Booing the futurists

In a 2014 essay for New Statesman, the journalist, Bryan Appleyard, takes aim at futurists. Why are they in his sights? Firstly, they tend to be wrong. Paul Ehrlich, for instance, predicted hundreds of millions would die of starvation in the 1970s in his book, The Population Bomb. Incorrect predictions are perhaps not the futurist’s fault. The one thing we know about the future is that it is uncertain. In the 1980s, it was pretty reasonable to think that nuclear fusion power delivered by room-temperature superconductors was just around the corner. But it wasn’t.

The fault with futurists is that they are either fooling themselves or dishonest. To claim to know the future is hubris and anyone who takes to the stage to do so, no matter how inspiring, should laden their speech with caveats or else be deafened by booing. But we don’t boo futurists. We find their folksy TED talks mildy, if not wildy, entertaining. We invite them to give after dinner speeches. We want to feel inspired and this washes back into a system that demands astrophysicists be inspiring when they petition funding organisations for grants. We conspire in these fancies because it pleases our distracted minds to do so.

Do we have futurists hawking their gaseous prognostications in the world of education? Oh yes. Most certainly. These are the ones who somehow know how many jobs there will be in the future that have not yet been invented. These are the ones who can tell you exactly how to prepare for the world of tomorrow and which knowledge we can simply toss aside and not bother to teach any more. Somehow, there is no risk in doing this. The only risk is to carry on as before.

Consider a tweet about a presentation given by an education futurist:

We should not accept such intellectual candyfloss any more. We should, in fact, be angered by it. Not only is it wrong, it is insulting to our profession.

Next time a futurist talks to a room full of teachers, I hope they are greeted with boos.

NOTE: The booing mentioned in this post is figurative and is meant to represent a contrast with how futurists are usually received. I actually think that’s obvious, but I have added this note after some people chose to interpret it literally.


18 thoughts on “Booing the futurists

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    I don’t think a ‘boo’ is ever a good response–no matter how tempting (or deserved) it might be. A successful local independent school has a banner in front of its entrance advertising a “21st century education”, which would suggest that the futurist argument resonates with a lot of parents (if not teachers). After all, no one wants to be behind the curve.

    Perhaps the best response is to quote Newton: “”If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

  2. Tempe Laver says:

    I’ve been pondering the same thing lately. We can’t have much knowledge in our schools because knowledge is redundant because the future is uncertain. So instead we should stick kids on computers because somehow that will future-proof them.

    The futurists don’t seem to think critically. If we can’t predict the future then why can they? Also, their arguments are not new or cutting edge, they’ve been used over and over for decades. Why do people still listen to them? Lastly, all the programs and devices that students are currently using will (according the the futurists logic) be obsolete very soon so why have them use it at all? Putting kids on devices at school does not make them computer programmers or coders it just gives them lots of opportunity to play games and be distracted.

    • Richard M Sear says:

      Futurists have helped us progress through forwars thinking in many fields like healthcare, aerospace and more. Your naive and rather narrow interpretation of the function shows by your lack of a choesive argument. Your only evidence to consider is clearly an outlier in a profession filled with very smart individuals. Yes there are morons, just as there are good and bad bloggers…case in point. This.

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  4. Jane S. says:

    The goal of a serious futurist is not to predict the future. Rather, it is to think of possible scenarios and use them to define a range of plausible futures. They might then consider how we might respond to each scenario and what might encourage or discourage certain ones. This is, I think, a worthwhile activity, as is projection (“if trend X continues, it will result in Y”). Prediction is not.

    • Chester Draws says:

      I’ve heard this projection/prediction difference before. It doesn’t seem to me to be a useful distinction.

      Malthusians — ancient and modern — have made fools of themselves with “projections” of us all starving by now. We’re still awaiting the fall of Capitalism that Marx confidently projected would have happened long ago from the trends he saw. Confident projections of moon bases, flying cars, room temperature superconductors, nuclear fusion etc have all turned out to be woefully wrong based on what seemed like quite reasonable projections of trends.

    • This is also an activity that any intelligent person engages in, every day, in small or large ways. It isn’t remotely worthy of being called a profession.

      • chrismwparsons says:

        You see, in this sense, I am happy to see that all teachers should embark on futurism – as opposed to just saying “I’m going to teach the stuff I’ve always taught, in the way I’ve always taught it, because we can’t know the future.”
        However, I’m also against grand predictions of the future – in the way that Nassim Nicholas Taleb is against those who think they can predict the market – and I do indeed caution against the project of uber-differentiation/personalisation on those grounds.

  5. chrismwparsons says:

    I guess, as usual, the devil is in the details. When it comes to suggestions of terrorist acts or calls to riot, ‘figurative’ exhortations on the internet are these days not entertained humorously. I guess you fall into the same camp as Danny Baker, in that your main fault is in not seeing how things could be interpreted.

    Having said that, the ‘anti-futurist’ – “we need to just teach what we’ve always taught without any anticipation of how this might gradually evolve to the betterment of the people we’re teaching” approach – strikes me as something rather akin to certain religious fundamentalist sects.

    Teachers ARE futurists – everything we do is trying to anticipate the impact of what we do now on the likely outcomes for the children we teach – and to personalise this. Otherwise, we really should give way to YouTube or the robots for teaching. What is it that you do that couldn’t be done by an algorithm Greg…?

    • “When it comes to suggestions of terrorist acts or calls to riot, ‘figurative’ exhortations on the internet are these days not entertained humorously. I guess you fall into the same camp as Danny Baker, in that your main fault is in not seeing how things could be interpreted.”

      This is absurd

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