Are We Creating the Future by Predicting It?

· April 4, 2012

With all this talk of foresight strategy we have reached a point where the lines between predicting and creating the future are starting to blur. It says on the Wikipedia article for strategic foresight that strategic foresight is a fairly recent attempt to differentiate “futurology” from “futures studies”. It arises from the premise that:

The future is not predictable;
The future is not predetermined; and
Future outcomes can be influenced by our choices in the present.

If William Gibson never wrote Neuromancer how different would our digital world be? How influential was 1984 to Stasi and Homeland Security? In Stand on Zanzibar John Brunner is said to have predicted the Internet. I actually believe that Transmetropolitan predicted YouTube. The main character of Transmetropolitan, Spider Jerusalem, flips through thousands of extremely vapid user-created television staions. The comic was was written in 1997 and YouTube was created in 2005.

It is often hard to say what the difference between predicting and creating the future is. I’m reminded of a horror story about a camera that took pictures of the future. Every time the main character took a picture with the camera something horrible would come out. Was the camera predicting the future or creating it? If the pictures weren’t taken in the first place would the future be completely different?

I think all dystopian writers share the burden of witnessing how influential their ideas are. If you have a negative vision for humanity and it ends up coming true how much of this is due to your own influence? If we recognize patterns that lead us to think we are heading for catastrophe should we share them with the world? Or is it better not to put these memes into the cultural DNA pool?

Are negative predictions dangerous because they stand the risk of becoming influential? Hugo de Garis talks about an upcoming artilect war between machines, cyborgs, and non-enhanced humans. Is Hugo de Garis increasing the probability of an artilect war by putting these ideas in the open? Is Ray Kurzweil increasing the probability of the Singularity? As visionaries, we cannot help but recognize patterns and share predictions whether they lead us to a happy or depressing ending.

If we went by the model of strategic foresight we might conclude that the Singularity would only happen because of our influence. The future could not be predicted and the only thing Ray Kurzweil would be doing is influencing the future. This does not sound very rational to me. Technological acceleration, much like science, is more than the sum of our influence. It seems clear to me that Kurzweil is predicting the future as opposed to creating it. The Singularity would happen whether Kurzweil was around to discuss it or not.

Of course I cannot deny that memetics have a huge influence on the outcome of the future. Memetics may not be the guiding force of scientific evolution but it is the guiding force of culture. The evolution of technology and the evolution of ideas are simultaneously shaping our future. I recently wrote an article called Utopia Incorporated in which I discussed the cultural patterns I have been observing in 2012. My predictions are related to a massive decentralization of autonomous communities fusing together elements of Occupy, Burning Man, and SXSW. Now that this prediction is out there I can’t help but feel like its probability has increased.

There are various types of Futurists I would like to make the distinction between:

The Scientific Futurist – People like Ray Kurzweil would fall into the category. These are people who predict the future based on scientific patterns and technological trends. A Scientific Futurist may predict developments in AI, virtual reality, genetic research, longevity, etc. Many of the writers for H+ Magazine are Scientific Futurists.

The Cultural Futurist – Marshall McLuhan would be a prime example of a Cultural Futurist. He is known for predicting the global connectivity of the Internet and used the term “global village” to describe it. While Scientific Futurists are more likely to predict the future than Cultural Futurists, Cultural Futurists are more likely to influence it. This is largely due to the connection between culture and memetics.

The Professional Futurist – These are the foresight strategists who have made a career out of Futurism. A Professional Futurist may have both Scientific and Cultural insights but unlike the Scientific and Cultural Futurists the Professional Futurist is working in Futurism to assist a company or organization.

The Sci-Fi Futurist – Sci-Fi Futurists are visionaries who write science fiction. They both predict and influence the future with their writing. A Sci-Fi Futurist may not realize they are a Futurist until they see their ideas manifest in Science and Culture later on.

Some people start out as Sci-Fi Futurists and later become Scientific or Cultural Futurists. After they realize they have the power to create and/or predict the future they decide to focus on fact instead of fiction. Scientific Futurists may become Professional Futurists for tech companies while Cultural Futurists may become Professional Futurists for media organizations.

It is hard for many Scientific and Cultural Futurists to become Professional Futurists because foresight strategy states that the future is not predictable and can only be influenced. It turns Futurism into a series of actions as opposed to visions. Where would the future be without vision? We need visions to keep us creating the future. Without vision what is action? I don’t want to say that the future is not predictable. We are engaging in the act of predicting and creating it simultaneously.

Many scientists argue that Futurism is not scientific because it focuses on possibilities as opposed to tangible facts. I disagree. There is a definite science to the future, and I would go as far as saying that this is the basis of Transhumanism.

