Futurology is the study of the future to obtain knowledge of it on the basis of present trends. Beginning in the 1960s, it is a relatively new field of study. The word futurology was first used in 1943 by Ossip Flechteim, a political scientist, to describe a new scientific field of human knowledge based on a critical, systematic, and normative analysis of questions related to future. However, future studies (or futures studies ), futures research, futuristics, prognostics, and futurible are also used for the term futurology.
Interest in the future of humanity, society, and the world in general is an age-old phenomenon. In a two-volume extensive scholarly work, Fred Polak (1961) has outlined "the close relationship between the history of images of the future and the general course of history itself" and shown that "positive images of the future, in and through their own history, have foreshadowed the outlines of the oncoming course of general events." In his study the images of future are largely those presented by the utopia. An important lesson, most relevant to futurology, drawn from his study is that the utopia "can be used by intelligent and humanitarian men as a tool for reworking society" and further that the future of society rests in human hands. This idea that man has within him the power to create a desirable future conducive to the general well-being of man and nature has guided this new field of futurology. Dramatic events, such as the successful completion of the Manhattan Project during World War II and later development in space research leading to the successful landing of a human being on the Moon, opened people's eyes to the new power of science and technology—that it can be harnessed not only to help humans determine a future desired goal, but also to achieve it in a stipulated time. Realization of this fact—that a desirable future objective can be planned and achieved—was decisive in creating this new field of futurology. It was also soon realized that human society was facing critical problems such as overpopulation, food shortages, growing economic disparities, resource depletion, worldwide energy crises, environmental pollution, threat of terrorism, and other perils, which—if unchecked—might lead to a disastrous future. It was imperative that corrective measures for such impending global dangers be taken. These afforded immediate objective for the new field of studies. In a sense, the perception of the future as a supreme resource is the driving force of futurology.
One recurrent theme appearing in the writings of the futurists characterizing the present age is what Peter Drucker refers to as the "age of discontinuity." The cleavage with the past in many important respects is brought about by the unprecedented growth in the scientific and technological knowledge, leading the world to the brink of a great transformation. The fallout of this transformation is many sided and varied, encompassing everything of human activity. What is unprecedented about this transformation is the accelerated rate of change in development, exemplified, for example, by the fact that the computer speed is doubled every eighteen months (Moore's law). Such changes have consequent impact on the nature of work, habitat, transportation, communication, and all spheres of human activity. The stress of having to cope with all the changes within a short time produces the "future shock" discussed by Alvin Toffler (1970). It is the "dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future," "a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society" (Toffler). The writings of Alvin Toffler, Arthur C. Clarke, and Buckminster Fuller have caught the imagination of the general public and generated interest in the future of human civilization.
Objectives and Characteristics
Future is to be created, as it does not yet exist. Also the events are interrelated, as changes in some components will affect the future. This indicates that there are many "futures," but the one that will finally emerge is already determined by the events of the past. Thus the emergent future comes out of all possible futures—where anything might happen. These are further limited to probable futures, which are most likely to happen and already shaped by the immediate past. Futurists would like to work for the most preferable or a desired future. Thus planning for the future presupposes importance of three factors: the interlinking of events, a vision of the future and ideas for different events that would ultimately lead to the desirable future, and time. Time is related to the importance of short-term, medium-term, and long-term planning for realization of the future. A convenient time frame for studying the future are: near-range: up to a period of one year; short-range: up to a period of five years; medium-range: from five years to twenty years; long-range: from twenty years to fifty years; and far: beyond fifty years.
Some characteristics of this new field of study as noted by Olaf Helmer (1978) are that its function is primarily predictive and not explanatory; it constructs tentative models for which no hard data about the future is available; often the intuitive judgment of the experts is the main guidance; and, most important, it is highly multidisciplinary.
