Book Review by Timothy C. Mack
The Future by Nick Montfort. (MIT Press Essential Knowledge, 2017.)
Written by an outsider to the foresight community, an MIT Professor of Digital Media, The Future takes a very interesting approach to its subject. While author Nick Montfort considers the works of futurists, he also examines the works of artists, inventors, and designers and how they have imagined the future. Montfort takes a broad view of the future, but one skeptical of the forecasting mode as the only pathway to visioning. Instead, he examines an increasingly popular approach to social, economic, and political change—i.e., what he (and others) have called future making. The contrast he draws is between “predictions and reaction to them” and “the development of goals and progress toward them.” In short, he is focused on “an understanding of how the future has been constructed in the past and how we, today, can continue constructing it.”
However, seeking a future that seems plausible does not exclude those visions that are exaggerated beyond belief or even those that move into the region of absurdity. In fact, Montfort applauds the highly creative side of future making, making the assumption that merely thinking incrementally and plausibly does not always hit the future mark. One example he gives is the work done over the past half century or more on the “kitchen of the future,” showcasing technologies for gadget makers as if the kitchen were still stuck in the social milieu of the 1950s and thus ignoring change in areas such as economic classes, gender roles, and urban political life.
One discussion here outlines how food preparation requirements could be imagined across a wide range of possible users, such as locavores, raw food enthusiasts, macrobiotic eaters, and those in communal living arrangements. The point made here is, whose future is being considered? For example, is it just the forecasters’ paying clients or even the analysts themselves? Another way of expressing this is that, when the full range of stakeholders haven’t been represented in the futures scenarios being developed, they may have to loudly make themselves heard when the policy makers make and implement choices from that foresight analysis.
Montfort’s approach is thus a social one, but he veers occasionally into other related areas, such as cognitive development. Citing Julian Jaynes’s 1976 book, Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, he suggests that humans thought and behaved in a different manner prior to the beginning of the Christian era. Instead of considering options and making decisions individually, cognitive action in that earlier time was mostly unselfconscious stimulus response, where the voice of intuition and imagination was largely viewed as a voice of God. As a result, prophets and oracles were much respected and valued, as were the reading of omens, divination from nature, augury, and the casting of lots (the latter of which were seen as being guided by divine powers).
The belief was that a much more stable society ensured that the past was always the best guide to the future, which would most likely resemble the present. It was only in the 18th century that the idea of progress began to make an appearance. Assumptions such as that science will improve our lives, that revolutions will change economic and political structures, and that a free market society will enhance our well-being have in part been replaced by a newer realization that the future will not always be more of the same, nor will it function in a familiar manner.
When looking at utopian writing, the author is sympathetic to discussions of potential ways people can live together, especially when that utopia is described in plausible and sensible terms. However, Montfort is just as drawn to extreme and even absurd imagination, with the full range of human nature kept in mind. One of the more extreme side trips of futures that he examines is the Italian Futurist movement prior to the Second World War, admired by Mussolini for its focus on speed, power, and violence as a way of cleansing the world of “stagnant and outmoded ideals and structures” (which unfortunately has a familiar ring today).
Another historical profile is a look at World’s Fairs as a means to bringing awareness of the future to the general public. London’s Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations and its Crystal Palace in 1851 drew exhibitors from around the world, but it was the 1939 New York World’s Fair that sharpened the focus to the future itself. This event, devoted to Building the World of Tomorrow actually hosted the first World Science Fiction Convention. Montfort especially admires the work of Norman Bel Geddes and his Futurama exhibit as a way to visually acquaint a general population with visions for tomorrow.
Among the litany of probable, possible, and preferable futures, first proposed by Alvin Toffler, probable futures are the closest to the foresight approach of options and their relative weighting, while preferable ones relate more closely to future making. The author sees the mandate of World’s Fairs as one successful example of bringing the future to life; the creation and development of the World Wide Web (WWW) is another.
The World’s Fairs can be seen as a form of globalism, where exposure to wider ranges of cultures and beliefs (as well as to an almost religious belief in technology) expanded trade and international relations. But the WWW took that process down to the individual and the local community, engaging with society and enhancing personal experience. In 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee dedicated the concept (and working foundation) of the Web to the world by taking no intellectual property rights for himself, he was building on a series of developments such as NLS (oNLine System) and the Memex project, which had been under way since World War II. The result was a powerful example of effective group visioning, one that could be scaled up to more widespread use and new types of applications by combining the contributions of groups of collaborators.
This produced a shared conceptual framework, which could address both technology challenges and social ones, including economic disparities and injustices. While the successes of social transformation have been slower and less far-reaching than initially hoped, the transformative power of the WWW is undeniable. In essence, the success of a foresight vision requires sufficient simplicity to be understood and accepted by both professional and lay communities and the openness to study and improve it, then share it freely, allowing it to spread worldwide more quickly and easily.
Returning to the contrast between foresight and future making, the former is seen as an amalgam of technology trends and organizational and cultural analysis, while future making is more human-centered, with new technologies built around perceived human needs and activity patterns, ideally with specific goals in mind. One example in The Future is computer notebook development, which had both educational and professional goals. Alan Kay’s Dynabook prototype was conceived in the 1970s with revolutionary concepts in mind: Computers would be tools owned by private individuals—in time, even by children. The most critical part of that project was the influence it had on commercial development and nonprofit educational endeavors over the following 40 years.
When examining the influence of science-fiction writing on visions of the future, Montfort focuses on what he calls design futures, which are connected to the social world and the known realities of the world we currently inhabit. These understandings are focused on ways to live better in society and culture in the future, using future tools shared in effective ways. As an example, he holds up Corning’s Day Made of Glass video, produced in 2011, which projects how glass surfaces will be used in tomorrow’s world. Montfort approves of the wide range of professions and ages shown and compares it with the still-older movie, Minority Report. As well, he contrasts the upbeat tone of the Corning video to the cable series Black Mirror, which takes present trends and follows them into often negative futures. His point is that showing humans reacting to future technologies and developments (whether utopian or dystopian) can provide useful insights into present trends and their implications.
In closing, Montfort considers how art and media tools can be used with writing to further clarify and discuss visions of the future. He also reminds readers that, when using macro analysis, you risk losing your audience by leaving human concerns behind, thus failing to embed new technologies in the social world. Accordingly, a balance of principles, high-level goals, and systematic thinking is critical to producing work of value. Finally, the belief that enlarging our imagination through the use of exaggerated or even absurd images can help in imagining the future and sharing that imagination.
Timothy C. Mack is managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.