04 January 2006


Futurology is something of a black sheep in the ranks of traditional "-ologies". While it can be studied, it can't be tested through normal scientific means. A futurologist can only be proved right in the future.

The inevitable, if unjustified, connotations with crystal balls, tea leaves and other supernatural means of predicting the future only encourage the sceptics further.


And while at the start of a new year thoughts inevitably turn to the events of the coming 12 months, futurologists see that as the domain of analysts and economists. Futurologists, or futurists as they sometimes like to be called, tend to deal in the medium to long-term.

Futurologist Dr James Bellini, for example, sets his sights 20 years or so ahead. And, like all futurologists, he doesn't make predictions.

"This game is not about predicting," says Dr Bellini, who began working in the field for the US Hudson Institute think tank. "I apologise because people think futurologists should have a pointy hat and a wand. We're not wizards. We don't predict."

Instead, futurologists deal in "possible futures".


Science, art, pseudoscience, or maybe even protoscience? Weigh in with your opinion! Mine to come...


allan said...

I always liked the futurist label.

Maybe I'm just old fashioned.

A lot of the top science fiction writers fit into this mold.

zandperl said...

Allan, so you'd consider futurists to be science fiction creators?

Kavin Watson said...

People predict the future everyday when they contemplate the consequences of their actions. These futurologists are doing just that, but in a global/humanity kind of way.

Allison said...

Traditionally, futurists, including many famous and well-respected science fiction authors, have had a pretty spotty track record of accurate predictions. Few predicted the personal computer - in fact most SF accepted that "The Computer" would continue to be a monolithic mainframe forever, though perhaps libraries and civic buildings might have remote terminals for citizens to consult the machine guru. And they certainly didn't predict the Internet! John Brunner was probably the closest to that with "The Shockwave Rider" in the 70's.

Prediction is even spottier with social issues, most "Golden Age" writers portrayed a future where few advances in gender and racial equality had happened since 1950-60. Though to be fair, they also had to get published, and I think a book featuring gay characters or a female space action hero was unlikely get a positive reaction back then. Later Heinlein works, while quite sexist and not terribly predictive (yet) are an example of more socially progressive fare, at least by the standards of their contemporaries. Fiction of the 70's-80's was better in this regard, I'll admit, but by then these trends were already well underway.

The article mentions one futurist's "four basic concepts", including:

Wild Cards - 'fundamental things that knock all the equations sideways', eg: 9/11.

I think this is the one that foils most predictions - the semi-random or unforseeable events or innovations that rapidly create huge changes in how things are done. Though I think the transistor and the fall of the Soviet bloc are better examples than 9/11.