However, views and perspectives about future studies differ. One view tends to project it as a way of providing "decision-makers with operationally meaningful assistance in the form of information and analysis" to facilitate better decision-making and looks upon future studies work as an "objective exploration of what future has to offer" (Helmer, p. 764). However, against this trend for confining future studies merely to forecasting in utopian areas, there are those who want future studies to lead forecasting "to planning, decision, and creative action" and require that futures research be responsive to global challenge ahead. This demands an increasingly holistic and global, more explicitly normative, and increased participation. The fundamental assumption in future studies is that interventions can change the future; this also implies assumption of responsibility for the process of changing the future. Together with its multidimensional and interdisciplinary character, creation of awareness about the desirable future, making people conscious of the effect of their action on the future, and acting as a pressure group mark the uniqueness of this field.
One common method of prediction is to extend current trends, but such interlinked and interacting systems, as futurology deals with are generally of the common adaptive type. These exhibit a range of nonadditive effects that simply cannot be summed to give the overall effect. However, even in such cases, computer-based modeling comes to help. One such mathematical modeling resulted in the widely circulated and criticized "Limits of Growth" concept published in early 1970. Methods developed since 1970 include the Delphic method, trend-impact analysis, cross-impact analysis, structural analysis, technology-sequence analysis, decision and statistical modeling, relevance trees and morphological analysis, science and technology road-mapping, scenarios and interactive scenarios, and the state of the future index method (see, for example, Glen and Gordon, 2003). In spite of such skeptics' declarations as "Futurism is dead" and that the futurist window to the world of tomorrow is just a "mirror reflecting the prejudices and preconceptions of one's own time" (Jones), futurology is going strong, with professional futurists helping their clients "draw the maps of the future and identify the obstacles (and opportunities) along the way" (Wagner). Much development in the field of ecology and sustainable development results in international cooperation in decreasing global warming and ozone hole depletion, and can be attributed to this field. Things are happening at all levels, projects like restorative development are future-inspired action plans. Rapid developments in the new field of science and technology such as NBIC (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science) have led to a plethora of futuristic writings in these fields (see Eric Drexler ; Ray Kurzweil ; Rodney Brooks ; John Brockman ; Douglas Mulhall ).
To state a truism, future begins where history ends, and it is befitting to conclude this entry with a quotation from Francis Fukuyama's much acclaimed "End of History and the Last Man":
The unfolding of modern natural science has had a uniform effect on all societies that have experienced it, for two reasons.… technology confers decisive military advantages on those countries that posses it, and given the continuing possibility of war in the international system of states, no states that values its independence can ignore the need for defensive modernisation. Second, modern natural science establishes a uniform horizon of economic production possibilities. Technology makes possible the limitless accumulation of wealth, and thus the satisfaction of an ever expanding set of human desires. This process guarantees an increasing homogenization of all human societies, regardless of their historical origins or cultural inheritances. All countries undergoing economic modernisation must increasingly resemble one another; they must unify nationally on the basis of the centralized state, urbanize, replace traditional forms of social organizations like tribe, sect, and family with rational ones based on function and efficiency, and provide for universal education of their citizens" (pp. xiv–xv).
See also Cycles ; History, Idea of ; Science Fiction ; Technology .
Brockman, John, ed. The Next Fifty Years. New York: Vintage, 2002.
Brooks, Rodney. Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.
Cornish, Edward. The Study of the Future. Bethesda, Md.: World Future Society, 1977.
Drexler, Eric. Engines of Creation. New York: Anchor Books, 1987.
Fukuyama, Francis. End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992.
Glenn, Jerome C., and Theodore T. Gordon. Futures Research Methodology. Washington, D.C.: Millennium Project/American College for the United Nations University, 2003.
Helmer, Olaf. "The Research Task before Us." In Handbook of Future Research, edited by Jib Fowles. London: Greenwood Press, 1978.
Jones, John. "The Amateur Prophets." Available at http://www.ensc.sfu.ca/people/faculty/jones/ENSC100/future/node4.html
Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000.
Mulhall, Douglas. Our Molecular Future. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2002.
