“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”- George Orwell
I’m not that taken with futurists. It’s not that I dislike all of them, not at all. I admire some futurists greatly, and others I see as consummate professionals. In fact, I even call some of them friends. Still, there are many people out there calling themselves futurists that I haven’t any time for, for I do not think are very good at what they do. Yes, they give good keynote, and many excel at whipping up newsletters or other pontifications on the importance of developing forecasting models, but as to being serious thinkers about the future? Let’s just say that more than a fair few fall short in this area. The curious thing, though, is the many ways in which they’re bad at what they do. Some are too vague, others too self-assured. Some are too caught up with concepts, others too enamored of their methods. Many of them are too tedious for words, and some are plainly insane.
So I decided to list the different kinds of bad futurist, as a somewhat handy field guide for the futurist-spotter. This is not an exhaustive list, and cannot be, for there are very, very many kinds of bad futurists. For instance, I’ve omitted “the crank”, “the obsessive” and “the conspiracy theorist”, even though I’ve come across all three. In a similar vein, I haven’t attempted to burrow too deeply into the different ways one can be a cookie-cutter futurist, nor have I probed the many layers of mysticism in futurism. This isn’t a full listing of pathologies, only a very rough outline of the same – a kind of early warning system.
I’ve put the bad futurists into nine categories, but you should remember that there is a great deal of overlap between these categories. For instance, many of the mystics are also obfuscators, and many of the trendsters are neologizers. However, not all obfuscators are mystics, nor are all mystics obfuscators (some of them are very direct about their mysticism). More than once I’ve come across people who are four or five of these things all at once. At least I think so: I try to head for the bar once these kinds of people pop up.
So, to the list, then. The typical bad futurists start from one of the following nine archetypes, and then mix-and-match aspects of the others. The list, in no particular order:
- The Obfuscator/Obscurantist
- The Shock-Jock
- The Mindless Optimist/Pessimist
- The Pseudo-Academic
- The Trendster
- The Neologizer
- The Cookie-Cutter
- The Proselytizer
- The Mystic
Which one you find most annoying is completely up to you, but all of them are pretty bad. Oh, one more thing. I’ve consistently used the personal pronoun “he” in the descriptions. This is not because all the bad futurists I’ve met are men – far from it. I’ve met quite a few female idiots as well. Still, in my mind’s eye, the archetypal bad futurist is a man (I can picture him perfectly), which is why I’ve used male pronouns. So sue me.
Our first type, the obfuscator, who might also be called the obscurantist, is not interested in telling you anything worthwhile about the future. No, the obfuscator sees the future as existing for one reason, and for one reason only – to make him look good. Failing that, to make him look like a deep thinker. For him, futurism is all about spinning weaves of confusion and paradox, possibly with a few neologisms thrown in for good measure. There is some method to the obfuscators madness (and if you want to label your humble (-ish) author as a bad futurist, the badge of obfuscator might not be a bad start), for the future is confusing. What sets this type apart, though, is that he tries to spin this into an almost dizzying panorama of the possible and the potential, while making it sound as if he has a grip of it all.
The key sin of the obfuscator is not that he makes fuzzy statements: it’s that he obfuscates his own cluelessness. What the obfuscator really wants to hide is the fact that he is just as confused as everyone else, and does so by throwing out an endless array of futures, all while smirking ever so knowingly. It is this, the obscuring of the fact that there really isn’t all that much behind the fancy title of “futurist” he’s adorned himself with, that makes him bad at his job, not the fact that he cannot scry the future. So he gushes forth with vague and paradoxical statements, wrapped in enigmas, taking good care to make it all seem as complicated as possible. He will also, inevitably, bring up a model that goes on just as long as he does – as this will either be a spiral or an eternal loop. It must continue endlessly, for were he or the model ever to stop, you might start asking him difficult questions, and that’s the last thing he wants.
