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(April 2000) [Printed in "Reality Module No.15" as part of "Freeform Futurology I."]

(A casual series of articles exploring various aspects of our evolving society)

What Can & Cannot Be Done - The Limits of Futurology

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Society and technology are both complex evolving systems.

There are two things it is easy for a futurologist to do:

1). Take an existing technology and make it more widespread. e.g. If one in three households have a Personal Computer, make it one in two. If 17% of people surf the Internet at home - make it 34%. (It is a simple matter of plotting trends.)

2). Take an existing technology and improve upon it. e.g. We'll have 800MHz PCs by years end - make it 1.6GHz machines by 2002 and maybe 4GHz machines by 2004. (This is also a case of plotting trends - but you need to be more techno- savvy.)

The analogous practices in sociology would be extrapolating data from attitude & values surveys taken over many years - or from ABS demographics data. (We might find, for example, that people are becoming more accepting of gay marriage.)

Or sociologists might spot a new trend and imagine it becoming more common - e.g. The teenage practice of 'Group Dates' (6 mixed-sex people going out together) might expand into the twenty or thirty-something age-groups.

But predicting social trends is a lot harder than predicting technological trends. With technology we can assume things will get faster and better - but with social trends people can choose to step in many different directions.

There is one thing that is a lot harder for any of us to do:

3). Predict new technologies and their impacts.

This is where both the science-fiction writers and the professional futurologists can get it wrong.

Common examples might be the failure to predict the personal computer revolution, or to predict the strength of the resistance to widespread use of nuclear energy. (They predicted atomic-powered cars in the 1950s, that would run for years on nuclear reactors the size of fists - but they never appeared.)

History is filled with failed predictions.

If you are a keen reader of publications like "New Scientist" you can gain a good overview of the cutting-edge of science and technology. You will read descriptions of advances like electronic paper and robotic reconnaissance insects - and imagine a future world where such things have entered the mainstream.

But the history of science and technology is filled with wonderful ideas that failed to blossom - either because the technology wasn't yet up to the job (e.g. Teletext as an imperfect precursor to the World Wide Web), the product was too expensive (e.g. several generations of videophones), or the people saw no real advantage in using the product (e.g. record-players in cars).1

There is also the added complication that new technologies can take longer than expected to come to fruition. e.g. How long have we been waiting for nuclear fusion now?

Finally there are the unexpected discoveries. These are unpredictable to all save the most cognizant scientists - those working with the most radical of theoretical models. The results of an experiment that no one else thought to try can, and does, change everything. Examples in recent history might be high-temperature superconductors, or the creation in the laboratory of negative energy (which would be essential if we ever wanted a warp-drive a la Star Trek).

The unexpected can change everything. We can go along expecting technologies to become more commonplace, or to improve - and then some new development comes along that knocks all our expectations for six! (Can you imagine what effects nanotechnology will have on computing? Heck, we might mesh it with biotechnology and grow computers in our own skulls? What'll that do for IBM and the Microsoft progeny?)

The situation with social trends is even more volatile. We don't even have an "efficiency motif" at work here as we have with technology. The situation is more chaotic - and hence considerably more interesting. (To predict social trends DEEP KNOWLEDGE is essential. The new patterns emerging were buried all along in the waft. The new emerges - seemingly spontaneously - and either flourishes, mutates or dies.2)

Futurology is not a subject for the lazy or the ignorant. It requires the mind to hold onto a large collection of related concepts, it requires an ability to analyse and find patterns within a stack of accumulated data.

1 There is a wonderful website called The Retrofuture which gives many examples of technologies before their time.

2 Next issue I hope to include my "Philosophy of History" essay which will make the discussion of trends clearer.

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Related Works

- In This Series -
(1) What Can & Cannot Be Done - The Limits of Futurology (April 2000)
(2) The $20 Computer (April 2000)
(3) Smashing Windows(TM) - The Ascent of Non-linear Thinking (August 2000)
(4) Nu Plastic Yu! (February 2001)
(5) Nu Plastic Yu Tu! (April 2001)
(6) Artificial Minds? (AI Revisited) (August 2001)
(7) Video-On-Demand (June 2002)
(8) Changes (June 2002)
(9) The Implications of Immortality (June 2002)
(10) Cheating in Education (April 2003)


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Copyright © 2000 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.


Last Updated: 18 July 2011