Polak, Fred, L. The Image of the Future. New York: Oceana Publications, 1961.
Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970.
Wagner, Cindy. "Futurism Is NOT Dead" (editorial for The Futurist ). Available at http://www.wfs.org/futurism.htm
Futurology is the rigorous attempt to anticipate future developments, relying heavily upon social-science methods. Few futurologists actually try to forecast future conditions, but instead prefer to identify alternative possibilities and to critique naive forecasts that others may have proposed. Critical futurology has deep historical roots. For example, in 1872 Edward Jarvis addressed popular concerns that the United States was experiencing too much immigration through careful demographic analysis that showed the country was in little danger of becoming primarily foreign born.
In the 1960s a futurology craze gripped American intellectuals, many of whom wished to serve as advisors to the Kennedy-Johnson administration’s New Frontier or Great Society and the competition with the Soviet Union cold war. The RAND corporation sponsored studies that combined the views of many experts into unified forecasts concerning a wide range of possible technological and social developments. Among the sequels were two visionary books, The Year 2000 (1967), by Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener, and Towards the Year 2000 edited by Daniel Bell (1967).
In the 2000s conferences such as the annual meetings of the World Future Society offer diverse prospectives. Serious journals, such as Futures and Futures Research Quarterly, carry projections, scenarios, theory-based extrapolations, and expert judgments about the future.
A projection analyzes recent trends mathematically, then runs the trends forward in time to estimate particular variables, such as population, economic activity, or the diffusion of a new technology. In 1971 Jay Forrester used the simple computers of his day to model the interplay of economic and social variables on a global scale through systems dynamics projections. The approach was famously used in the 1972 Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth, predicting that the global economy would soon crash because of resource depletion, but in retrospect the numerous assumptions seem arbitrary, and the crash has not yet occurred. The report remains influential as a cautionary tale but not a prediction.
The point of a scenario is not to predict, but to clarify, presenting a coherent, internally consistent picture of a future possibility so that planners and scholars can think more clearly and creatively. The scenarios in the Kahn-Wiener and Bell books imagined the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of the World Wide Web. In 2003 British astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees examined realistic scenarios for many of the ways humankind could become extinct during this century.
A theory sketches the future implied by a particular set of formal ideas. Pitirim Sorokin argued that every great civilization follows a cycle from ideational culture based on a transcendent ideology such as a religion, to sensate culture that is secular, empirical, and destined for collapse, followed by a new ideational phase. While agreeing with Sorokin’s general approach, Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge argued that civilization will not secularize in the long run, because religion responds with constant revival and innovation.
Scientific and technical expertise can identify the possible implications of discoveries. In 2000 the U.S. National Science Foundation considered the implications of nanotechnology for industry, medicine, environmental sustainability, space exploration, national security, and scientific understanding of nature. The finding that the societal impact would operate indirectly, led to an examination of the possible future convergence of nanotechnology with biotechnology, information technology, and new cognitive technologies.
Given that futurologists seldom attempt to predict precise outcomes, one may wonder how futurology differs from science fiction (SF), a genre of literature that often concerns speculations about the future and is sometimes praised for insight about the implications of science and technology. Sociological research suggests that SF has primarily four ideological dimensions: (1) “hard-science” stories favorable to technological innovation; (2) “new-wave” stories critical of technological development, emphasizing aesthetics and social science rather than natural science; (3) fantasy stories in which magic or the supernatural are more important than technology or science; and (4) the time dimension anchored in classical SF such as the century-old works of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Arguably, the first two of these dimensions might qualify as futurology, if the authors built upon a solid basis of knowledge in the natural or social sciences, using narrative fiction as a way of rendering their scenarios more vivid.
SEE ALSO Technocracy; Technology
Bainbridge, William Sims. 1986. Dimensions of Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bell, Daniel, ed. 1967. Towards the Year 2000. Boston: Beacon Press.
Forrester, Jay W. 1971. World Dynamics. Cambridge, MA: Wright-Allen Press.
