This Ain’t Your Parent’s Future

How could we be so wrong about the future all of the time?

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How could we be so wrong about the future all of the time?
Over and over again, throughout history, we have predicted futures that missed the mark. With the exception of a few celebrated cases, futurists have had a dismal track record when it comes to the history of predicting the future. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about premonition, fortune telling, or extra sensory perception. Predicting the future, in this context refers mostly to technological development as it relates to topics such as transportation (flying cars, personal jet packs, teleportation, intergalactic space travel, hover boards), medicine (medicinal near-immortality, designer babies), entertainment (invisibility cloaks, virtual reality) education (instant learning), architecture (underwater cities, self-cleaning houses), food (food in a pill), and communication (automatic dog translation, telepathy). Basically everything you remember loving about The Jetsons, and then some. “Predictions, failed or successful, tell us as much about the time they were made as they do about the future,” says Finlo Rohrer in his essay for BBC magazine. What will our predictions in 2011 tell the citizens of 3011 about our culture, our fears, our expectations, our passions? Wouldn’t you like to know. As a jumping off point for this article, consider these two terms invented by Bruce McCall, prolific illustrator for The New Yorker:

  • Techno-archeology = digging back and finding past miracles that never happened.
  • Faux-nostalgia = achingly sentimental yearning for times that never happened.

McCall’s illustration titled Fully Loaded for The New York Times.

Why is predicting the future so hard?

We of the 21st century developed world are inundated with wondrous technologies and futuristic advantages, the likes of which would have been impossible to predict a century ago. Understandably so. You see, predicting the future is hard work! To succeed at it, one’s radical idea for a product or lifestyle must become routine, even mundane in the future. Those who have succeeded at it have often been treated as heretics or, at best, insane geniuses, mad scientists. Far ahead of their time, their predictions sometimes become their obsession and take over their life’s work, rarely bringing about any of the change they hoped to see in their generation. But boy would they be proud today. Or would they? Perhaps our manifestation of their vision or our dangerous and immoral misuse of their brain-child would cause dismay and disappointment. Maybe they would just be sad to learn how long it took for the world to accept their radical dream, a notion that they so clearly envisioned for the near future. Which leads me to my big question: why is predicting the future so hard, anyway? Well, I’d like to lay out a few reasons, although I cannot claim that these are by any means conclusive.

Risk

Big industries move slowly. This has started changing a bit lately with the emergence of tech giants who are somehow able to maintain the agility of a small shop despite their enormity (I’m looking at you Google). But for the most part, the bigger the industry or company, the slower the change. Marty Neumeier uses the scissors, rock, paper metaphor to show that small companies are like scissors, sharp in focus, but quickly transition into the expanded focus and momentum of rock companies, who in turn become smothering paper companies whose huge size, vast resources, and wide focus give it a competitive advantage, despite losing its scissor-like precision and agility.

The way I see it, it’s fairly simple – change is risky. Why do things differently when what’s working now is good enough? The danger of failure outweighs the potential for success. Hence, the future never materializes. The present is allowed to continue its course. Despite the availability of often magical and potentially profitable visions of futurists within big industry, the risk of trying something so different is too great. Nobody wants to accept this sad truth so the future keeps on being predicted by those who see how big industries could change if they took the risk, and futurists continuously become wrong year after year, as their future is tossed aside by the present.

Adam Greenfield speaks towards this in his recent essay about his experience working at Nokia. He describes how, “rather than acting as the incubator/force multiplier/accelerator it ought to have, Nokia’s corporate culture served as a brake on all kinds of innovative thought.” Frustrating as this can be to observe from the outside, it may be offset by a minority of companies so wealthy they can afford a few million here and there to support the fledgling R&D dreams of some of its employees, without affecting the bottom line. Not surprisingly this kind of development has led to some fantastic innovations that often take over or at least become a large part of their parent company’s original businesses.

Funding

The future is expensive. Small start-ups, ripe with predictions of how their new products and services will shape the future, often wither before they’re able to acquire adequate funding to grow. It’s challenging to convince investors that they should fund something they don’t understand or cant visualize. The deep future can be murky and most investors prefer to put their money in ventures they can grasp. But, if the seed of the idea is good, it doesn’t get buried with the lack of funding or even the failed startup. The dream is passed on to other, more financially savvy hands who keep it alive, even if by a thread.

