Sam Ghandchiسام قندچيModern Futurism

Sam Ghandchi

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For more information about Modern Futurism see The Future File (1978) by Paul Dickson and an excellent older book by Alvin Toffler called The Futurists (1972).


The discourse of futurism is not an old discourse.  In the form of what we call modern futurism today, this discourse has been formulated after World War II by the German-born futurist Ossip K. Flechtheim in the U.S. and the French futurist Bertrand de Jouvenel.  Prior to this date, IMO, futurism did not exist as a separate discourse and it was part of the discourse of progress in the Western philosophy. 


The discourse of progress has been around at least since Aristotle in the Western Philosophy, and as I have noted it before in other articles, the terms humanity and progress have been formed at the same time around the second century AD.  In here, my main focus is on the futurism in particular and not progressive thought in general.


The primitive formation of the Industrial Society gave rise to releasing great potentials to build the human society.  Thus prediction of the future structure of society became a very important criteria of progressiveness; and many sociologists started studying the structures of the future society. 


The writings of Machiavelli and Sir Thomas More of Renaissance period laid out two main models of the future industrial society, the society that was built during the four centuries after the Renaissance.  Two centuries after these two thinkers, the first one who noted the importance of futurism as a scientific discipline was the French philosopher and satirist Voltaire.  Perhaps he, more than anyone else, had recognized the value of what we call *analytic*  futurism today.


The glacial changes of the last half century and the formation of post-Industrial society (see Daniel Bell's The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society), have caused a social upheaval similar to the start of the Industrial Society.  Thus viewing of the future, this time within a society with more potentials, has found a new importance.


But not only the world that is under study by the futurists is a different one from the world of Industrial Society; the futurism itself has also become more precise and its many aspects have become different fields of knowledge and inquiry.  At the present, the futurist outlooks relative to the newly forming post-industrial Society are where the outlooks of industrial society were relative to the industrial society in the eighteenth century.


However, I need to point out that the speed of the progress of the post-industrial world is so much faster than the speed of the progress of the industrial world that the process of maturing of the new outlooks may take two decades rather than two centuries which took for the new outlooks of the industrial society to mature.


Modern Futurism-Main Types


Viewing the future can be for answering one of the three following questions:


1.  What will very possibly happen in the future? (analytic)

2.  What can happen in the future? (visionary)

3.  What should happen in the future? (participatory)


The answer to the first question is *analytic* futurism, to the second question is *visionary* futurism, to the third question is *participatory* futurism.


Among the famous futurists, John Naisbitt's book "Megatrends" is a good example of *analytic* futurism.  R. Buckminster Fuller's works are good examples of *visionary* futurism.  Alvin Toffler's works are good examples of *participatory* futurism.


Analytic Futurism


The response to the *first question*, "what will very possibly happen in the future", i.e. *analytic* futurism, is studied by the evaluation of different existing social and economic trends and tendencies thru scientific investigations.


For example, using the *Delphi* method, a group of experts within a specific field of knowledge, use collective brainstorming, to come up with different alternative futures for the topic at hand.


This kind of question about the future, i.e. asking "what will very possibly happen in the future", has not been that much of interest to the thinkers of the past, whereas nowadays, it is becoming more and more a positive science, called social forecasting, and most of the university programs of Future Studies follow this type of futurism.


Future Studies or analytic futurism in the last four decades has grown tremendously in relationship to the government and corporate planning needs.  For example, research works conducted by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) are good examples of such research undertakings.


The futurists involved in this type of futurism are more and more developing and testing newer models and methods, such as models of systems theory and cybernetics, and are now able to some extent to predict some future qualitative changes too. 


For example, the Futures Group of Mr. John Naisbitt uses a methodology called *context analysis* to study the general social and economic trends in the world.  This method uses the space allocated to different topics in various newspapers in different periods and different places as its data; and this way discovers underlying or formative trends that are otherwise hidden to sociologists.  He has uncovered many glacial changes in the modern world this way.  His bestseller *Megatrends* was based on this methodology.


The latest achievement of *analytic* futurism is the study of different possible futures which is called study of *alternative futures*.  That is studying the different scenarios of future and the resulting consequences of their happening.  Thus reviewing what side-effects each alternative can cause in different realms of life and to study to plan to compensate the ill-effects of progress in one realm of life, on the other realms.  Sometimes the possible *side-effects* may become the reason to avoid a certain progress (for example studying the environmental effects can mean avoiding a certain type of manufacturing development).


In some countries such as Sweden, there is a government ministry dedicated to Future Studies which coordinates the future studies of various government and corporate agencies.  Centers of Future Studies in all the developed countries have been popping up during the last three decades.


One can hardly find any prudent government or corporation that would disregard the value of this type of futurism in their respective areas of interest.  Although this branch of futurism may not seem that important in relation to sketching one's ideals of a future society, but this type of futurism is definitely valuable even for forming one's ideals of the future, if used together with the other two types of futurism.  The Future Survey magazine of World Future Society specifically focuses on *analytic* futurism.


Visionary Futurism


The *second* type of futurism, that is *visionary futurism*, has been formed in answering to the question of "what can happen in the future?"


