In search of the future
We don't know what tomorrow will look like, but we're happy to pay professional visionaries to guess on our behalf. Clare Rudebeck explores their world
In 1971, while mankind toyed with the idea of ending it all in a billion dollar nuclear suicide pact, the World Future Society held its first conference in Washington, DC. Excited by the recent Moon landings, the public put Mutually Assured Destruction out of its mind and instead imagined a future in which cars flew and robots did the washing up.
Almost 40 years later, as mankind toys with self-suffocation through environmental destruction, and self-impoverishment through financial meltdown, the idea that technology might be able to save us is as potent as ever.
Next month, the Web 2.0 Summit will take place in San Francisco. Al Gore will advise on the environment. Arianna Huffington, creator of the super-blog, the Huffington Post, will weigh in on political matters. And the cycling champion, Lance Armstrong, will take on healthcare, having recently launched an online global cancer initiative.
"There's a sense that problems such as climate change and the financial crisis require out-of-the-box thinking, and there's a lot of that in the internet industry," explains John Battelle, co-chair of Web 2.0. "There is a feeling that the core values of the industry – that open is better than closed, that collective intelligence is better than individual intelligence – might be valuable to the wider world."
After decades of obscurity, professional visionaries are back in the limelight. The World Future Society now has 25,000 members in 80 countries, and top speakers are paid five-figure sums for an appearance. How long they remain sought-after will, however, depend on their ability to avoid the pitfalls of the past.
Credibility has always been a problem for professional forecasters. Futurology's first modern heyday was in the late 19th century, when revolutionary innovations such as the telegraph and the steam engine made a new world seem within reach. At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair some of the great minds of the day made their predictions for 100 years hence. They included "the alcohol problem will have been solved by religion" "crime will be eliminated by preventing criminals from breeding" and "humans will all be handsomer, healthier and happier."
Little wonder that futurists fell out of favour for the next 60 years. It wasn't until the late Sixties that crystal- ball gazers were back in demand. Cold War leaders needed to know what their enemy might do next, and professional futurology emerged in response. "The atomic age made it critical to think about the unthinkable, and prepare for it", says Timothy C Mack, president of the World Future Society.
As the 20th century progressed, the public slowly fell out love with futurology. And yet, although they were no longer famous, futurists continued to get work (and quietly distanced themselves from technological determinism – the idea that technology is the primary force shaping society).
The 21st century has brought a new generation of visionaries, who would rather not be known as futurists, instead calling themselves "change agents", "social innovators" or "innovation consultants".
Future- gazers have prospered in times when disaster threatens, but life is good. "Take people out of their regular context, and things happen that would never happen otherwise," says John Battelle of Web 2.0. "We tell our speakers that they have to amaze their audience. We're looking for 'Oh my God' moments."
Whether the internet can help to save us from our current predicament remains to be seen, however the new generation do seem to have learnt a few lessons from the past. They are not interested in predicting what will happen in 30 years time, but rather in working out what they can do today to make the future a little better.