With the future, the business model for new products and services that nobody’s heard of or knows why they need, can be a sticking point. How do you convince people that they should buy an electric car when there’s no infrastructure to keep it charged? How do you maximize the return on investment with space tourism as your offering? Fortunately for the predictors of an electrically powered automotive future in which we fly into space for summer holiday, both of these blossoming industries, and others like them, have figured out ways to survive so far. And their future is hopeful. But with your predictions in the hands of shaky business models struggling to find future-forward investment dollars, its understandable why they so rarely become true.

Communication

Where the 1960’s futurecasters made beautiful hand-crafted models and illustrations of their visions, today’s future experts struggle to communicate their dreams outside the realm of scientific papers and frankenstein prototypes. And communication is a supremely important bottleneck, frustratingly keeping our future dreams at bay. Of course, we can get our future fix at the movies, where we are awed by the meticulously rendered futures on the big (and often 3D) screen. But these technologies that visualize glossy futures for entertainment are rarely utilized in the board rooms where discussions about where to focus R&D dollars are held.

Let’s say a future-thinking motorcycle company is interested in developing the Light Cycle motorcycle featured in the recent movie Tron — a vehicle that starts off as an inconspicuous hand-held rod but quickly transforms into a glorious cycle that leaves trails of light lasers in its midst. In this case, the company is fortunate to have the movie and its accompanying sketches and storyboards as visual references for the design. So there’s your “what?”, but the real communication trouble starts when someone raises the big question, “How?”. And when “how” is unanswerable because the materials and processes required to create the Light Cycle have not yet been invented, you can see how communication becomes the breaking point. Its infinitely easier to communicate to the marketing team that the design plan for next year’s smartphone is to make the same thing but increase the screen size and slim it down than it is to suggest that it be embedded in a flexible wristband or that in the near future humans will have developed telepathic skills and will no longer need smartphones at all. We can’t make the future if we can’t communicate how it works and how it can be fabricated.

Sketches of the LightCycle for the Tron:Legacy film. Designers pretended they were making a real vehicle. More here

But communication as a barrier to the future goes beyond expressing how to make it. There are certain “metaphysical ideas that cannot be expressed in words,” explains a post from ad agency Weiden+Kennedy’s new Platform site. The business and technology incubator whose current participants are focusing on “articulating research, testing the future, visualizing data and facilitating events and experiences that enable people to ‘explore their own tomorrow’” references a crucial player in the predicting the future game – design fiction. I wrote about design fiction here in April 2010, but for a refresher, here is Platform’s description of the concept:

Design fiction has emerged as a pre-eminent tool for designing, challenging and understanding speculative future realities. However, design fiction aims to make the extraordinary ordinary. It merges the elastic creativity of science fiction with everyday matter of fact reality. Furthermore, in using current media conventions as a way to express ideas about the future, design fiction is able to twist reality and trick us into accepting the fantastic as possibility.

Platform goes on to say that “design fiction is effectively expressed in a medium of experience. It is expressed as a combined series of moments designed to create a new actuality or at least new assumptions.” It seems that as the world becomes more complex, networked, intangible, and immaterial, the future, in turn, becomes infinitely harder to communicate.

Practicality

Several of the most endearing Space Age predictions such as jet packs and flying cars have suffered, not from a lack of technological ingenuity, but from a void in consumer practicality. As Syd Mead, the legendary visual futurist, puts it in BMW’s Activate The Future miniseries, in reference to flying car prototypes, “…the wings came off and you store them in your garage. Trust that to your local guy down the street to put his wings on right…it’s a nightmare.” So in this case, our technological capabilities have out-sprinted our infrastructure and cultural readiness to adopt future products that we so badly want. “We have fun imagining the future but we have trouble predicting it, because the future we usually get is the one we least expect” says the narrator in the BMW film. And that may have something to do with the unpredictability of consumers and cultural adoption, but I think it has more to do with the notion that imagining impractical, ludicrous, silly inventions is way more fun.

I created this visual formula for the future in order to analyze various aspects of predicting it.

I created this visual formula for the future in order to analyze various aspects of predicting it.


Ok, so predicting the future is really hard.

Despite the challenges, predicting the future remains as crucial and exciting as ever. And it’s not just plain fun, it’s big business too. Google is investing in a web-app that uses a data-based, scientific approach to prediction, and creative consultancies all over the world are being hired to trend forecast and to design the future. Not to mention the defense department’s ultra top secret futurology lab, DARPA whose slogan is “creating and preventing strategic surprise.” Popular Science and other publications look into cutting edge sciences to reveal where the future may be heading. Organizations like The World Future Society and the Institute for the Future have made “future consulting” a service offering. Ray Kurtzweil has made a career out of it.

