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Futurology is the rigorous attempt to anticipate future developments, relying heavily upon social-science methods. Few futurologists actually try to forecast future conditions, but instead prefer to identify alternative possibilities and to critique naive forecasts that others may have proposed. Critical futurology has deep historical roots. For example, in 1872 Edward Jarvis addressed popular concerns that the United States was experiencing too much immigration through careful demographic analysis that showed the country was in little danger of becoming primarily foreign born.
In the 1960s a futurology craze gripped American intellectuals, many of whom wished to serve as advisors to the Kennedy-Johnson administration’s New Frontier or Great Society and the competition with the Soviet Union cold war. The RAND corporation sponsored studies that combined the views of many experts into unified forecasts concerning a wide range of possible technological and social developments. Among the sequels were two visionary books, The Year 2000 (1967), by Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener, and Towards the Year 2000 edited by Daniel Bell (1967).
In the 2000s conferences such as the annual meetings of the World Future Society offer diverse prospectives. Serious journals, such as Futures and Futures Research Quarterly, carry projections, scenarios, theory-based extrapolations, and expert judgments about the future.
A projection analyzes recent trends mathematically, then runs the trends forward in time to estimate particular variables, such as population, economic activity, or the diffusion of a new technology. In 1971 Jay Forrester used the simple computers of his day to model the interplay of economic and social variables on a global scale through systems dynamics projections. The approach was famously used in the 1972 Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth, predicting that the global economy would soon crash because of resource depletion, but in retrospect the numerous assumptions seem arbitrary, and the crash has not yet occurred. The report remains influential as a cautionary tale but not a prediction.
The point of a scenario is not to predict, but to clarify, presenting a coherent, internally consistent picture of a future possibility so that planners and scholars can think more clearly and creatively. The scenarios in the KahnWiener and Bell books imagined the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of the World Wide Web. In 2003 British astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees examined realistic scenarios for many of the ways humankind could become extinct during this century.
A theory sketches the future implied by a particular set of formal ideas. Pitirim Sorokin argued that every great civilization follows a cycle from ideational culture based on a transcendent ideology such as a religion, to sensate culture that is secular, empirical, and destined for collapse, followed by a new ideational phase. While agreeing with Sorokin’s general approach, Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge argued that civilization will not secularize in the long run, because religion responds with constant revival and innovation.
Scientific and technical expertise can identify the possible implications of discoveries. In 2000 the U.S. National Science Foundation considered the implications of nanotechnology for industry, medicine, environmental sustainability, space exploration, national security, and scientific understanding of nature. The finding that the societal impact would operate indirectly, led to an examination of the possible future convergence of nanotechnology with biotechnology, information technology, and new cognitive technologies.
Given that futurologists seldom attempt to predict precise outcomes, one may wonder how futurology differs from science fiction (SF), a genre of literature that often concerns speculations about the future and is sometimes praised for insight about the implications of science and technology. Sociological research suggests that SF has primarily four ideological dimensions: (1) “hard-science” stories favorable to technological innovation; (2) “new-wave” stories critical of technological development, emphasizing aesthetics and social science rather than natural science; (3) fantasy stories in which magic or the supernatural are more important than technology or science; and (4) the time dimension anchored in classical SF such as the century-old works of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Arguably, the first two of these dimensions might qualify as futurology, if the authors built upon a solid basis of knowledge in the natural or social sciences, using narrative fiction as a way of rendering their scenarios more vivid.
- Bainbridge, William Sims. 1986. Dimensions of Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Bell, Daniel, ed. 1967. Towards the Year 2000. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Forrester, Jay W. 1971. World Dynamics. Cambridge, MA: Wright-Allen Press.
- Helmer, Olaf, Bernice Brown, and Theodore Gordon. 1966. Social Technology. New York: Basic Books.
- Jarvis, Edward. 1872. Immigration. Atlantic Monthly 29: 454–468.
- Kahn, Herman, and Anthony J. Wiener. 1967. The Year 2000. New York: Macmillan.
- Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.
- Rees, Martin. 2003. Our Final Hour. New York: Basic Books.
- Roco, Mihail C., and William Sims Bainbridge, eds. 2001. Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.
- Roco, Mihail C., and William Sims Bainbridge, eds. 2003. Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.
- Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1937. Social and Cultural Dynamics. New York: American Book Company.
- Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Wagner, Cynthia G., ed. 2005. Foresight, Innovation, and Strategy: Toward a Wiser Future. Bethesda, MD: World Future Society.
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