Futurists look beyond, and it’s not mere sci-fi
Imagine a future in which terrorists seize an embassy and police can send in a remote-controlled insect outfitted with a microscopic video camera that reveals where the gunmen are hiding and what kind of weapons they hold.
Or a time when adventure travelers fly to the moon to spend a week at a space colony under the glittering lunar skies–in the way they now visit Antarctica or the North Slope of Alaska.
Or a U.S. constitutional convention where delegates draft a new governing document that allows the rest of the world a say in American decision-making.
Sound far-fetched? Over 1,000 futurists arriving in Chicago this week have been considering such scenarios and a host of other possibilities that some people might dismiss as wild dreams and unlikely schemes. The World Future Society–an organization of academics, consultants and planners–is gearing up for its annual conference Friday to Sunday, drawing forward thinkers from as far away as South Korea and Venezuela.
Mainstream futurists are not crystal ball gazers or mere science fiction aficionados (though a session is scheduled on “Science Fiction as the Mythology of the Future”). The future may seem unknowable to most mortals, but humans continually plan for what lies beyond the chronological horizon, futurists say. Everything from an environmental impact study to Pentagon war games are forms of future study.
Futurists tend to be consultants and academics who analyze data based on current trends, said Patrick Tucker, assistant editor of The Futurist magazine and a society spokesman. Many offer advice to and facilitate discussions within businesses seeking to anticipate events, rather than merely react to crises.
No World Series predictions
“What we don’t do is predict who’s going to win the World Series, or who’s going to be president, or what color M&Ms are going to come out next,” Tucker said from the society’s headquarters in Bethesda, Md.
Panelists and speakers at the conference plan to discuss matters such as hydrogen energy and how a revolution in superlongevity will change society, according to a schedule of events. They will take a look at global warming and the emerging mega-markets of India and China.
The topics range from the down-to-earth to the esoteric. In one session, conferencegoers may ponder the question, “Do Small Businesses Have Futures?” Elsewhere, a speaker is slated to explain holographic psychology, defined as “a philosophical science that explains human behavior based on three levels of comprehension.” (The last time the society’s conference came to Chicago, in 1998, there was even a speaker who was billed as the world’s first robotic psychiatrist.)
Amid an ever-increasing drive to miniaturize computers and other technology, futurists will hear about nanotechnology, in which materials are manipulated on an atomic or molecular scale to build microscopic devices such as robots.
The scenario of a video-equipped insect spying on terrorists is described in an article by conference speaker Paul D. Tinari, a futurist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. (The bug–envisioned as a real wetland insect modified through nanotechnology–would be controlled through electrodes penetrating its brain.) In Chicago, Tinari plans to tackle equally far-reaching plans for brain-enhancement technologies that would allow a homeowner to turn on the lights or a fighter pilot to launch a missile by using equipment that reads the brain’s weak magnetic fields.
“You can imagine that someone who’s quadriplegic could write a book by turning on his computer from bed,” Tinari said.
Communities will take root in space as people begin to commercially develop the skies, said Ron Kohl, a Maryland futurist who plans to discuss the topic in Chicago.
Luxury space travel
Kohl foresees a time when companies begin ventures such as extracting hydrogen or oxygen on the moon or asteroids. As this begins, adventure travelers will pioneer space tourism that over time will grow luxurious. After all, not everyone wants to spend days in a space the size of an elevator car, he says.
“From there, it’s a matter of once we get humans into space that are going up as tourists or visitors, they’re going to be looking for the sort of typical vacation amenities as if they were going to Antarctica or the North Slope of Alaska,” Kohl said.
Some futurists are willing to cast a critical gaze upon other people’s sacred cows–or, in the case of futurist consultant Joseph F. Coates, upon the U.S. Constitution. The 18th Century document is ill-suited to an age in which decisions made in the United States can reverberate around the planet, the Washington-based futurist says. Furthermore, he considers a government of semiautonomous states outdated, and how often do 20th-Century Americans need to worry about issues such as boarding militia members?
Perhaps some may find it hard to imagine a domestic constituency for allowing Yemenis and North Koreans a say in American politics. But Coates says it is time to draft a Constitution for the 21st Century.
“The interests of other people are never fairly integrated into our political process,” he said. “And hence we continue to get into trouble again and again.”
Others are using future studies as a tool for shaping political decisions. Michael Childress, executive director of Kentucky’s Long-Term Policy Research Center, says the state-funded organization was created in 1992 to study issues beyond the next budget year or election cycle, where debate tends to get mired.
Reached by phone in Kentucky, Childress offered an example. In 1993, the Clinton administration was considering funding its health-care initiative with a tax of up to $1 on a pack of cigarettes, Childress said. In tobacco states such as Kentucky, growers objected to such proposals but made no effort to plan for a future in which tobacco production might suffer. Then a study from Childress’ office projected that the tax would cause a 40 percent decline in the amount of tobacco that would be grown in Kentucky over the next decade.
“This made quite a splash back in ’93 in this state, because it was sort of the third rail of politics in Kentucky,” Childress said.
The study drew fierce criticism from tobacco growers, but it sparked a healthy discussion of alternative crops in a post-tobacco era, Childress said. And this was fortunate, he said. Even without the health-care plan, tobacco production fell by 50 percent over the decade as states began levying their own tobacco taxes and cigarette companies began buying more of their crop abroad. Future studies such as Childress’ obviously have their place. But in a world of astrology columns and tabloid predictions, how does one distinguish a respectable futurist from the cranks and palm readers who purport to offer a peek into the world to come? It’s simple, said Childress.
“It’s kind of like the way the Supreme Court defines pornography. You know it when you see it.”
Information: Visit www.wfs.org. Autor: Russell Working