Ray Kurtzweil, inventor, educator, author of The Singularity Is Near, and subject of the documentary The Transcendent Man, is perhaps the figurehead for modern day future casting.

You have to wonder though, how could something with such a low success rate be so everlasting, so fun, a successful business model? Why do we enjoy predicting the future even though we are fully aware of the dismal odds our envisioned futures have of materializing? Why has so much money been spent on technologies that someone promised would be the way of the future, even though we most likely knew in our hearts it wouldn’t? After centuries of making (mostly) wrong predictions, how is it that a collective discouragement doesn’t inhibit new dreams? Imagining the future is spellbinding. The very nature of mapping out the future has a courageous, wild west feel to it. And of course, it allows for the possibility of a better life, mediated by glossy technologies and laziness inducing conveniences. I propose that it also has something to do with our penchant for optimistic escapism, our fanatical love for mental diversions by way of entertainment or recreation. When we are allowed to mentally replace the unpleasant or banal aspects of daily life in the year 2011 with visions of 3011, or even 2020, we feel a sense of hope. The future must be better (faster, easier, more autonomous, sexier, smarter) than this! Not all possible futures are so optimistic of course – that would leave out all of our dismal apocalyptic visions of death and destruction. But even futures where AI robot servants hijack our flying cars and zap everybody with their ray guns provide us with a temporary escape from the present, where something that “cool” would never happen.

Covers and images from Popular Science & Popular Mechanics magazines from over 50 years ago. More here

Historical Predicting

During the Great Depression Era of the 1930’s, Americans became obsessed with the future. Suddenly thrown into a lifetime low, it became easy to spend unemployed hours imagining a future where technology made everybody’s lives better. This was the dawn of the personal robot servant, the flying car, the ray gun, instant food. The World’s Fair set a stage to talk about and share these dreams and talk we did. But the Depression was only the beginning. It occurred to me that some people may have found it depressing or belittling to think of themselves as inferior when compared to future societies. Arthur C. Clarke, celebrated science fiction writer and illustrious futurologist attempted to curb any such feelings in a presentation he made for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, saying, we should “consider it a privilege to be stepping stones to higher things.”

Arthur C Clarke, one of the most legendary futurists of all time, can be seen here doling out his predictions for a future that, as of now, is still deep in the future.

Decades of ferocious futurecasting were to follow as wartime technological advances gave way to Space Age futurism. Hope, possibility, and optimism reigned supreme in this era of exploration and can-do spirit. “I wasn’t around during that time,” says Julian Bleecker of Near Future Laboratory, “but in my nostalgic view and from the lens of the man who grew up from the boy who wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut or a jet fighter pilot — [there was a] sense of possibility of transcending the surely bonds of earth. And that can translate to going beyond one’s sense of the limits of possibility. The power of the “northstar” way of working toward a goal that seems far beyond what one should be able to do.”

But then a strange thing seems to have happened. For reasons unknown, we stopped predicting with the same tenacity. Its as if Americans said, “wow we really came up with some great ideas for the future, let’s stop here and work on those.” And what’s worse, most of these classic predictions remain predictions today, oftentimes feeling as far off as they may have felt 50 years ago. In fact, we’re still working on actualizing most of what they predicted would be commonplace by the year 2000, and we’re a long way off with many of the ideas. Wired Magazine’s recent article featuring Will Ferrel outlines in-depth “Why the marvels we were promised haven’t materialized.”

We know there are plenty of good reasons these things never made it to the mainstream. But what caused the slowing down of the collective future creation machine that was the imaginations and dreams of the American Space Age? Bleecker says,

It could be that our expectations about the future are intensely compressed by the pace of new gizmos, which I think largely define what we consider the future — what’s coming out in the next 6 month product cycle. You have networks of rumor management about all sorts of things. From MacRumors.com to things that are of interest to photographphiles, like NikonRumors.com. It’s always about what is just around the corner. I don’t get a sense that there are big dreams about — even getting a car that runs on something renewable seems to be the biggest we’re able to dream. But that’s just gizmos. Things like a future where people are mindful of difference and accepting of opinions and points of view that differ from their own and still able to live peacefully — those are more the Space Age future dreams we’ve lost hold of. It’s still such a contentious view and no iGizmo is going to mitigate that.