Rachel Haywire is a Transmedia Artist and Cultural Futurist. She is the founder of the Extreme Futurist Festival which is a 2 day entertainment and tech convention focusing on radical performers and voices of the new evolution.

28 Responses

  1. Definitely a Sci-Fi Futurist myself. I hope to create a category called “Satirical Futurist,” which would withhold the possibility that the Singularity doesn’t happen and we all have nano-egg on our face in 50 years.

  2. Oyebola Folajimi Kehinde says:

    Nice one there. How do we handle the future when it comes i3fwe do not anticipate?

  3. Lobo7922 says:

    Excelent article, I think we should see the ways to influence the future and make and effort to make the best use of that power.

  4. Khani says:

    This sentiment almost borders on the idea of mystical “pathworking”, where you realize your deepest fears and your greatest desires by sheer expression of emotional intent. And in essence that is what the world of humanity is doing; technological advancement itself is a meme expression of human drives, for good or for bad.

    But in the end we should conclude this is superstition. The world is what we make it. We must not deny bad outcomes, or navelstare ourselves in to a puddle by only evangelizing the potential good outcomes.

    I seriously don’t like either, largely because I am me, here in 2012, and the future is so far removed from my actual being I don’t just have to plan for it, I also have to live, entertain myself, wonder about things and feed my mind.

    There IS a market for all scenarios and narratives, good good or for bad, which is as much a reflection of the current as it is an exploration of potential things in far far away maybe neverland. Besides, most people we both know, including you and me, may very well be dead in the future.

    And who gives a flying hoot about a future where either you or me would be dead? Too boring for words, right? The future only has any value insofar we are in it.

  5. i am happy to see the idea being layed out for discussion. in my own evolution following since more then ten years allmost feverishly all news concerning exotic and most efficient energy generation devices, there was a hope and a strong wish building up that it may be this over efficient tech what might be able to save our human pool of knowledge from the perception that all things or most things in our reach are scarce.

    so then i was probably in a naive way of wishing dreaming idealizing creating a blueprint of how i imagine our global family, the human part … with my utopian novel “ascende, maima, perma and mary the lifeship”, up to read at novlet, feedbooks as well as at bookrix ….

    i do not believe that this my personal wish and how i come near to sketching a blueprint for eventual future happenings … is something what suits everyone and therefore i am allways happy to see other concepts and scenarios being presented in utopian manners…. and then, on the other hand, some stuff what i wish for in my writings do happen … most probably not because of my writings having influenced, but because i picked up ideas like vertical farming and simultaneously others picked up the ideas and manage to build it … as of today, there is a vertical forest being planted into a multistorey building in milano, italy and a massive greenhouse project underway in linkoeping, sweden.

    another writing of me what i was able to think of just recently…. depicts a scenario where a politician unexpectedly radically changes his mind and starts a global movement of understanding. the beauty of it i find it to be its anarchistic evolution… kind of here and there people get together in their neighbourhood to try finding nonviolent sollutions for situations traditionally armed forces would be called for help … and decentrally at many places people from all societal groups and beliefs invest themselfs at neighbourhood meetings to exercise themselves to become confident and trusting in their own abilities to understand roots of conflicts … so the fictional scenario culminates with politicians and voting initiatives to simultaneously but not orchestrarted, bring forward propositions onto the national parliaments everywhere … aiming to shift funds away from army and police towards the nonviolent committed neighbourhood assemblies … and finally a multilateral process engages itself of all armed forces everywhere getting abolished … by us the people being ready to trust in ourselves to keep the peace without weapons.

  6. Paul Budding says:

    Rachel, Your categorizing has got me thinking. I also posted this at Kurzweilai forum under ‘Categorizing Futurists’

    In what I write here I want to distinguish Cultural Futurism from Sci-Fi Futurism.

    The Cultural Futurist could look as if they are creating a Memeplex. But as we shall see theres more to Cultural Futurism than that.

    Jung writes “… while personal complexes never produce more than a personal bias, archetypes create myths, religions and philosophical ideas that influence and set their stamp on whole nations and epochs”.1

    I like the idea of updating Jung’s terms… bringing them into the memetic field.

