Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Future of Futurism

A June 29, 2006 Slate piece by Reihan Salam reflects on futurism and had some fascinating insights. An excerpt appears below.
Even so, it's not fair to say that all futurism is misguided. Just most of it. In his 1976 Time essay "Is There Any Future in Futurism?" Stefan Kanfer wrote that you could divide futurists into neo-Malthusians and Cornucopians. Neo-Malthusians are convinced that the world is going to hell. Some, like The Population Bomb's Paul Ehrlich, blamed population growth; others, like the Club of Rome, blamed economic growth. Either way, the prescription remained the same: You've got to change your evil ways, Earthlings.

Is Futurism Dead? (New York Times, 1982)
Progress to Counter Catastrophe Theory? (1975)
Going Backward into 2000 (1966)
The Population Bomb: Scenario 1 (1970)
The Population Bomb: Scenario 2 (1970)
The Population Bomb: Scenario 3 (1970)


Cory Gross said...

Pretty sound argument, if delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

One of the weakness I find with utopian futurism, and especially transhumanism, is that completely ignores how human beings have behaved for 10,000 years. Heck, it completely ignores how human beings behave today. Many are the times that I've been lashed to the bonfire by the faithful for saying that transhumanist technology most directly benefits and strengthens existing power structures while undermining environmentalism, usually being labelled a "luddite" who doesn't understand the coming "Singularity" because I apply the standards of access, money and opportunity that exist right here and now.

My favorite kind of futurism now looks beyond the whole existing Western paradigm, whether utopian or dystopian in its outlook, and explores other ways of living (perhaps post-collapse?). The real futurism isn't in mechanical arms and flying cars... it's in spreading social justice and living in healthy ways with the environment.

slartibartfast said...

@cory gross:

I am convinced that the most serious threat to a positive singularity are the foibles of the society that creates it.

. said...

Cory Gross: Here's a story you might enjoy, a bit of modern futurism that ties into that whole argument.

Mark Plus said...

The right's version of the doomsaying seems to attract less notice, and it usually involves finance: Social Security, Medicare, the Federal Reserve System, fiat money, regulations on business, etc. will allegedly cause a financial apocalypse. You can find warnings of this sort going back to at least the time of the New Deal, but for some reason their proponents don't attract the criticism and ridicule directed towards neo-Malthusians usually associated with the political left.

Anonymous said...

About the only thing I confidently expect "the" future to be is imaginary. What actually emerges in the mix becomes a part of present reality. For example, some daily present behaviors (from recycling to political kvetching) are unconsciously inspired by the way we imagine the future, whether technoprogressive, Malthusian, dystopian or (nostalgia, anyone?) post-apocalyptic. At least we're still imagining a range of futures, with a certain stubborn faith in the usefulness of that habit.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading a great book right now called The Great Funk by Thomas Hine. In it he states that before the 70s most visions of the future showed cityscapes with no old buildings or decay, just the shiny happy future. In the 70s most visions of future cityscapes had a mix of shiny buildings towering above slums filled with decay and disappointment.

I hadn't really noticed that before, but it's really true. The 70s was mostly unrelentingly disappointing, so people tended to embrace the wonderful things we had in the past, but not have much hope for the future.

In the popular films of the 70s, I can't think of many instances of them having much of a positive outlook on the times.

slartibartfast said...

@ Bonnach

I look into my crystal ball and see...

The coming economic collapse will bringing forth a pessimism that will make the movies and literature of the 70s seem pollyannish by comparision.

That, and afros and flaired pants are going to make a comeback. On everyone.

Anonymous said...


Around 1968 "Sauron Got the Ring" and what had been postwar optimism became pessimism. I noticed this shift in SF lit from old Analogs of that period, when dystopian futures began to predominate. From Bright Future to Dark Future.

Around Y2K, another shift took place; alternate-history and "Forward into the Past" time-travel became prominent, fleeing the future into counterfactual/changed pasts. From Dark Future to No Future.

Look at the cable channels -- All Global Warming, All The Time, Megadisasters, and Earth After Man. We're All Gonna Die, It's All Over But The Screaming, and then It's Only Gonna Get Worse.

It parallels the Darbyite End of the World Scenario, its seven years of Antichrist Dystopia followed by The End. Bright Future, then Dark Future, then No Future.

There's a general Apocalyptic Zeitgeist going around today; Population Bomb/Global Warming/Peak Oil et al is just Left Behind for those who "have evolved beyond all that".

Anonymous said...

Addendum to the above:

Neo-Malthusians are convinced that the world is going to hell. Some, like The Population Bomb's Paul Ehrlich, blamed population growth; others, like the Club of Rome, blamed economic growth. Either way, the prescription remained the same: You've got to change your evil ways, Earthlings.


Like I said above, it's Left Behind and Late Great Planet Earth without the Christian angle.

slartibartfast said...

Calling people's points of view 'neo-malthusian' without providing any evidence to refute them is as useless has being 'neo-malthusian' without having any evidence to support the claim.

Wait - it's worse: it doesn't even provide a new point of view to the debate that can be investigated and build upon.