The second type takes a different tack, although there are similarities with the obfuscator. The shock-jock isn’t big on being asked questions either, but for different reasons. For him, futurism is all about eliciting gasps from an audience. People giving you scared looks? Good. People getting vertigo? Even better. People looking sick to their stomachs? BINGO! (Not that this ever really happens, but the shock-jock still hopes it might – one day.) The future is a strange place, which is why some futurists have taken to presenting evermore outlandish and outré claims about the same. This is great for getting well-paying keynote gigs, as shocking things make for great entertainment, but this doesn’t make for great futurism. On the contrary, it often makes for pretty sad futurism, as it becomes more exciting to talk about sexbots and gland harvesting than the more mundane matters that might bankrupt a company or eradicate a profession. The shock-jock doesn’t care, however. He’s there to get a reaction, not to say anything profound.
And can you blame him? Shock-jocks exist because a lot of people enjoy extreme claims about the future – the odder and more outrageous the better – and are prepared to pay good money for people who are good at this. So maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh on this kind of bad futurist. Just like so many of the companies he talks to, he’s a victim of market forces. The demand for certain types of future-talk is big enough to practically force certain futurists over to the dark side.
Speaking of dark sides, the third kind of bad futurist comes in two flavors – dark and light. The mindless optimist/pessimist only sees one side of the story – and then reiterates that ad nauseam. This type wants attention, and knows that the way to get it is to be extreme. For a long time this meant being a doomsday prophet, harping on and on about how everything was going to hell in a hand basket. Be it an environmental disaster, a population bomb, a war between nations, a war between religions, a war between genders or just good ol’-fashioned economic collapse, the mindless pessimist was ready to tell you all about it. A big problem in this futurist genre has been the constant need for one-upmanship. For every mindless pessimist there was another in line behind him, prepared to proclaim that while the first one was right about the general problem, he were far too optimistic. So doomsday ticked ever closer, up until the point that some futurists started to seem quite a bit like your standard doomsday cultist. Not that this stopped them from demanding their keynote fees. Or insisting that they be paid in canned goods and bullets. Actually, for all the talk about the impending apocalypse, most of them seemed to prefer being paid in the very currency they were predicting would soon collapse.
While the mindless pessimists were predicting doom, imminent doooom, a variation began emerging. This is the mindless optimist, the yang to the pessimists yin, always declaring that things will, eventually, be OK. In fact, most are adamant that things will not be just OK, they will be absolutely wonderful! Thanks to (mostly) technological developments, we will live in a world far better than our current one, with all of the problems predicted by pessimists swept away by the magic of innovation and development. Some call it “the age of abundance”, others “techno-utopia”, but all are convinced that it will be great. Even though the pessimists scoff, the optimists are unwavering in their belief that the merry dance of progress will lead us all into a wonderful future. When confronted with the obvious question, “Are you saying that we should just continue as we’re doing, and somehow everything will just get fixed along the way?” the mindless optimist might blink a few times extra, but then smile and say “We just need to let development run its course”.
Next on the list is the pseudo-academic, who insists that the most important thing about futurism is that it is “a proper academic discipline”. This setting of high standards might seem like a good thing, but the pseudo-academic doesn’t really care about research and scholarship (that’s why there’s a “pseudo” in there). No, what he wants is a title, and a cushy position (preferably tenured) to go with it. This character rarely gets involved in anything as muddy and grubby as actually saying something about the future. Instead, he obsessively describes the processes and methodologies of forecasting, and uses lots of words ending with “ology”. In other words, he enjoys writing things that other pseudo-academics can refer to when writing something similar. This kind of futurist likes the cozy, clubby atmosphere of futures studies, and does whatever it takes to ensure that only the initiates “get it” (“get it” meaning, in this case, “can be bothered to deal with”). Pseudo-academics are herd animals, and they like nothing more than conferences with only their own kind, journals only read by their own kind, and discussions that hinge on everyone being in on the con.
So if your futurist starts talking about “ontology” or “multiple epistemologies”, back away. Now, ontology and epistemology are fine words, with proper meaning and use. They are philosophical concepts which address the nature of being and our capacity to talk about this nature of being, and if you’re talking to proper philosophers – or listening to them talking among themselves – these words may be deployed in a sensible manner. But for the pseudo-academic these are weapons of war, an endless battle in which the most important thing is to keep the wrong people out and the right people employed. The fact that this kind of wordplay can be paraded out in front of befuddled businessmen at a keynote or two is a bonus. The audience has no idea what’s going on, but assume the confusion is due to something called “academia”. It’s not, not really, but the pseudo-academic is more than happy to create the image that it is. In fact, he lives for it.