    Personal Complexes = Repressed Memes
    Archetypes = Memeplexes

    Memeplexes are groups of associations invested with positive numinosity and cemented into the unconscious. It is repressed material as far as energetic conscious thinking is concerned. However other peoples energetic conscious thinking threatens its existence. So for example traditional religious beliefs are potentially dissociable in a modern western cultural environment. Hence it is psychologically dangerous to become traditionally religious. And in order to hold onto the religious numinosity it slides into a power ego attachment. (i.e., if threatened from other voices)
    So the Cultural Futurist surely needs to invest a significant quantity of energetic conscious thinking into their Memeplex otherwise it becomes too slanted towards psychological religion and myth. Indeed it becomes Sci-Fi futurism without an investment of energetic conscious thinking. This is not to underestimate the scientific intelligence of many Sci-Fi authors. I watched Socrates interview with the Sci-Fi writer Robert Sawyer yesterday and Sawyer is very intelligent on the issue of the technological Singularity. However many individuals who dont write and sell Sci-Fi books may possess a Sci-Fi frame-of-mind which is nothing more than a modernisation of traditional religion from a psychological perspective. So it is the investment of energetic conscious thinking that distinguishes Cultural Futurism from Sci-Fi Futurism. Hence Sawyer may write Sci-Fi but he is clearly a Cultural Futurist. (He himself describes himself as doing philosophy so I think that he has had similiar thoughts to me, and may even just be expressing the same thing as I am saying differently). The shared factor (between Cultural Futurism and Sci-Fi Futurism) is the potential for influencing the future. And the distinction then is dependent on futurism or Singularity ‘criticism’ (i.e., criticism in the academic sense… not as emotional attack) and from looking at the material resulting in you arriving at views of your own. If you just love Sci-Fi and are a ‘buff’ just lapping up everything, experiencing immersion… then you are a Sci-Fi futurist… and you have your memeplex. Threatened with dissociation I would personally seek to criticise (thus become a Cultural Futurist) rather than repeatedly face attacks from outside. Thus rather than defend-attack forever… you hold a view of your own that is open and thus not dissociable.


    1. Jung, C, 1958, par. 547, The Archetype in Dream Symbolism in CW Vol 18: The Symbolic Life (Bollingen Foundation)

  7. Paul Budding says:

    Brilliant brilliant brilliant Rachel. The categorizing and the overlapping nature of the categories is something that I have taken on-board already.

  8. Alex Howard says:

    Rachel, you do remember that Utopia actually means “nowhere?”

    • herb schulsinger says:

      Erewhon (nowhere spelled backwards, with the “w” and “h” transposed), is a fictional country from a book of that name by Samuel Butler.

      From Wikipedia:
      “At first glance, Erewhon appears to be a utopia, yet it soon becomes clear that this is far from the case. Yet for all the failings of Erewhon, it is also clearly not a dystopia, such as that depicted by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

  9. Alex Howard says:

    It may have been Isaac Asimov who said, “If it can be thought of, it can be done.”

    Why that is germane to this is simple – science fiction has continually opened our eyes and our minds as to what is possible, especially if it doesn’t yet exist. Scientists and inventors take these concepts and try to prove that they are, indeed, possible.

    And they succeed. All it takes is the genius of humans, and the time to create what is needed to make the future come true.

  10. Jennifer Jarratt says:

    Visual artists are generally futurists, although not often recognized as such, either by themselves or others. They reflect an aspect of futures thinking that is more easily grasped in images.

  11. Gideon Fraenkel says:

    By definition the past and present create the conditions for the future. That does not mean that we can determine the future.

  12. Ian Kemmish says:

    Literate authors write about the present, not the future. If what they write appears to be a prediction, that is because people are pretty much the same wherever and whenever you look at them.

    To take an extreme example: it is possible to read Tolst’oy’s “Resurrection” as a very accurate description of the relationship between the state and the people in a post 9/11 world. However, to imagine that he wrote it as a prediction is, clearly, preposterous.

    Or, to take an example from your own article: why believe that the surveillance apparatus of the NKVD or the Stasi were based on “1984″ (or, more likely, “We”), when the founders of these organisations were just as well acquainted with the real life example of the Oprichniki as Orwell or Zamyatin ever were?

  13. Since the best futurist memes create the future by predicting it, we are what politicians were supposed to be but most are too short-sighted and/or greedy to do. Politicians are to the present as futurists are to the future.

    About Professional Futurists, why should you have to do it at a business? Open source software (and some new hardware is open source), or if you take creating the future more seriously than your job, should also be counted as professional.

  14. The Two Faces Of Tomorrow and The Shockwave Rider are so much better than Neuromancer it is sickening to hear about Gibbson so much.

    The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

    The Two Faces Of Tomorrow by James P. Hogan

  15. Nice article, as always Rachel.

    I propose a new term: non-idiotic foresight–the concept that different aspects of the future are differently predictable. Some things are very predictable, other things not so much. (Try jumping out of flying plane without a parachute and tell me that things aren’t predetermined.)

    Another point: Predictions, if and when they influence the future at all, can, in the abstract, just as easily cause the opposite of their own prophecy. I reckon Hugo de Garis would like there not to be an artelect war. By raising the issue, maybe he’s making one less likely. For what’s it’s worth (almost nothing, I’m sure), I don’t think there’s any chance of an artelect war–that it’s essentially predeterminednot to happen–and that his views have no impact.

