Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

futurists wanted

At least, wanted in government, and by Farhad Manjoo, who laments the shutdown of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995.

Of course, the future doesn’t stop coming just because you stop planning for it. Technological change has only sped up since the 1990s. Notwithstanding questions about its impact on the economy, there seems no debate that advances in hardware, software and biomedicine have led to seismic changes in how most of the world lives and works — and will continue to do so. 
Yet without soliciting advice from a class of professionals charged with thinking systematically about the future, we risk rushing into tomorrow headlong, without a plan. 
“It is ridiculous that the United States is one of the only nations of our size and scope in the world that no longer has an office that is dedicated to rigorous, nonpartisan research about the future,” Ms. Webb said. “The fact that we don’t do that is insane.” 
Or, as Mr. Toffler put it in “Future Shock,” “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”

I think Manjoo is correct in theory, but I simply cannot imagine any professional governmental futurists who are not simply stooges of the multinational tech companies. The study of the future has been bought at a price; I don't see it recovering its independence.


  • I could quibble with Manjoo's idea of tech change speeding up, but I don't disagree with his basic points: (a) technology is fundamentally altering the way we perceive and understand the world and (b) it's absolutely critical that we think carefully about what that means and how to respond to it. Yet most of us spend little to no time thinking carefully about that.

    My parents, for instance, have been radically changed by their iPhones and MacBooks. When I point that out, as I have occasionally and gently over the years, they recognize that yes, it's true, and even that it's probably not a good change. But, as far as I can tell, that's as far as it goes. They change the subject fairly quickly and don't bring it up again.

    So I agree with Manjoo that our indifference is potentially, but--like you--I am deeply skeptical that futurists are likely to be of any help whatsoever in this case.

    Perhaps that's because the two most notable futurists I can think of offhand are Ray Kurzweil and Newt Gingrich, and I would place greater confidence in some of my more reflective eighth graders' thoughts on tech than either of those two. I'm sure there are better examples.

    Or perhaps it's because I just finished a week of training for AP U.S. History where I was confronted with the inexorable march in American education towards one-to-one technology, despite the lack of any substantial evidence showing its worth, and I cannot imagine futurists being the ones to help us think more carefully about this insane educational trajectory.

  • Long-time reader, first-time commenter. I work in the Strategic Planning and Innovation office at a very large federal agency, and it would be handy to have an OTA around these days. Given that we don't have in-house expertise, we've had to contract out for the long-range forecasting that we can then use for our planning. But the upsell and the techno-utopianism are so woven into that long-range forecasting that it's difficult to rely on it. An OTA would be a far more credible and objective source, imho.

  • That's s very interesting addition to the conversation, Matt.

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