Standing in stark contrast to the pseudo-academic is the trendster. He doesn’t really care about academic trappings, and sometimes makes a big deal out of not having any kind of education. If you think this is weird, it’s because you don’t understand what drives the trendster. He wants to be seen as having a special connection to trends, the kind you can only get when you live and breathe them. He wears the trendiest clothes, listens to the coolest music and eats the now-est food. No matter how hard to you try, you will never, ever be quite as hip as he is. His bag is a special edition, made by an anarcho-syndicalist commune of Belgian designers using only Nepalese raw materials. His playlist is a masterpiece of mashed-up cultural influences. It doesn’t matter whether you “get it” or not. The only thing that matters is that he is at the bleeding edge of trends. In fact, he doesn’t even like his bag, or the music he listens to. He doesn’t have to. It’s trendy. That’s enough.
If you think this sounds absolutely unbearable, you’re correct. A trendster is as annoying as he is needy, and he is unimaginably needy. For him, futurism is an identity project, by which I mean “a way to get all the cool points I missed out on in high school”. Some trendsters are failed artists, with all the baggage that entails. Others found that academic work often involves thinking long and hard about things, which didn’t suit their “style”. Still others are living the dream of hunting trends forever, just as the Beach Boys lived in an endless summer. You can recognize the trendster not only from the architecturally improbable jeans/bags/glasses, but also from the fact that he is not very keen on actually saying much about the future. He prefers the small movement in the present, the cool hunting, the funky band no-one else has heard of. Once in a while he will say something vague about how this might… mean… something… but as his voice trails off, he’s already mentally left the room. For some other, cooler room.
Then there’s the neologizer, and you’ll know you’ve come across one when you’re handed a trend-report full of clever titles, portmanteu concepts and word-play. For this very specific character, the greatest thing about the future is the unending amount of new verbiage he gets to invent to describe it. Nothing is so small that it does not warrant a neologism, nor too grand to escape being described with a funky new combination of terms. Slap on an -onomics, talk about The Something Era/Epoch, proudly proclaim the coming of yet another Generation. It’s fun! The neologizer is a friend and a fellow traveler of the trendster, but where the latter seeks his kicks in experiences, the former gets them from new words. It’s all about the Zeitgeist, you know?
Yes, new words are fun and yes, confounding wordplay can make us think in new ways. But no, this doesn’t tell us a lot about the future. The patron saint of the neologizer is Faith Popcorn, who has made neologisms about the future into an art form. By introducing things such as “EVEolution”, “AtmosFEAR” and “EGOnomics”, she – according to some – captured important trends and made us see them in a new light. The problem is that she also spawned an entire army of people mashing together words more or less at random, often substituting the cheap laughter for actual insight. Take any word. Now take any other word. Combine them. Do they make sense? No, well, try again until you have something that sorta-kinda refers to something you might call a trend. Hey presto, you’re a futurist! If only. No, I’m not saying Faith Popcorn is a bad futurist. I am saying she’s inspired more than a fair few.
If the neologizer likes words, the cookie-cutter likes methods. No, wait a minute. Scratch that. The cookie-cutter likes his methods. He couldn’t care less anyone else’s methods, unless he can impress a client by scoffing at them. The future is his pliant dough, and he believes the best way to approach it is with a really detailed (and impossible to fully deploy) methodology, preferably one with a funky abbreviation. Don’t laugh, the abbreviation is important. I’ve seen futurists almost come to blows arguing over abbreviations. And if you think that sounds funny, you’re wrong. It’s hilarious.
To fully understand the cookie-cutter, you need to realize that he is acting in an economically rational way. Trying to say what the future might bring is really risky, for you may well be wrong. Developing a method for studying it is a lot safer, for you can then always claim that people “don’t get it” or are doing it wrong. As long as his method is very complex, with enough ambiguity to make it either impossible to implement fully or permanently open to interpretation, the cookie-cutter has created a safe haven for himself.
