Back to the Future of Futurism

It’s a funny thing being a futurist. When did I decide I might like being one?

The answer – it may seem – lies in my past. No not my recent past as a Gartner analyst looking at the ins-and-outs of the IT services industry for nearly 20 years. Or even as a student of history at university (though history is arguably a great prep for strategy: “If THIS didn’t happen, then THAT wouldn’t have happened”. And so on. Look at the patterns. Rinse, repeat...).

I mean, WAY back. “Back-in-the-mists-of-time” way back.

Probably when I was 12.

In 1985, I got a gift certificate for our local bookstore. It was a voucher “Good for Any One Book of Your Choosing”. The book I chose was entitled “The Third Millennium: A History of the World – AD 2000-3000”. Published by Alfred A. Knopf and authored by Brian Stableford and David Langford that same year, “The Third Millennium” is essentially a history of the world (and, yes, worlds-beyond) over the coming thousand years.

I’m not sure what prompted me to get it. Ask my older sister, and she’ll tell you I was kind of a weird kid (but a kid who LOVED books). Forget Stephen King's "It", which also came out that year. Of all the redeemable choices of "any book!" I had at the local Rakestraw Books in Danville, California, TTM was the one I really, really wanted. I wanted it bad. I loved everything about it, from its 3-D nautilus hologram on the cover, to the cool mock-up of futuristic illustrations inside (pictured above: the crystal and duralite spires of Amundsen City in the 28th century). The best part? Figuring out exactly what we WILL we be doing in the year 3000 AD, and how we get from HERE to THERE. (Remember, this was 1985. We hadn’t even gotten to the Year Two Thousand yet. At the time, I remember thinking: “My God. I’ll be twenty-seven when that happens... so OLD!”).

Needless to say, I’ve kept the book ever since. Something of a touchstone, I still love it. And like looking back at Spielberg’s “Back to the Future” (which also made its debut in 1985), it’s fun to check in with it every now and again. Are we on track? What did they get wrong?

And when, exactly, do our flying cars and silver suits arrive?

First thing to know (and perhaps, uncomfortably more topical in 2017 than we would like it to be): The 1980s bogeyman of the USSR hangs on – for a long time. On my check-ins with TTM 20 years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’d sort of glibly scoff “Hah! The USSR. Duh... How WRONG can you be? It went up in a puff of smoke 6 years after ya wrote the book.” As today’s events with Russia continue to unfold, it’s perhaps a situation of – as the book does – playing the long game. A “rose of another name”-type situation, strategically.

Next up: Nuclear annihilation (again, threatening in the headlines of 2017 more than we would like). According to TTM:

“On 16 June 2011, an atomic bomb was
detonated in anger for the first time since
1945. A few seconds after the explosion, the
Libyan city of Sabha was a radioactive
wasteland and 78,000 people died”.

Sadly, Buenos Aires also gets it in 2079 (and remained uninhabited for over a century).

The good news: by 2055, the US and USSR fire off the last of their nuclear stockpiles. Hooray! To a young man of the mid-1980s, this seemed like a miracle, and one that Reagan and Gorbachev actually seemed to make seem a reality by 1989. (Alas, recent events in Korea have brought unimaginable possibilities again to the front burner.)

What about the internet? TTM pretty much nails it. Around about the year 2000 (right on schedule!), we see the rise of “the Empire of the Telescreen: a glittering toy of enormous significance”. Everything from electronic publication, the end of commuting, hand-held and whole-wall screens is predicted. “The network” (read: the internet) leads to the resurgence of the countryside and beauty-spots as places to live and work (somebody tell Steve Case). And yet: “Even in 2038, the new united front presented by [US] President Konrad and [USSR] Premier Kamenov concealed bitter dispute over the information flow between their countries.” Hmmmm… where have I heard a variant on that, recently?

Last but not least - what about the future of work? Surprise, surprise, TTM in 1985 foresees new machines reorganizing people’s play as drastically as their work (for example: “by the year 2000, electronic reproduction of pictures and music was highly efficient, and habits of consumption had already changed so much that relatively few people actually wanted to be present in a sports stadium or concern hall.” Maybe the authors missed that one by 15-20 years, but – hello NFL! – glimmers, especially with the onset of AR, might be upon us).

The era of AI and automation also seemed to be clear, even then: white collar jobs being made redundant in large numbers due to IT. Redeploying the workers becomes a source of embarrassment to government officials, replete with chronic homelessness and desperate need for urban renewal. The Soviet countries “with political power to redeploy labor... could muster no economic incentives to motivate the workers” (sorry, UBI’ers...). According to TTM, the way out for all systems – into the 22nd century – relied on lifelong education, and – shock! – renewal of the public sector (sorry, anti-taxers...).

Ah good stuff that any normal twelve year old would just love reading about (I told you my sister'd tell you I was kinda weird. Not anymore. I'm normal now -- ask my wife...)

And I really only summarized the stuff JUST into the cusp of the 22nd century for you.

If you’ve come this far, I know you’re all waiting to find out.

Just WHAT becomes of us at the end of the Third Millennium? What ARE we all doing by 3000 AD? The final chapter is called “Horizons of the Human Enterprise”. I don’t want to spoil it. But, in short, it’s cool – and – as I imagined it in sixth grade, probably will involve humans (and human-like) beings wearing silver suits and definitely travelling by flying cars.

The last chapter opens:

“When the modern period began (i.e., 3000),
there were four distinct human species: Homo
sapiens, the ancestral species, which was still
commonly described as “ordinary human”,
although its members were already becoming
known as sapients; ZT people, who were
eventually to be called emortals; those
adapted for life in space, for whom the name
faber had supplanted the ethnocentric term
ET; and the merpeople, who retained their
original name”.

Mind-blowing stuff. As much the case today, as it was when I was twelve. And now, 32 years on – with some perspective on what’s happened, what hasn’t happened, and what’s likely to happen – even better!

My 12-year-old self would love to tell the 2017 me: “Fun reading! I'm as happy as can be! And when I grow up: A FUTURIST, I will be!”