Synchronicities of Futurism
16 August 2011
Lately I keep running across the name of Parag Khanna. When this happens, it is a good idea to investigate, since it is probably someone of whose work one ought to be aware. Some months back someone who commented on this blog mentioned that Parag Khanna had identified humanity as an urban species, as I had written in The Rural-Urban Divide. About the same time, there was a Parag Khanna article in the Financial Times, Future shock? Welcome to the new Middle Ages. Today, the e-mail that I receive daily from Foreign Policy Magazine included a link to the story Technology Will Take on a Life of Its Own by Ayesha and Parag Khanna. These synchronicitous encounters finally spurred me to look up the Khannas, and I find that they are behind something called the Hybrid Reality Institute. This influential pair obviously have their future cut out for them, and you can read their daunting list of credentials and honors at the profile page of the Hybrid Reality Institute. There is also a Parag Khanna website.
The story in Foreign Policy was quite fascinating, recounting a meeting between Ayesha and Parag Khanna with Alvin and Heidi Toffler, the latter of Future Shock and The Third Wave fame. As the Khannas point out, the Tofflers pretty much invented futurism in its present form. As they put it, “…the Tofflers made futurism a true calling — something that one does.” Whether this is to be lamented or regarded as a stupor mundi I leave to the reader.
The Khannas, it seems, are admirers of the Tofflers. I am not. I have tried to read Future Shock and The Third Wave, and I found them to be extraordinarily tedious, uninteresting, and utterly lacking in philosophical insight and intellectual subtlety. Until I read the Khannas, I didn’t realize that anyone other than mass market publishers took the Tofflers seriously. If you watch the Billy Wilder film Avanti! carefully (one of my favorite films, by the way) you’ll see the character played by Jack Lemmon reading a copy of Future Shock, and I thought its use as a prop in a comedy was the appropriate role for this book.
While I consider the work of the Tofflers very limited, I am not so hostile to their perspective that I am beyond being influenced by it, and I cited their idea of “de-massification” in my post, Nuclear Ambiguity. I put the Tofflers in the same category as John Naisbitt’s Metatrends, and what the Tofflers had to say about de-massification is close to what Naisbitt wrote about “narrowcasting.” So when I observed in The Persistence of Broadcasting that so-called “new” media have simply been reiterating mass marketing campaigns over the internet with remarkably little imagination or innovation, this is as much a criticism of de-massification as of narrowcasting. I don’t deny the significance of the long tail, but for the mass societies created by industrialization it is the top of the bell curve that rules, and not the margins tailing away on either side.
Futurism has been on my mind of late, and I have recently started listening to Michio Kaku’s work of technological futurism, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. This stands as an interesting contrast to George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, since both books take as their framework predicting the overall features of the next century.
I put Friedman and Kaku in a very different category than Naisbitt or the Tofflers. Friedman has a method that he has obviously thought through very carefully, and which is frequently recapitulated in analyses published at Strategic Forecasting. This is a method firmly based in the brute facts of geography and power. I appreciate the explicit character of Friedman’s method, though I think that he substantially oversteps the inherent bounds of this method in his The Next 100 Years.
Kaku also has a method, and it is equally explicit and equally founded on a factual basis. Kaku has investigated what scientists today are working on, and extrapolating from their already existing research and prototypes to the social possibilities of such inventions becoming commonplace. This provides a very different perspective than that of Friedman. However, Kaku’s perspective on history leaves me a bit slack-jawed at times, though it is nowhere nearly as irritating as Ray Kurzweil’s breathless enthusiasms. The most amusing thing about futurism is how it usually gets things so outrageously wrong, but the way that Kaku tells the story of futurism, you would think that the futurists got things mostly right, and have only messed up on the occasional prediction. (Amusingly, Foreign Policy has a story now called Megatrends That Weren’t.)
So far I’ve only read some articles by Khanna (probably not representative of his thought on the whole), and I haven’t even skimmed his books, so I don’t know if he has a method, but his admiration for the Tofflers as described in his Foreign Policy article mentioned above already makes me more than a little suspicious. However, suspicion is no argument, and I keep an open mind on the matter. I’ll try to get his books from the library to find out for myself what’s up.
A couple of days ago I began the barest sketch of my own method, in The A Priori Futurist Imagination. However, I should point out that I don’t consider myself a futurist, but rather a philosopher of history, with history broadly construed to include the future — indeed, I construe history so broadly as to comprise what I call metaphysical history.
I write these reflections on futurism and prediction in the light of having recently been informed that my abstract submitted to the 100 Year Starship symposium, organized by DARPA and NASA, was approved, which means that I am to submit a paper and give a presentation. My submission was for the “Religious and Philosophical” track of the symposium, and I plan to hold forth on the moral imperative of human spaceflight. For this, I may well be taken for a futurist.
Well, I would rather be taken for a futurist and have my ideas get a hearing, than not be heard at all. So to the extent my philosophical ideas shade over into futurism, I will try to give an account of my conception of what futurism ought to be, and this is why I took up the theme again a couple of days ago. I suspect that I’ll be writing more about this as I prepare my presentation and continue to think about the issues involved.
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