The Future: A Very Short Introduction. Jennifer M. Gidley. Oxford University Press. 2017.

The Future. Nick Montfort. MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series. 2018.

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In 1755, the scientific ingenuity and the profound belief in progress of the Enlightenment inspired the French philosophes Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert to create a new type of encyclopaedia, traditionally conceived of as a treasure chest full of historical examples of virtue and folly. Diderot and D’Alembert’s encyclopaedia, by contrast, anticipated what the future would want to know about the past: what a contemporary referred to as ‘a Jerusalem of philosophy that would last more than a thousand years’ (233). In Diderot’s view, the speed of change in the eighteenth century had rendered the canon obsolete, and intellectuals should ‘resolve to work only for the generations to come because our moment passes and hardly will a great enterprise be completed before our generation exists no longer’ (234). However, both philosophers were dogged by concerns about the content of this message in a bottle. How does one summarise contemporary worries about past, present and future in short yet illuminating entries?

The authors of two new short guides from Oxford University Press and MIT Press, respectively, have recently faced the same question. Theirs were not designed to be books for generations to come, but for those already here. Irrespective of your audience, anticipating future trends based on an accelerating present, then as now, remains a difficult intellectual exercise. Recent events around the world have shattered expectations about politics, economics and technology. Climate change is forcing historians, economists and policymakers to reassess their approaches. The 2008 economic crisis, in turn, prompted calls to reconsider the future of economic forecasting. The election of Donald Trump and the UK vote for Brexit have cast profound doubts on the art of polling; dystopian fears about the political effects of Facebook that were once projected onto the future have crashed from the sky into the present. The future on the horizon resembles a UFO – to many, it appears fleeting, seemingly impossible, calls into question the sanity of its believers, and more broadly constitutes a source of febrile disagreement among those interested in the subject.

In this context, it is worth considering what the publication of these two short guides to the future says about our time. The collections they belong to, for one, seek to provide ‘short introductions’, ‘essential knowledge’ and ‘stimulating ways into new subjects’, and their success is a testament to the demand for information that can be consumed rapidly and that can reach a wide audience.

Jennifer M. Gidley, President of the World Futures Studies Federation, is the author of A Very Short Introduction to The Future. Gidley’s goal is to introduce readers to the global academic field of future studies, a discipline based on ‘the art and science of taking responsibility for the long-term consequences of our decisions and our actions today’. A brief tour of how historians have predicted the future through prophets, calendars, clocks and utopias gives way to a drawn-out exploration of Gidley’s field. This, according to some scholars, emerged from the tensions of the Cold War through the research of the US military RAND Corporation. A dazzling litany of authors and approaches introduce the reader to the shifts of the 1960s and 1970s, when futurists held the first world conferences in the pursuit of studying ‘multiple futures’ to redress ‘such enemies as urban sprawl, hunger, lack of education, and growing alienation’. The 1980s saw the expansion of future studies beyond the United States and Europe, and the 1990s and 2000s saw the absorption of future studies by consultancies.

The reader is then presented with a list of contemporary approaches within the field that range from the predictive approach to the future, based on quantitative data, forecasting surveys, trend analysis and technology assessments, to the participatory, which seeks empowerment transformation through ‘collaborative visioning, action research, and activism’. In this sense, the opening sections of Gidley’s book serve as a crammed introduction to the history of her discipline.

However, the book loses coherence from here onward. Gidley swerves back to a broader discussion about futures in popular culture. The author bemoans the lack of serious appreciation for her field as ‘no matter how many scholarly books are written about futures studies, or how many university courses provide education in future concepts, the media frequently trivializes the field’: popular discussions about ‘crystal balls’ undermine the seriousness of the discipline.  At the same time, Gidley is concerned that ‘if futures research becomes too isolated within its own domain, the field may not remain up to date with other leading-edge discourses’, and that it is ‘dominantly involved with robotics, drones, and artificial intelligence’.

 Image Credit: (TORLEY CC BY SA 2.0)

From Chapter Four, Gidley explores possible future challenges posed by robots and then moves on to discuss transhumanism and posthumanism, topics that appear largely disconnected with the rest of the book. In Chapter Five, these aspects are tied to the study of the future through a discussion about how we might look at it in two ways: through ‘human-centred futures’, which embrace a positive vision of humans as fair and kind beings who strive for progress, and ‘technotopian futures’, albeit closer to dystopian visions, which emphasise the atomising aspects of technology, understood as antagonistic to humans, humanity and progress. Gidley fails to establish any links with her earlier discussion about participatory empowerment and activism, and how this might fit into this binary.

 

Instead, the author seeks to show that the genealogy of this binary between human-centred and technotopian futures can be traced back to the Enlightenment, before moving on to explore the twentieth-century origins of transhumanism – the belief that technology can enable humankind’s evolution – only to return to the eighteenth century with a section on the contemporary reinvention of human-centred time. These discussions pave the way for her call to arms, and an important point that is unfortunately unrelated to the rest of the chapter: (presumably public) investment should go towards education so the public may be able to draw on the benefits of new technology, instead of simply focusing on dreams that may outperform humans. Based on research by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and Gidley herself, the last chapter outlines ‘grand global challenges’. Here, the author suggests development measures, such as ‘microfinance, alternative currencies, and the love economy’, are not sufficient solutions to address the problem of ‘the ethical/moral vacuum lying under the greed of the grasping billionaire minority who must daily turn a blind eye to the needs of the common good. Only individual moral awakening can achieve this.’