Let’s Just Make It Up

From what I can see, it’s not that people today aren’t dreaming about the future anymore. It’s just that figuring out what the future can and should be is really, really hard, and has gotten progressively harder over the past few decades. In a technological climate where things change as rapidly as the weather in New England, future forecasting has reigned in its sights from what used to be 50 years or so, to more like 3-5 years or less. “We live in the age of much more complex, more turbulent futures, that approach us with ever increasing speed,” says SUMM( )N, a Dutch agency that helps its clients imagine, visualize, and work towards their possible futures.

Thinking about the future has never been an easy task, but the new, exponentially complex human conditions require us to re-think the way we deal with the future possibilities. Instead of colonizing the future with our old ideas and practices we need to learn to quickly explore and probe possible futures. Therefore instead of ‘predicting the future’, instead of prophesying yet another set of ‘future trends’ we help our clients to imagine and co-create new possible futures…

Another trend in contemporary futurecasting replaces the old practice of tossing out half-baked answers with a more refined questioning process. Rather than declaring that people will live in glass domes in the future just because it looks futuristic, designers, thinkers, and futurists today are asking provocative questions about modern living and how it will shift in the future. You may be thinking, asking questions can’t be nearly as fun as Clarke’s Worlds’ Fair mock-up of the future, but believe me, there’s still plenty of fun to be had. Just look at the RCA’s Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, whose projects and courses explore zany and provocative possible futures. Dunne and Raby are pioneers of the notion that critical and speculative design have the “ability to make abstract issues tangible” and are a valuable addition to “public debates about the social, cultural and ethical impact on everyday life of emerging and future technologies.” Another prime example is Art Center’s recent graduate Media Design Program exhibit Made Up: Design Fictions. The show

presents the work of major and emerging international practices that forecast, hypothesize, muse, skylark, role-play, put-on-airs, freak-out or otherwise fake-it to produce work that is relevant to our increasingly confusing and accelerated world. MADE UP is a new type of exhibition — a self-recording, 1:1 map of questions and propositions: dreams as program; science fiction as precedent; cults of commerce; objects as ideas; strange-ified banality; truth-revealing jokes; false histories; and elaborated scenarios.

What’s great about shows like this one is that the work has an utter disregard for incremental steps toward the future. They couldn’t care less about making batteries that last longer, cars that are slightly more fuel efficient, data storage with more storage. Clarke said that if your predictions of the future sound reasonable, they won’t come true, whereas if they sound completely unrealistic and insane, they will most likely become true. So why not just make it all up? That sounds way more fun anyway. If you’re worried about being wrong about the future, don’t be. It turns out that “there’s no great, complex explanation for why people who get one big thing right get most everything else wrong,” argues Oxford economist Jerker Denrell . “It’s simple: Those who correctly predict extreme events tend to have a greater tendency to make extreme predictions; and those who make extreme predictions tend to spend most of the time being wrong — on account of most of their predictions being, well, pretty extreme.”

But I would suggest that being wrong can be even more successful than being right. Historically, we have attempted to wrap up the future in tight, neatly explained packages. I propose we let go of those controlling urges. Drop the hubris act. Forget about having any authority over the future. If we are able to embrace the ambiguity of the future, break through current structures, think beyond contemporary logic, and work outside of predictable contexts, the future has a real chance – not just of providing us with faster, smaller, sexier gizmos, but of actually being a better place than today.

Seth Snyder

Seth Snyder is an experience designer at Tellart in Providence, Rhode Island. He specializes in cross-disciplinary explorations through research, brainstorming, concept development, and interaction design. Prior to joining Tellart, Seth graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design's Industrial Design department. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Tellart.

2 comments on this article

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  2. I like your article you’ve given a very complete view on why it’s so hard to predict technological gadgets might take shape or which precise interfaces we will have.
    I think however that you too easily step over one simplification that you make in this article and that is that the future equals consumer goods/ technological entities. What about the broader user experience: will we feel more safe and secure in the future, will it be easier to realise our dreams and hopes, will we be protected within functional democracy and justice system. Most of these predictions from 50 years ago actually have come true. And it is this evolving ‘support’ framework that enables us to progress in technology in increasing speed.

    Maybe it’s useful to think about it within the speed layers concept: http://visionarymarketing.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/speed-layers-sm.png whereby the culture and environment actually structure the way certain technologies can be developed (or not)