No Normal Future

We have simply got to give up on trying to “predict” The Future. No matter how many billions of dollars DARPA and its subsidiaries are able to acquire to try to do so; no matter how huge big data gets; no matter how many books are written about Superforecasting or the foresightfulness of crowds; the time when humans could confidently predict the future of anything of importance has come and gone. Long gone. This is not a new development. Most humans have lived in societies where it has not been able to predict the future with some assurance for at least 350 years, probably longer. And yet, we still persist in believing we can.

Declarations about The Future are full of references to “most likely futures,” “least likely futures,” “probable futures,” “worst case scenarios,” “wild cards,” “black swans,” and a myriad of other metaphors, all of which are based on the assumption that there is a “normal future” compared to which all other futures are deviations.

It is possible that we are hardwired to believe this. Scientists have recently discovered that we do not perceive reality and then act. Rather, the mind continuously forecasts an expectation that observation either confirms or rejects – though we will often go on “seeing” what we expect to see even though it is not there. We may have a naturally “forecasting mind.”

If not entirely hardwired, then, at the very least, eons of generations of humans have been socialized into believing in the existence of an objective, more or less predetermined “future” hanging out there ahead of us. We (or some of the more enlightened and farsighted or better-paid of us) discern and then use this insight to shape our behavior so we can succeed in this “most likely future.”

Even those of us who understand that we influence the future by our actions in the present, and who believe we should try to envision and realize a preferred future, still persist in envisioning just that: a Preferred Future. Not many contingent preferred futures.

This notion of a single future is reinforced by repeatedly privileging the teaching of history – revising our images of the past as we go along, of course, to suit the fancies of the present – while utterly ignoring futures studies, even though it has existed as a worthy academic discipline for at least 50 years. In spite of the reality of enormous environmental and social change, we still believe that the past is prologue, and that we can learn all we can or need to know about The Future by studying the past.

History is important. No doubt about it. The more we know about what has been – not only written history but also the much longer and more important period of unrecorded “prehistory” – the better. But what the past can tell us usefully about what will be is increasingly limited.

Many years ago, when I was just starting out in futures studies, I had a highly techno- optimistic, spaceflight image of the future. I had been steeped in the so-called “behavioral revolution” of the time, and believed it was possible to predict the future if I had the right model, collected the correct data, projected it properly according to the model, and analyzed the results fairly and diligently – all supported by an appropriately nice fat research grant.

But I ran into trouble immediately while trying to find the right model. While there were a huge number of fellow techno-optimists, there were also population and environmental doomsayers; there were women and their sympathizers who pointed out both were masculine fantasies; there were people who said that “women” and “men” were oppressive categories; there were indigenous people who argued very persuasively that high tech “development” was actually nothing but the de-development and destruction of once pleasant and successful cultures. Many poor or marginalized groups in society had similar objections to the high tech dreams and the doomsayers’ wailings.

So who was right?

That was my original query: let me study all of these images carefully and see who is correct, and then get a nice fat grant to use the correct model. But the more I studied, the more I saw that each view was both correct and limited. None captured the whole picture, and most saw no reason to fairly consider any worldview other than their own.

During this process, I discovered that there are many, many alternative images of the future, each proposing some specific set of policies and behaviors, and each asserting that their view was correct.

I concluded, as a futurist and an academic, that I had the obligation not to decide which was correct (and certainly not to do so on the basis of my own personal preferences). Rather, I had the obligation, as a futurist, scholar, and consultant, to understand the logic and images of the futures that actually existed, and to share them with other futurists, students, and clients. And so, what has become the “Images of Alternative Futures” theory and method of the Manoa School was born.

In order to make the concepts actionable, it was necessary to reduce the millions – if not billions – of existing images of the future that are articulated in books, movies, bibles, laws, policies, and plans to an absolute minimum. After testing a variety of typologies, we deter- mined that the huge number of images resolved into specific variations of one of four generic images of alternative futures. These four are now usually labeled: Grow (or Continued Economic Growth); Collapse (from a single cause or a combination of different reasons, also known as New Beginnings); Discipline (around some set of essential core values, other than simple growth); and Transformation (typically a con- sequence of technologically-induced change, along with a “high spirit” version).

These four futures became foundational to all of our futures work, and performed various functions for us. Understanding them – indeed, pre-experiencing them in some way – was a necessary prelude to envisioning a preferred future of a firm or community.

More recently, as our awareness of the fundamental uncertainty of The Future has matured, we have downplayed the centrality of a well- developed preferred future. Rather, our visions of preferred futures should become bright, positive, but highly flexible guiding lights which always search for signs of the four futures, thus enabling organizations and individuals to respond to or move towards all four of them, and their variants, as appropriate.

To say there is no normal future, no such thing as a best (or worst) case scenario, is to mean that we should be prepared to make the best of whatever future emerges by having anticipated, pre-experienced, and prepared for them each. We should not put all our eggs into the basket of any single preferred future, because there isn’t just one.

It’s not The Future. Only Alternative Futures.

the author

Jim Dator

Jim Dator is professor emeritus and former director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies in the Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa.