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Why the future isn't what it used to be.

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Monday 10 September 2007

Richard Watson, publisher, What's Next


Why the future isn't what it used to be

There's no time like the present to worry about the future. Futurology is a growth business at the moment (who saw that one coming?). The reason for this, I think, is because of the level and speed of change. We are in the midst of a technological and societal revolution, although we are so close to it we sometimes don't see it. But we can feel it.

Things that seemed certain barely a decade ago are now regularly turned upside down or called into question. This is a decade that has witnessed events like 9/11, Enron and WMD. Ten years ago Google didn't even exist and Climate Change was a distant academic theory. Five years ago nobody had heard of Paris Hilton (oh the joy!), YouTube or MySpace.

To some extent this anxiety is generational. People over the age of about forty tend to go all misty eyed about the past, which is perceived (quite often incorrectly) as a safer, more certain place. Hence the current boom in nostalgic products and experiences ranging from the 'new' VW Beetle and Mini through to old video games (Atari Flashback 2 Classic game console for instance) and 'vintage' fashion.

But it's not just the past that's being reworked. Even the 'old' future is being revisited and commented upon by people that somehow feel more comfortable with the promised futures of the 1950s and 1960s rather than the one that actually showed up. Back in the 1950s there were flying cars, x-ray specs and personal jetpacks. In the 1960s we had personal teleportation devices, moon bases, Smell-O-Vision television and warp-drive. At least we had all these things in our imagination. So why have none of these things shown up yet in reality? Where did our expected future go?

Our futuristic frustration has been building up for a many years. First there was the millennium - nothing really seemed very different on 1 January 2000 did it? Even the much-anticipated Y2K meltdown ended up as an anticlimax. Similarly, Stanley Kubrick made us believe that 2001 would be a futuristic date, but all we got was a bunch of lunatics with old-fashioned knives taking over some airplanes (not to be underestimated for its impact, but not quite the life-changing event that many people were quite anticipating).

Indeed, it almost feels as though 'progress' has slowed down or been put on hold recently. Look at food for instance. Sure we have 'nutraceuticals' and 'functional foods' but it's hardly dinner-in-a-pill is it? Indeed, we seem to be rushing headlong in the opposite direction with organics, local produce, seasonality, heirloom vegetables and comfort food from the 1970s. Even Margaret Fulton's cookbooks are popular again.

When we think of the future we usually think of it in terms of space travel or time machines, but what has actually arrived is no less fantastic or improbable. The Internet, iPods, mobile phones, industrial robots, microwave ovens, smoke detectors, GPS, DNA fingerprinting, robotic insects and other inventions are just as futuristic as silver space suits and ray guns. Moreover, many things that were indeed predicted made a brief appearance only to vanish before you could say Sinclair C5 or segue.

So what's the lesson here? First, many futuristic ideas haven't shown up but given enough time they will. Remember aquatic hotels? How about meat grown in a laboratory or domestic robots? Cultured meat is around the corner, there are already a couple of aquatic hotels in existence and in 2004 there were 610,000 robots in domestic service worldwide (By the end of 2007it is estimated that there will be 6.1 million robots in domestic service world wide). In other words, future predictions can come true if only you give them enough time or allow for the fact that our futuristic fantasies sometimes show up in a slightly different form.

The second lesson is that the future usually arrives subtlety and unannounced. We are all waiting for aliens, hover-boards, time travel and eternal youth whereas what actually shows up is computer speech recognition, data mining, Astroturf, cloning, IVF, digital photography, disposable contact lenses and Viagra.

But we shouldn't get too hung up on technology. The reason that many of our scientific fantasies haven't made it into reality is that many futurists make the mistake of forgetting about human history and psychology. People have a need to interact with other people and there is a limit on how much technology we can all take.

So can the future ever be predicted? In my opinion there are two kinds of futurists. Those that don't really know what's going to happen and those that don't know that they really don't know what's going to happen. All we can say with any degree of certainty is that the future will be recognisable in some parts and totally alien in others.


Richard Watson  

Publisher of What's Next , a quarterly report on global trends