This is not to say that there aren’t true believers among the cookie-cutters, those with such strong belief in their models that they tout them and their results to anyone who’ll listen. The true danger of the cookie-cutter doesn’t lie in anything he says, but in what he does. And what he does, better than almost anyone on the planet, is talk people (mostly those in the public sector) into giving him improbable amounts of money to develop his method. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want my taxes to go to paying a futurist to think about ways of developing methods of increasing approaches to developing the ways of giving advice about means of assisting politicians to talk about modes of thinking about methods of enhancing how we look to the future. Or something like that.
If you like to have your future served in a handy canned format – “Do exactly what it says on the tin!” – you should talk to a proselytizer. The proselytizer isn’t confused or baffled by the future, quite the opposite. He knows that the future will be defined by X, Y or Z, and is more than willing to explain to you exactly how. In exhaustive detail. Today’s most popular version of this is the person who is utterly convinced that social media is pointing towards a future where everything, everything is “social”. Social economy, social management, social buying, social production, social politics, social entertainment, social love (and, one assumes, sex) and of course “the social era”. Always with the era, this one. The key thing for the proselytizer is to banish all ideas that might point to alternative futures, for they are simply wrong. If the proselytizer has said that the future is A, then it is going to be A, whether it wants to or not.
The proselytizer might well be the kind of bad futurist with least redeeming qualities. He doesn’t care about the future, or about his clients, or even about what he sees happening around him. All is just grist for his mill, evidence that he was right all along. Client not getting the expected responses from e.g. social media? They’re doing it wrong. Data shows people getting bored with social media? The research is flawed. Something else entirely taking over? It’s just a fad. In the 1970’s, a series of futurists bet their careers (not really, they rarely do anything of the sort) on huge famines being just around the corner. None appeared. Did the futurists admit to being wrong? Nope. They insisted that while they may have been off with the timescale, their prediction was solid. Solid, I tell you. Many of them are still waiting for the global famine. Some of them have died waiting. Right now, their offspring are betting their careers on the future. I don’t know if this’ll work any better, but the smart money is on not holding your breath.
Finally there’s the mystic who insists that there is a new kind of future ahead, which only he can see, and which is filled with meaning and wisdom and portent (cue reverb, add echo) and that there is a great change a-coming. If the trendster seems too caught up in the trivial details of the near future, the mystic is primarily interested in the grand sweep of things – and his particular insight into this, along with the adoration he knows will result. No matter when the mystic speaks, one thing is certain – a great change is coming. Whether this is in ecology, economy, society or leadership doesn’t matter half as much as the fact that huge change is coming – and that fawning groupies are available to help him pass the time until the great day arrives. The mystic loves concepts like “seismic shift”, “revolution (of the mind)”, “redefining (whatever)” and anything that involves the words “a new age”. Or “era”. Always with the “era”…
The mystic may seem like an inoffensive kook, but he might in fact be the most dangerous one of the bunch. More than a few people are prepared to be bamboozled by the promise of a new Age of Aquarius. Sure, it might have changed names, and it might not be quite as liberal with the free sex any longer (we can only hope), but many people are eager to buy into the mystic’s grand narrative, simply because being a nay-sayer seems to churlish. So the mystic is free to spout whatever comes to mind, babbling about the great change soon to come and the grand revelations soon to be upon us, safe in the knowledge that most people will either ignore him or decide to become a believer – just in case. Come to think of it, this isn’t a bad metaphor for futurism in general.
So there you have them, nine kinds of really bad futurists, or nine sins that futurists commit. There’s an excellent chance you’ll come across a combo-sinner; Lord knows I have. Just last week I ran into a pseudo-academic proselytizing mystic who had a penchant for calling everything (and I mean everything) a “wicked problem”. Next week I’m meeting a person I suspect is a mindlessly optimistic cookie-cutter with a dash of neologizer. It is enough to drive a man to drink.
Will this listing help you avoid these people? No. But you can have at least a bit of fun during the inevitable keynote, testing out this little framework of mine. Or you could develop a better one. Drop me a line if you do: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Alf Rehn a management professor, an internationally recognized business thinker (or something), an author and a speaker. He is currently holding the Chair of Management and Organization at Åbo Akademi University in Finland, was earlier the SSES Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and has in addition taught at universities all over the globe.
This piece was originally posted on his blog. Learn more at strikingly.com/alfrehn
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