What Will Futurists Do in the Future?

Michael Giberson

The Economist observes that our present is not quite like some futurists of the past had projected, and provides advice to new futurists seeking to improve on the past. Among other things, they recommend “think small”: “The best what-lies-ahead book of 1982 was Megatrends, by John Naisbitt, which prophesied the future of humanity. A quarter-century later, its counterpart for 2007 was Microtrends….”

Other advice includes: think short-term, admit uncertainty, and get embedded in a particular industry. The article ends with a plug for prediction markets and the “wisdom of crowds”:

A fifth piece of advice: talk less, listen more. Thanks to the internet, every intelligent person can amass the sort of information that used to need travel, networking, research assistants, access to power. It is no coincidence that the old standard work on herd instinct, Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, has been displaced by James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.

The most heeded futurists these days are not individuals, but prediction markets, where the informed guesswork of many is consolidated into hard probability. Will Osama bin Laden be caught in 2008? Only a 15% chance, said Newsfutures in mid-October 2007. Would Iran have nuclear weapons by January 1st 2008? Only a 6.6% chance, said Inkling Markets. Will George Bush pardon Lewis “Scooter” Libby? A better-than-40% chance, said Intrade. There may even be a prediction market somewhere taking bets on immortality. But beware: long- and short-sellers alike will find it hard to collect.

While I’m partial to the plug for prediction markets, the story from the past year that best fits the five pieces of advice (think small, short-term, uncertainty, embed in an industry, and listen) was not about the “wisdom of crowds.” Rather, this profile by Michael Lewis of hedge fund/insurance risk modeler John Seo in the NYT Magazine seems to fit the bill.

[HT to Chris Masse at Midas Oracle for cite to The Economist story. Actually, come to think of it, another HT goes to Chris Masse at Midas Oracle for the cite to the story on John Seo that was published back in August.]


4 thoughts on “What Will Futurists Do in the Future?

  1. Think small? Think short term?

    Duh. That’s not “futurology”. What fun is that.

    To claim that “We can see now that the golden age of blockbuster futurology in the 1960s and 1970s was caused, not by the onset of profound technological and social change (as its champions claimed), but by the absence of it.” is silly. The ’60s and ’70s were times of enourmous social change. The ensuing 2.5 decades have been little more than consolodating the change of that time.

    One of the two magazines that I subscribe to is “Wired”, which seems to me to be the futurists’ bible. I can’t say that their predictions from 15 years ago are all that great (I stopped subscribing for a time in the ’90s because of their paranoid obsession with “prvacy” and encription, for example). But it is a fun read, and they’re more positive about the future than most.

  2. I make a prediction. In 20 years time, The Economist magazine will be advising futurologists that they should:
    – think big
    – think long-term
    – don’t waste your time with wishy-washy statements about not knowing
    – be a generalist, don’t get embedded in a particular industry
    – don’t get too caught up in what the masses are saying.

    There’s some sense in prediction markets, but otherwise the article provides no reason to believe that futurologists who obey their rules will do any better than futurologists who don’t.

    The future is unpredictable because it depends on new knowledge, and what that knowledge is can’t be known ahead of time. None of The Economist’s Rules change that.

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