, the ability to work, the future will increasingly belong to those who know how to hustle, and those people are not the people who are producing those purely optimistic futures.”

To be honest, reading this article was not just confusing but also depressing. Because while I learnt about this new field of study that emerged, I also learnt about how it had absorbed almost everything wrong with the way we think about the future, another field that saw ‘progress’ and ‘development’ in a way that isn’t going to do anything to fix the million-and-one problems the world is stuck in today. Because what is this kind of ‘futurism’ giving us, really? And Eveleth has the same concerns:

This is also perhaps why futurists often don’t talk about some of the issues and problems that many people face every day – harassment, child care, work-life balance, water rights, immigration, police brutality. “When you lose out on women’s voices you lose out on the issues that they have to deal with,” Ashby says. She was recently at a futures event where people presented on a global trends report, and there was nothing in the slides on the future of law enforcement. The questions that many people face about their futures are lost in the futures being imagined.

Because of all of this, many women Eveleth spoke to who think and write about the future don’t associate with the field at all. Something one them, science fiction author Monica Byrne, said made the most sense to me, made me feel that maybe not everyone engaging with these things is obsessed with a technology-heavy, automated, sterile, hopeless future.

“When I think about the kind of future I want to build, it’s very soft and human, it’s very erotic, and I feel like so much of what I identify as futurism is very glossy, chrome painted science fiction covers, they’re sterile.” She laughs. “Who cares about your jetpack? How does technology enable us to keep loving each other?”


Protesting in 2020

Credit: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Credit: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

After reading about futurists focussing all their energies on technology, I found this article by Peter Moskowitz in Fusion. Moskowitz is looking not just at the future of technology but at how that’s going to affect our everyday lives, particularly when we want to raise our voices against those in power.

Moskowitz has an extremely dystopic vision of a protest in 2020 Chicago. Scarier still is that he is writing this depressing account only four years before the date he is talking about. The technology he is referring to already exists in some form or the other, it is sure to get more efficient and user-friendly in the years to come.

In Moskowitz’s protest, you are being tracked from the moment you clicked “attending” on the Facebook event to when you step back into your house after the protest. They have information on everything – your friends, your past activities, the car you drive there. It’s a new form of surveillance that doesn’t actually involve a person watching you, the entire system is meant to keep an eye on those seen as ‘disturbances’. But of course the system comes with the inherent biases of the people who build and run it, so if you’re a person of colour at this protest, you’re more likely to set off alarm bells. It is Brave New World come to life, but with technology that already exists and is only waiting to be deployed.

Now Moskowitz’s piece is completely speculative – there is also the possibility that none of this could happen. And while 2016 may have made many of us believe in the worst at all possible times, there is no guarantee (thankfully) that this will be the case. His article isn’t ‘research’, it’s his analysis of what could happen presented in a hard-hitting and believable way.

I’m including his speculative analysis here because I think it ties in well with the other two articles.  He is assuming that the futurists are right, technology is changing as rapidly as they want. But he’s looking at it from the other side – not those producing or consuming technology, but those it will affect nonetheless.

Of course there is a lot more to technology than just surveillance. But his article is a good reminder of how things impact people and groups differently. And the world many futurists are imagining seems all set to fit into and exacerbate the hierarchies that already exist, without talking about them even once.

So what is the impact of this dystopic protest? Here’s what Moskowitz had to say:

Maybe it doesn’t mean that much to you. Social networks and credit card companies have been tracking what you buy for years; security cameras in building lobbies already know who your friends are. Perhaps you have just come to accept that the state will watch you too. And so when you answer the door you greet the cops respectfully, answer their questions about the protest, and then send them on their way.

But what if all the surveillance has a more subtle effect over time? Each layer that makes up your profile in the database—the hours of footage, multiple years worth of tweets–just adds more and more difficulty to the already challenging activity of protest. After a couple of protests, you come to realize that rallying around a cause isn’t only about the issue at hand, like the latest war or animal rights. In 2020, protest is also inherently about the surveillance state. And because you’re starting to feel tired of always being watched, next time, you stay home.

That’s it for this week! If you liked what you read, please consider subscribing to this weekly newsletter.

If you have any comments or suggestions on what could be carried in this column, write to me at [email protected]