    Thinking and talking about the future almost certainly increases our ability to predict and influence the future for the benefit of at least our genes, if not our conscious selves. We evolved the ability, and most/all of us feel compelled to do it, after all. So, it (thinking and talking about the future) likely is a generally good thing for survival.

  16. doe says:

    Superb article. Premise may be dramatic. All these authors and scientists are people. There are no great men. They observe and report and act incrementally. There are men and women through time and in our recent mass we have great processing power. Some hit on insights provided by the general milieu, others broke ground but are fully forgotten. There was no Tesla in the stone age. Do you say that extrapolating from the present trends of industry are what shape the industry? So Asimov wrote that robots we first create will go back to pre-big bang pre-time to create the Scientific god? And thus it must be so now, right? Still, Transmet rules forever, and the reminders of how good and right those authors were is educational. Did James Burke’s 2050 make global warming? Diamond Age, Distraction. Paz.

  17. Bob Roberts says:

    You have to think of it first before you can do it. SF writers imagine stuff and popularize it, so yes they can, and often are, a crucial part of forming the future.

    McLuhan on the other hand said something to the effect that he was just willing to undergo the discomfort of observing the present and noticed it before other people, so that he seemed to be so future oriented.

  18. Interesting article post. I classify myself as The Sci-Fi Futurist, as well as a computer tech entrepreneurial type. I may not be an uncommon blend, but I have a slightly tangy after taste! Certainly I have a sense of humor, which is required; if we can’t laugh at ourselves we will wound too easily by others who will pooh-pooh our brilliantly creative ideas. You know the type “that will never happen, that’s stupid-silly”, or even worse “I don’t know how that could be scientifically feasible!” and that is not something a futurist should worry not “too much” about, certainly not in his own time frame. For we are creating the future and it is the future who will ultimately appreciate us in hind sight! Or not. Fearing to do that nullifies our immense priceless value (who knows what the social economics of the distant future will be?), so dream-baby-dream and make that future a good one, but don’t be afraid to dream even negative dystopias of apocalyptic scenarios, because out of that can come understanding and ways to address serious issues such as climate change (an obvious result of overpopulation and wasteful resource utilization, a real opportunity and catalyst for accelerated change), transhumanism and star travel and the ultimate survival of beautiful and precious self-technological altered human species in the cosmos. We create ourselves and that is the magic and beauty of it . . .

  19. Singularity Utopia says:

    Great article!

    For a long while I have attempted to raise awareness of the Self-Fulfilling-Prophecy concept. This article by Rachel, especially with the NY Times linking to it, is a great step forward. Raising awareness regarding previously unaware Self-Fulfilling-Prophecies is vital for our future.

    There is no justification to fear an Artilect War. We must ensure our fears don’t run wild. Via overly focusing on irrational fears we risk bringing our fears to life because we expect our fears to come true.

    Our expectations shape the future thus it is vital to expect utopia. My whole purpose is about countering negative expectations.

  20. I firmly believe that art not only influences reality, it guides it, defines it, creates the reality we exist in. Futurists, and I honestly believe sci-fi writers more than almost anyone else, push the boundaries of what is possible beyond the normal expectations. The fact is, many scientists, with scientific inventions as wide-ranging as the MRI and the cell phone, have openly admitted they got their ideas from watching Star Trek as kids. It is the futurists who imagine what is impossible, and the scientists and inventors, immersed in those ideas of the impossible, who transform the impossible into reality.

  21. Rachel, I do agree that multiple aspects of what you term ‘Futurism’ should be seen as science in many contexts, e.g. the analysis undertaken may draw on statistical data, systems theory, morphological analysis, psychology, sociology… the list goes on and includes a hyper-awareness of ‘early signals’ that may develop into ‘data’ & trends.

    Technical ‘futurists’ may for example be involved *primarily* in robotics, IT, or medical areas – whereas the strategic foresight stream is often linked more to business, Not for Profit, Sociological, Government work. But this is not a given for all practitioners – and the categorisation may seriously limit comprehension of our work, giving a very skewed impression of reality.

    I feel there are many more unique futures ‘flavours’, where foresight practitioners are involved in creative work, including science fiction or ideation, art … or perhaps entrepreneurial initiatives (IMO, an art). Strategic foresight also deeply engages with complexity, Integral Theory, and requires studies of ‘esoteric’ and ‘fringe’ thinking. So I have a concern with the 3 categories here, as I suspect many futurists blend across them all, and this is where any influence achieved, actually is given strength.

    One thing is certain, the future is far more than a mere combination of trends – and those influencing it’s development must not be tasked with, or seduced by what I see as a burden of becoming a futurist-marketer.

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