2/14/2008

A Milestone and a Proposal

This is post #100! It's taken me long enough to get here, but it's still a bit surprising to see that my occasionally insightful rantings have hit the century mark. I've actually been thinking about this post for a while, and I wanted to do something distinctive. An idea came to me last night, so I will take this opportunity to flesh it out somewhat, albeit in the rough and sketchy way that characterizes most blog entries.

A Proposal for "Future Studies"

In the last couple of decades, multiculturalist sympathies have spawned a veritable smörgåsbord of interdisciplinary "Studies" departments, programs, and majors. From women and gender studies to east Asian studies to disability studies, these things have become ubiquitous. (One might also point to similar projects with less of an explicit political motivation, such as cognitive studies, consciousness studies, medieval studies, etc., etc.)

While I do not uncritically applaud all such developments, nevertheless I believe there's a value in interdisciplinary work in which a central theme is the organizing factor rather than a set of methodologies or a traditionally accepted body of texts. Toward that end, I wish to suggest a project to organize a vitally important body of research which has established itself on the internet, in a slew of popular books, and in a number of independent organizations but which has no real presence in academia.

I'm of course talking (as I often do) about the future. The researchers in this loose field, now variously called futurology or futurism, are often people with practical experience as programmers, inventors, engineers, roboticists, and various other technicians and technologists. Some academics are among them, even a few philosophers and historians, but by and large they tend to draw more from the sciences and applied fields than from the humanities.

Now here, I have in mind organizations like some of those to which I link in my sidebar (the WTA, IEET, and so forth). The problem with these think-tanks and other groups is that they tend to have an explicit political or practical agenda. I think this may not be appropriate for academia, which ought to have a mix of committed advocates and outright opponents with many in between.

Here's why this is so necessary. If there is any ability which elevates humanity above the rest of nature, it is our capacity for foresight. The ability to predict the future with at least some degree of success has long been deemed crucial to human societies, from the various prophets, oracles, soothsayers, and diviners of antiquity to the meteorologists, astronomers, economists, and technologists of today. While the world has become increasingly complex, nevertheless our ability to predict and control has only gotten better, even though it remains pitifully feeble. Really, all the various enterprises of contemporary science depend to some degree on mechanisms of prediction, albeit often local and short-term.

The ante is upped because of the extent of human power today. Our impact on the earth is unquestionably significant and rapidly growing. We now have the power not only to destroy civilization, but to take a significant chunk of the ecosphere with us. Less catastrophically, the effect of government policies on the lives of citizens can mean the difference between widespread satisfaction and destitute poverty.

But who is making decisions today on the basis of long-term effects? Markets seem unable to see beyond the profits of the upcoming fiscal quarter and modern democracies beyond the next election cycle. Meanwhile, it does not take a genius to see that this emphasis on making decisions based only on relatively immediate results is leading us toward disaster in the not-too-distant future, whether it be an economic crisis caused by the US's skyrocketing debts or an environmental crisis in the form of climate change. Greater foresight is of paramount importance for the well being and the very survival of our species.

While scientific prediction might seem the logical model to adopt for a broader study of tomorrow and the day after, I envision future studies also by another analogy: a counterpart and complement to the study of history. Now, of course, there is a central disanalogy to history in terms of the material being studied. History primarily works with texts and to a lesser extent with artifacts and other cultural traces. While always partial and imperfect, the historical record is far more concrete than what students of the future have to work with.

At the outset, I see three primary types of "materials" available for future studies. First, there is that same material of the historians. Not only can we learn from the past to try to avoid its mistakes, we can also take lessons from previous efforts at predicting the future. So, for instance, a variety of scientific practices tend to have far better track records than the oracular and prophetic traditions of the world.

Second are the conclusions of the social sciences. This virtually follows from my previous observation about the predictive successes of the sciences. The future with which we are concerned is of human beings and what they create, so a good understanding of human nature (both individual and social) and its cultural variations is a vital asset.

Third, and not entirely separate from the previous two, is the study of trends. Perhaps the most famous example that futurists tend to provide is Moore's Law (roughly, that the number of transistors which can be fit onto a computer chip of constant size doubles every 1 - 2 years). This has been shown by Ray Kurzweil (whose more far-fetched predictions need to be taken with a grain of salt, if not a salt mine) to apply to other aspects of computing (memory size, processor speed, cost of computing, etc.) but also more generally to new technologies.

For instance, Kurzweil uses the example of US railroads in the nineteenth century. The number of miles of track roughly doubled every few years, until it hit a saturation point, where it began to slow its growth and reach a plateau. While supportive of the general point about technology's tendency to grow exponentially, it also demonstrates that trends do not last forever. So while Moore's Law has been going strong for over half a century, and is expected to continue for at least a couple more decades, it will eventually reach a point where physical constraints prevent further growth.

Thus, the study of trends needs significant supplement by other efforts to get a sense of how long they can continue. Their relative simplicity and statistical/mathematical character is a great draw for researchers, and thus far too much importance has been placed on them (for reasons not unlike why the study of external behavior dominated psychology for decades: it's just easier to work with). We need also to look at social movements and other forces which are not so easily modeled mathematically.

With that caveat though, I think it is important to recognize that mathematics is probably the most powerful tool that we have here. I envision a lot of the sounder predictions as ones generated by complex computer analyses which can weigh more data than can any team of researchers. This is the norm in meteorology, oceanography, climatology, and other sciences of the environment and I don't see why it would be any different for a broader study of what is to come.

Nevertheless, insofar as it is interdisciplinary, there is a place for academics in the humanities (like myself of course), a need for discourse on appropriate methodologies and for critiques of the limitations of mathematical modeling.

Now I don't anticipate that my proposal is entirely novel--I imagine I could find similar ones if I did a bit of research (googling "future studies" just now, I even see a handful of programs at places like the Universities of Hawaii and of Houston). And it's good that I'm not the only one with this idea, especially since no one listens to me. But, in any case, I think it is well past time for the study of the future to become respectable, rigorous, and visible in the academic world.

The future comes whether we want it or not, so we'd best make ourselves ready and direct it to our advantage so far as we are capable. Excelsior!

UPDATE: Perhaps I should have done this prior to writing this post--I was so excited about what seemed to me a novel idea--but I did decide to read up a little on the subject. As it turns out, futures studies (which sounds too awkward to me) had more of a place in academia in the 60s and 70s but now only Houston and Hawaii remain as distinct programs. This is from the University of Houston's account of the history of the field:
The current state of futures studies is more extensive yet more muted than during the Golden Age of the 1960s and early 70s. The world today is more ready to consider the future explicitly than it was then. The future is not left to a small band of marginal writers and teachers. Business people, government officials, and educators are all waking up to the fact we better focus on the future if we want to be successful there. They are making strategic plans powered by visions and informed by scenarios.

At the same time, formal programs of education and training in futures have shrunk rather than expanded. New concentrations like competitive intelligence and strategic management have adopted many of the tools of the futures field without necessarily adopting its theoretical or ideological positions. In the end, futures may end like many of the social sciences. Having sparked the society's interest in a subject of immense importance (e.g., human and social relations) and having developed many tools to deal with that subject, the social sciences today are almost purely academic while the applications are being pursued in business and government agencies without their continued involvement.

I think this project is now more important than ever, and I wonder if the shrinking of the field since its heyday is the result of a backlash against optimistic predictions which never came true. In any case, I hope this is one trend which can be reversed. A more even-handed approach (neither utopian nor apocalyptic) should have a place in academia and not left to government and the private sector (institutions of which I am far warier).

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