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Is the Future Out of Date?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, July 18, 2016

Evolution Didn't Equip Us to Contemplate the Future

 With continuing technological advances that have brought us big data, robotics, virtual reality, gene editing, artificial intelligence, and cyber crime, and geopolitical upheavals represented by ISIS, an international refugee crisis and Brexit, change is inevitable. Paradoxically, some observer say, this recognition hasn't made us very good at thinking about the future.

 FarhadManjoo, writing in the New York Times, says the late Alvin Toffler was right when he predicted in his 1970 book Future Shock that the dizzying pace of technological change would make us disoriented and progressively incompetent in dealing rationally with our environments. Manjoo says today's local and global crises arise from our "collective inability to deal with ever-faster change."

 "All around, technology is altering the word," Manjoo writes. "Social media is subsuming journalism, politics and terrorist organizations. Inequality, driven in part by techno-abetted globalization, has created economic panic across much of the western world. National governments are in a slow-moving war for dominance with a handful of the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen-all of which happen to be tech companies."

 Despite that, Manjoo says, we have short-sighted politics where vision is limited to the next election, and our crumbling roads and bridges reflect a lack of investment in our future. Critics say too many business leaders trade long-term benefit for short- term profit. Economic and social policies haven't kept up with an aging population that includes longer life spans. Laura Carstensen, founder of the Stanford Center on Longevity, observes in a Time essay that during the 20th century the numbers of Americans living into their 80s, 90s, and beyond began to exceed the cultural changes needed to accommodate longevity.   She notes that long term planning doesn't come naturally to humans, that nothing in our evolutionary heritage prepared us to think about the distant future, and that research shows humans are ill-equipped to envision negative consequences of routine daily behavior.

 In mid 20th century the government and several independent research institutes were working on long-range projection in many fields. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)was created in 1972 to analyze impact of new science and technology, and analyze proposed legislation for its future effects. But Manjoo says "futurism" fell from grace in the 1980s after it became associated with marketers pushing products. Manjoo says the elimination of the OTA in 1995 left the government without a place for futurists, and left every decision about the future "viewed through the unforgiving lens of partisan politics."  

 Certainly, many initiatives examining the future of technology still exist at universities and think tanks. Many researchers are expanding the discoveries in big data that have already brought improvements in healthcare. The Good Judgment Project, founded by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California-Berkeley, with government funds initially as a way to help CIA analysts be better at their work, continues to examine predicting, forecasting and new ways of thinking about the future.  

But Manjoo thinks we have become collectively short-sighted. In his view, we've traveled from Toffler's future shock to having "future blindness" today. He quotes Amy Webb, a futurist who founded the Future Today Institute, who believes future studies have diminished. "I don't know of many people any more whose day to day pursuit is the academic study of the future," she said.

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