Futurists Don’t Suck

I apologize. I wrote short piece for Good last week, inappropriately entitled  “Why Futurists Suck”. While I agree with the piece I wrote, the title frames a very particular situation in much too broad and unnecessarily incendiary terms. The title is actually a reference to the satirical subtitle of a talk I did at SXSW back in 1997, when as young man I hoped to take a swipe at the slick magazines and high-paid consultants who seemed to be derailing the digital age.

The idea of the piece is not that futurists suck. It’s that the digital renaissance offers us new access to present. The emergence of digital technology gave us new ways to manage our time – ways that I hoped would give us new freedom to work when we wanted to, from wherever we wanted to and, for the most part, less. These technologies empowered the individual, the community, and the local, real-time reality. Whether trading in restored peer-to-peer marketplaces or starting businesses without venture capital, the cyberpunks were going to liberate us from the Industrial Age time-is-money way of life that was not only running out of steam but threatening to ruin the planet. 

What angered me at the time was that many of the digerati and, yes, futurists who could have been helping usher in this new era instead reframed the digital era as an extension and amplification of the Industrial Age. Instead of offering us an alternative to extractive venture capitalism and debt-based growth imperatives, the digital age was to be the harbinger of a “long boom” through which the NASDAQ would be able to grow infinitely. 

And that shift from hands-on, maker-centric digital culture to high flying digital industrialism really bummed me out. Jerry Garcia died the same day Netscape went public. And that seemed significant. 

But it wasn’t until I began working on Present Shock that I came to understand what it was that had actually been disturbing me so profoundly back in 1997. And it wasn’t until I was finished with the book and introducing to an audience at SXSW in 2013 that I realized I had come full circle. Here I am again, explaining how we are misapplying the a-temporal, presentist potentials of digital technology to the obsolete, time-based agenda of the Industrial Age. 

So no, futurists don’t suck. Hell, I even play one on TV. The piece would have been better entitled “when futurists suck” or, better yet, something altogether different. But as it went out, the title and the sentiment it projects were wrong. It not only obscures the point I was trying to make, but offends an entire profession – most of whose members are as dedicated to making the world a better place to live right now.