Helmer, Olaf, Bernice Brown, and Theodore Gordon. 1966. Social Technology. New York: Basic Books.
Jarvis, Edward. 1872. Immigration. Atlantic Monthly 29: 454–468.
Kahn, Herman, and Anthony J. Wiener. 1967. The Year 2000. New York: Macmillan.
Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.
Rees, Martin. 2003. Our Final Hour. New York: Basic Books.
Roco, Mihail C., and William Sims Bainbridge, eds. 2001. Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.
Roco, Mihail C., and William Sims Bainbridge, eds. 2003. Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.
Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1937. Social and Cultural Dynamics. New York: American Book Company.
Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wagner, Cynthia G., ed. 2005. Foresight, Innovation, and Strategy: Toward a Wiser Future. Bethesda, MD: World Future Society.
William Sims Bainbridge
fu·ture / ˈfyoōchər/ • n. 1. (usu. the future) the time or a period of time following the moment of speaking or writing; time regarded as still to come: we plan on getting married in the near future work on the building will be halted for the foreseeable future. ∎ events that will or are likely to happen in the time to come: nobody can predict the future. ∎ used to refer to what will happen to someone or something in the time to come: a blueprint for the future of American fast food. ∎ a prospect of success or happiness: he'd decided that there was no future in the gang I began to believe I might have a future as an artist. ∎ Gram. a tense of verbs expressing events that have not yet happened. 2. (futures) Finance short for futures contract. • adj. at a later time; going or likely to happen or exist: the needs of future generations. ∎ (of a person) planned or destined to hold a specified position: his future wife. ∎ existing after death: expectation of a future life. ∎ Gram. (of a tense) expressing an event yet to happen. PHRASES: for future referencesee reference.DERIVATIVES: fu·ture·less adj. ORIGIN: late Middle English: via Old French from Latin futurus, future participle of esse ‘be’ (from the stem fu-, ultimately from a base meaning ‘grow, become’).
See also 124. DIVINATION ; 308. PAST ; 396. TIME .
- 1 . the art of foretelling the future by means of signs; divination.
- 2 . an omen or portent from which the future is foretold. —augur, n. —augurial , adj. —augurous. Obsolete, adj.
- foretelling of the future; soothsaying.
- the seeking of life’s meaning and fulfillment in the future, —futurist, n. —futuristic, adj.
- Rare. the state or condition of being about to exist.
- the art or practice of forecasting trends or developments in politics, science, society, etc.
- the act or art of prognostication or divination; soothsaying.
- the skill, condition, or an instance of being oracular.
- 1 . the act of forecasting or prophesying.
- 2 . a forecast or prediction. —prognosticator, n. —prognosticative, adj.
- anticipation, as in anticipating or describing a future event. See also 21. ARGUMENTATION . —proleptic, adj.
- clairvoyance or other occult or supernatural knowledge.
- 1 . the act of prophesying.
- 2 . the thing foretold. —vaticinator, n.
This pattern changed with the Club of Rome's report on The Limits to Growth (1972). Futurology in the 1980s and 1990s has been more pessimistic, and sometimes apocalyptic, focusing on negative trends in population, environment, and social order. However, positive predictions can still be found in books like American Renaissance by Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies (1989).
Most forecasting depends on identifying historical trends and patterns, and projecting them into the future. The simplest forecasts focus on a specific vector of change, like population or technology. These may offer more or less definite answers about the future: world population will definitely grow by one billion in the next decade; technology will definitely become more sophisticated, and so on. Other vectors like economic performance, drug use, crime, religious belief, or social attitudes are far more difficult to predict. Sophisticated modelling systems can take many variables into account, but they offer so many branching pathways of change that their usefulness is limited. Futurology in general is interesting as a speculative exercise, but has little or no scientific basis, and has an almost complete record of predictive failure.
Hence futurism belief that biblical prophecies are still to be fulfilled XIX; in art use (XX) — F. — It. So futurity XVII.