As a whole, Gidley’s work amounts to a patchwork pamphlet for future studies. There is no discernible line of argument, and central and peripheral subjects exist uncomfortably side-by-side. A number of good insights are lost in a text that is at once an apology for the field of futures studies, a long complaint about the lack of general understanding of the subject and a prosaic set of dilemmas and solutions. The text reads like someone hurriedly scrambled together a series of encyclopaedia entries about the future, and reinforces the sense that conceptualising the art of prediction in a compact and readable format remains an elusive goal, whether one is an eighteenth-century philosopher or a futures studies academic.

Nick Montfort’s The Future sidesteps discussions about the art of future prediction to instead embrace lessons from historical examples of ‘future-making’. Montfort explores the ways artists, writers and scientists have experimented, debated and ultimately created our present – ‘we are living in their future’. The book guides the reader through a clear narrative with an unassuming voice, and deploys endless pithy examples that stimulate the reader’s imagination. Montfort begins by challenging the reader to reimagine familiar spaces – such as the kitchen – and how progress in gender rights and technological development might prompt us to consider the reconfiguration of these sites. According to Montfort, today one may consider installing a Soylent closet that provides nourishment and opens up the space traditionally used by the kitchen to other uses, ‘such as watching Netflix’, but warns that in the next five years this idea may itself seem dated.

The type of hopeful progress that Enlightenment thinkers envisioned may not stand up to the challenges posed by global warming, but the ‘belief that the future can be different’ is a valuable starting point ‘from which a powerful idea of future-making can develop’. Utopian works provide us with an otherwise forgotten toolbox of ideas to think about the future. The popular, the impossible and the satirical become flying transportation devices to glide over the stultifying traffic jams of today’s news cycles. Montfort presents the reader with instances of artists and thinkers using the technology they wrote about to expand the reach of their ideas, ‘because they saw there were important new connections to be made’. The author explores the intolerant legacies of posterity-oriented movements such as the Italian Futurists as well as the early-twentieth-century world fairs, spaces that opened up the doors to people who sought to engage with material innovations designed in different parts of the world that related to their everyday experience and with debates occurring in the public sphere. Examples of future-making rely on such a combination of personal experience and social engagement. Montfort explores the everyday preoccupations and ingenious concepts that led to the development of the internet and the computer mouse. By framing today’s world as the product of past future-makers, Montfort grants the reader a clear example of how everyone can produce new visions and new futures.

A curious point of convergence between Gidley’s and Montfort’s books is the interest in the end of World War Two as a starting point for future-oriented research. Montfort highlights how many building blocks of today’s World Wide Web were formulated in the aftermath of the war by scientists who sought to build on the international cooperation prompted by the conflict. In this context, ideas about a connected web are presented as the opposite of the Manhattan Project, the international project of cooperation that bequeathed the first nuclear weapon. Montfort emphasises the fact that many of these attempts at future-making, particularly those related to the internet, arose out of dark times, and encourages the reader to think of ways to begin laying the basis for more hopeful futures.

Montfort’s comments, and the publication of these two books, speak to today’s broader unease with the future. In his seminal work The Past is a Foreign Country, from which this review takes its title, David Lowenthal explored the ways we understand the past, and criticised the prevalence of nostalgia as a means to interact with history. After the liberal consensus froze the future in a framework of predictable teleological progress, today’s publications exhibit the growing pains in the development of a way of thinking about the future that political debates had long forgotten.

All over the political spectrum, there is today a nostalgia for the future. From the right, George Osborne writes of his upcoming book, The Age of Unreason: ‘my book is about the future. I want to apply the lessons I’ve learnt in victory and defeat to the urgent challenge of this age of unreason.’ On the left, Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work seeks to ‘reclaim […] future-oriented possibilities of our society’, and Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World talks about ‘forgotten’ forms of utopian thought, and ‘the return’ and ‘the recovery’ of utopia. The cynic would see these works, alongside Gidley’s and Montfort’s books, in a broader context of the present abuse of the language of time and history for political purposes, whether in Emmanuel Macron’s comments about the need for a new Napoleon, Trump’s appeals to white America or in Boris Johnson’s sanitising nods to England’s imperial glory days. In this light, the focus on past ways of engaging with the future is merely part of a broader manipulation of the language of expectations. Yet, a more hopeful reader might see in these works an empowering attempt to engage the realities of our days; an incipient language drawn from the debris of past projections, predictions and visions of that limitless horizon which we once called the future.

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Notes:

  • This blog post appeared originally on LSE Review of Books.
  • The post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image credit: seier+seier CC BY 2.0
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Ed Jones is an LSE graduate and a PhD candidate in history at the University of Cambridge, with a focus on early modern Spain.