This type of futurism has fascinated the intellectuals long before Voltaire.  Even before Plato's Utopia, various schemes of the future in the philosophic and religious texts have been examples of *visionary* futurism.


This type of futurism is more an art than science and perhaps Plato's Republic, which influenced human mind for many centuries is the best example of this type of futurism (see Karl Popper's Open Society for a good critique of Plato's Republic).  Also Machiavelli' s Prince is another example of it.  I believe, Even Frederick Engels's book, "Socialism from Utopia to Scientific", should be considered as a work of art than science. 


The  topics of interest to *visionary* futurism and depicting ideals and visions of the future cannot really be the subject of science and are generally beyond science, although it can use science.  For example the analytic futurism  a science) can be used to *test* the ideas offered in the *visionary* futurism, but *visionary* futurism itself is more of an art than science.


In the area of *visionary* futurism, there have existed *two* tendencies in history:


1)  The *first* tendency within *visionary* futurism is the model of the Jewish religion, which offers the mythical picture of a golden era at the beginning of creation and the goal of humanity is to return to that lost paradise from which it was once driven out. 


This model has been used to certain degree in Marxism too.  In Marxian model, the original classless society is negated by class society  and then after negation of the class society in the future, a classless society of a higher kind, i.e. communism, which is an evolved version of the original primitive communism.  Thus instead of the circular movement model of Jewish religion, a Hegelian Spiral is offered.


The important characteristic of this model is that this model believes in a previous plan and design in the world, thus the plan of the future has been devised in the past.  Therefore either through the prophecy of the prophets, other people are informed of *parts* of this pre-existing Plan and Design, or according to some other beliefs laymen may never qualify to know any parts of the pre-existing Plan and Design at all.


Accepting this kind of teleological causation (philosophically called *final cause* ellat-e ghAii), which accepts the priority of effect to cause, not only gives rises to many problems about the freedom of action in many such religious and philosophic schools, but the other problem this viewpoint carries is that according to this view depiction of the future is not by evaluating the achievements of the past or in evaluating the world using knowledge and rationalism, but it is to be done thru believing in the principles announced by the prophets or the benevolent leaders of a doctrine.


In other words, in this view, the future outlook is not understood as a wish or as an ideal so that others can agree or disagree with it, instead, the future outlook is presented as a pre-ordained fate, announced for all time and all place.  Thus the defenders of this model, such as some apocalyptic cults, at times are very fanatic.


I should note that not all religious interpretation are fatalistic.  And not all atheistic views are free of it.  Many atheistic views suffer from this kind of fatalism, and at times have been worse than their religious counterparts.


2)  The *second* tendency of *visionary* futurism is found in literary works as early as the books of Aristotle and after him in the works of Lucretius, the Roman thinker of 99-55 BC.


According to this view of visionary futurism, future is the evolution of the objective realities and does not have a pre-determined goal and design outside of these objective realities.  Thus only by postulating indeterminacy, at least in the narrow sense of the word, talking about future has been meaningful for this second tendency of visionary futurism.


Aristotle, in the Book V of his Metaphysica, emphasizes *final causes* and thus is more teleological in that work and also in most of his biological works, and the concept of entelechy in those works, distances him from the position of efficient causation.  But, IMO, essentially Aristotle's writings and general outlook espouses a non-teleological evolutionary concept of the future.


I need to point out that following the *second* tendency of visionary futurism, when responding to the question of "what can happen in the future?", does *not* mean that one is acting within the boundaries of scientific evaluation of trends and existing conditions.  That would have been just *analytic* futurism.


Here, using the second tendency of visionary futurism, one actually uses rationalism and wisdom and learns in a general sense from the achievements of the past.  Thus the various possibilities of future are conjectured which may not necessarily be results of any existing or immediate trends.  Nonetheless, in contrast to the first tendency of *visionary* futurism, this second tendency of *visionary* futurism does not talk about anything which does not have an objective basis in the world.


Therefore, it is still different from *analytic* futurism, because the latter in addition to objectiveness, essentially focuses on the existing trends and their *existing* priorities, whereas this second type of *visionary* futurism may offer an option of the future as its ideal, and that option may in reality not be a powerful trend in the foreseeable future at all. 


IMO the second tendency of *visionary* futurism, although seemingly more scientific, but at the same time this very fact is also its weakness.  The element of imagination in arts and religion has a powerful creative quality, and that element has many times in history been a reason to start very new trends and institutions in the society, which have in many cases formed superior social forms than the continuation of existing trends and institutions. 


Of course, unlike the anarchists, one should not consider all the evolution of existing institutions and trends as "traditional" and thus as "bad" and to admire any *new* institution as "good", because of being new (please see my article entitled "Anarchism").   In fact, if there is anything to be "admired" blindly, maybe the thousand-year old traditions deserve more to be admired, as they have been tested for thousands of years for their side-effects.


For example, everyone knew the dangers of the institution of the Church, but nobody knew the dangers of a new institution like the Nazi party when it was climbing up to power in Germany, and the unfortunate experience of genocide and World War II was needed for people to recognize the menace of this new non-Christian evil in Europe.


