Futurists: Oracles or Commanders
Related article in Persian
مطلب مرتبط به زبان فارسی: آینده نگری چیست؟
Postscript 060319: The following article is being republished unchanged and has still not been translated to Persian. This article was in response to views that following the downturn of California's Silicon Valley in early 2000's, brought up lot of doubts about the predictions of Modern Futurists of the last half century concerning the progress of Information Society in Post-industrial economies.
پی نوشت 13 خرداد 1398: این مقاله را که 16 سال پیش تحت عنوان «آینده نگرها: پیشگویان معبد دلفی یا فرماندهان» منتشر شده بود، بدون هیچگونه تغییر، تجدید چاپ می شود و متأسفانه هنوز فرصت ترجمه ی آن به زبان فارسی میسر نشده است. این نوشتار در پاسخ به دیدگاه هایی نوشته شده بود که پس از سقوط سیلیکانولی کالیفرنیا در نخستین سالهای 2000 تردیدهای زیادی را در مورد پیش بینی های آینده نگرهای مدرن در نیم قرن گذشته در ارتباط با پیشرفت جامعه اطلاعاتی در اقتصاد فراصنعتی، مطرح می کردند.
There are times in history that an individual or a group is challenged with a task, for which they had never planned for. It is ironic that the futurists, who are known for planning, are facing such a dilemma in our times, being asked to be commanders rather than oracles, something for which they had not planned for. Before I explain my point further, let me first mention an incident this month.
There was an article in the Wired Magazine entitled "Futurism is Dead", by an ex-staff of WFS. In response, Cindy Wagner, the editor of The Futurist Magazine of World Future Society (WFS), has written an excellent rebuttal, entitled "Futurism is NOT Dead", which thoroughly answers all the issues raised. It is interesting that the Wired' s article was complaining why the Futurists are not prophets with greater hits, and of course the answer would be what C. Huygens wrote over three hundred years ago in 1698 that:
"I can't pretend to assert anything as positively true (for that would be madness) but only to advance a probable guess, the truth of which every one is at his own liberty to examine. If anyone therefore shall gravely tell me, that I have spent my time idly in a vain and fruitless enquiry after what by my own acknowledgment I can never come to be sure of; the answer is, that at this rate he would put down all Natural Philosophy as far as it concerns itself in searching into the Nature of things: In such noble and sublime Studies as these, 'tis a Glory to arrive at Probability, and the search itself rewards the pain." (Quoted from Plurality of Worlds, Steven J. Dick, Cambridge University Press, 1982, P. 176).
What is the Real Grievance?
I think there is something else at work here. I think futurists in the last 40 years have basically thought of their role to be that of an oracle, of course with the caveats expressed by Huygens. And basically world development of the last half century proved Modern Futurists to be right. Not because of predicting adoption of email, when USPS is still making money by postage stamps, that the Wired author is worried about; and Cindy Wagner has utterly answered, but because futurists, as early as Bertrand De Jouvenel and Ossip K. Flechtheim, predicted that a new civilization beyond capitalism and socialism was being formed, which later Daniel Bell called post-industrial society, and in reality the post-industrial information society has proved to be a right prediction. So when reviewing the last half century, the futurists have earned a very top grade as oracles.
I think what is bothering the information society enthusiasts is the reality of the unbelievable failure of the new economy in the last three years, particularly in its birthplace of Silicon Valley of California, with massive unemployment, and their anguish is actually an expression of their desire for the futurist oracles to fix this situation of the high tech. And of course, that is a problem which cannot not be solved by oracles and it needs commanders.
WFS, the biggest futurist organization worldwide, is being asked to take a leading political role to reverse the 3-year failure of information society, which is highlighted in the demise of the technology centers in the U.S. and abroad. In other words, futurism is not dead. Silicon Valley is dead and a new leadership is needed, and not new individuals with the same failed party platforms of the old parties.
Now looking at WFS, it has basically seen its role as a sounding board of analytic futurism, with excellent contributions in trends analysis, and related disciplines to define what *may* happen. And as far as visionaries, today as noted by Cindy Wagner, there are great visionaries like Ray Kurzweil who are associated with WFS, and their contributions is equal to a Buckminster Fuller plus an Einstein, when tackling the questions of what *can* happen and our far-reaching horizons. And with regards to issues like social justice, futurists are the only ones who have anything to say as an answer to dilemmas of our times, when both the left and right of old industrial world have no answer to offer. Therefore, even in the area of visionary futurism, we are far ahead.
But when it comes to participatory futurism, when a futurist asks what *should* happen, we have relied on others to represent us in the political arena, and we have failed. I think our biggest shortcoming is that after 50 years, the futurists still do not have a political party in the U.S., and we do not even have futurist political factions within the Democratic or Republican parties. Then why are we surprised that the Information Society is taking the back seat when the old industries like auto, airlines, and oil are promoted and even subsidized, when the high tech is bleeding and suffering so badly.
I think the following is what is bothering the new technology enthusiasts. They know futurism is not dead and in fact is the opposite, and futurism is one of the most blossoming thoughts of our times. Nonetheless they are angry of the current failures of information society, and their cry is to ask the futurists to be the commanders, to lead the world into the 21st Century post-industrial society, rather than being at the mercy of those who are subsidizing failing industries, the political parties and lobbies that represent the old industries. The old society has a strong political structure to support it, when the information society has not created its own alternative political force.
The approach of WFS to work with both the Democratic and Republican parties, and not entering partisan politics, is resulting in futurists to be the benefactors of other political parties, political forces that do not basically have the information society in mind, and are either representing agriculture and oil of the South, or the auto and other old smoke-stack industries of the North. And they have their lobbies in Washington, whereas high tech industry hardly has a political representation and is just used by all other interests of the old society.
As I have noted in my article Futurists and Politics, the early founders of Futurism were very political, but as time passed, futurists focused more on economic, cultural and social issues and lost sight of political arena. It was understandable why we made that decision. It was because as long as futurism had not matured, getting focusing on politics, could have distracted the futurists from developing our own thoughts in different areas of life, and could have reduced us to extensions of plans and platforms of other outlooks that were already strong in all disciplines. But the situation is different now, and after 40 years, the futurists have developed in all areas of inquiry.
Any civilization that has succeeded to replace an older one, has been by the advocates of the new civilization taking a political role to challenge the older civilization. One can avoid all the pitfalls of the past political forces, for example the error of statism of the socialists. But one cannot think of the need for political leadership to be frivolous, and leave it to representatives of old agricultural and industrial civilizations, and still expect things to work out for the information economy.
Futurism, not only is not dead, but it has been successful, and this is why such a political leadership role is expected from WFS. The futurists are the only ones who have solutions for the global and national issues, and it is not just something selfish to strive for our platform. It is what will help Americans and the world at large. Our platform is the way to solve the current crisis in the U.S. and abroad. A new political force in the U.S. could not be started by all the wealth of Ross Peron, but it can be started with the vision of the futurists.
In the last 20 years I have written about the retrogressive development of Iran following the reactionary 1979 Iranian Revolution. What that event has shown, is that the progress of post-industrial society is not automatic, and a reversal even to a Medieval society is possible. Thus the need for a political force that clearly sides with the post-industrial new civilization, anywhere in the world, is a must, to avoid such reversals, and to build a new society.
Hoping for a democratic and secular futurist republic in Iran,
Dec 19, 2003
پلاتفرم حزب آينده نگر
Futurism vs Terrorism (Online Book, Third Edition)
ایران آینده نگر: آینده نگری در برابر تروریسم
For a Secular Democratic & Futurist Republican Party in Iran