Returning to the issue of the two tendencies of *visionary* futurism, I need to point out that if the element of imagination is understood correctly and used cautiously, the second tendency of *visionary* futurism can be augmented to bear better fruits.  Thus, IMO, the existence of a Utopia in visionary futurism does not mean a school of thought is completely partial to the first tendency of visionary futurism.


The utopian ideal does not mean an eternal destiny, it may be just the social ideal of the existing society and it is therefore not what is thought of as Utopia in the first tendency of visionary futurism, with its pre-ordained Design.  Maybe the visionary futurism in some writings of the past such as Frederick Engels's book on utopia was also a combination of both of the above tendencies.  A good example of such a utopian model in our times, which is a combination of the two tendencies, is a book called *computobia* by a Japanese futurist author, Yoneji Masuda.


Participatory Futurism


The *third* kind of futurism, i.e. *participatory* futurism is defined as a response to the question of "what should happen in the future?"


This group of futurists, in their plans and actions, specifically have a certain future in mind, in an area of life, such as education.  They focus in their actions to achieve the results intended in their plan, and thus are consciously participating in the formation of that future.  If for other people, their ideals and expectations of the future play an unconscious role in their participation in making the future, for the ones who believe in participatory futurism, this participation in creating the future is done consciously.


Thus for this group of the futurists, the topic of origination and formation of *alternative futures* finds a *practical* importance and is not just limited to analytic or visionary futurism.  Although participatory futurism does necessarily include other types of futurism, but these futurists make their decisions depending on their ideals of the future as to what *should* happen, and practically support those social programs which reach their ideals faster and better.


A good example of the activity of participatory futurism was the work on Proposition 13 in California.  Please see Alvin Toffler's book Third Wave for details (also available in Persian called moj-e sevom, published by Nashr-e-no, Tehran) .


From a distant past, the third type of futurism, i.e. *participatory* futurism was of interest among the philosophers of politics, more than any other thinkers.  The issues of ethics and law find significance in this realm of futurism, because the values and social priorities in every step, find practical importance in this type of futurism.


Thus philosophers of politics from Plato to John Locke paid a high attention to ethical and legal issues.  In fact, the differentiation of the question of "what can be done?" from "what should be done?", without which this separate area of futurism would be meaningless, is emphasized in Kant's philosophy of ethics.


Even Leninist social-activists, despite opposing Kant, were not able to explain the theoretical basis of their endeavors, without accepting the differentiation of the above two questions as legitimate in their ideology.  Of course, they still claimed that in the so-called "final analysis", there is no such differentiation!


One of the best examples of a plan for a participatory futurism in the modern times was the Manifesto of Condocret and its evolved version, the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, and finally the minimum and maximum programs of the communist parties.


Nowadays the futurists, instead of using the terms minimum and maximum programs, use short, medium and long-term plans and they also separate their programs geographically into local, countrywide, regional, and worldwide plans. 


In the area of participatory futurism, futurism is not just defined by the existing general trends or the future ideals of its participants.  In this realm, it reciprocally interacts with the cultural, ethical, social, legal, and political values of its local and universal environment.  In a word, in this type of futurism, *future* finds value as it turns into the *present*.




With the above short description, it is evident how futurism is inseparable from the idea of progress.  Needless to say that the formation of a post-industrial civilization has increased the need for paying attention to all three types of futurism.


The growth of the first type, i.e. *analytic* futurism, has been the main focus of the futurists in the last four decades and it is still their main interest.


The second type of futurism in our times, i.e. *visionary* futurism, has been essentially done by science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, or Gene Rodenbury.  Also some authors such as Gerard O'Neill in his book 2081, emphasizing the development of space colonies, have offered valuable insights for the future options of human race.


It is interesting to note that in the works of the science fiction authors of our time, the conditions and type of production are fantasized as changing rather than the social relations.  Even the *Next Generation* series of Star Trek, in its view of social relations, is not really that far from what we observe in our world today, but fantasized technological changes are abundant in the series.


In contrast, in the works of the Utopian authors of the past, such as Fourier, the production was mostly assumed as constant, and post-factory production was not even dreamed of, and the alternative social relations was central to the past Utopias.


At any rate, the second type of futurism, i.e. *visionary* futurism, has been of interest in the works of R. Buckminster Fuller and Gerard O'Neill.  I should add that the depicted new horizons are hardly anything beyond Plato or John Locke in their respective outlooks of future society.


Finally the third type of futurism, i.e. *participatory* futurism, fortunately, in contrast to the era of Industrial Revolution, is not essentially within the confines of the realm of politics, and different realms of life such as education, health, and mass media have found the utmost attention among the participatory futurists of our times.


A look at most of the programs on Public Broadcasting (PBS) channels in the US is a good illustration of this fact.   At the end, no need to repeat that futurism and rational thinking, although carrying new meanings today, in contrast to the seventeenth century, but they are still both inseparable from the ideas of progress and development.


Hoping for a democratic and secular futurist republic in Iran,


Sam Ghandchi

Sept 1, 2004


This article is part of Chapter 15 of the new edition of Futurist Iran book





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متون برگزیده سام قندچی



For a Secular Democratic & Futurist Republican Party in Iran