I really hate the term “Future Studies”. The trouble is that it’s a growing field; largely for two reasons. One is that if you make your predictions for far enough in the future you can’t be proven wrong. Secondly, if there are enough of you making predictions then eventually some of them have to be right. At this point the future studies scholars ignore everything they got wrong, and hoist their one successful prediction aloft as proof of their genius. At the risk of dismissing a whole field of scholarship, you might as well just read science-fiction or ask random people in the street.
Personally I like science-fiction and read a lot of it. However most decent authors don’t sell their books as any sort of realistic guide to the future, and instead concentrate on telling a good story. W Warren Wagar was a futurologist and used to teach whole university courses devoted to what the future might hold. The two questions that instantly occur to me is how do you assess a course like that, and secondly, does it pay well?
In 1989 he wrote a small book, appropriately titled A Short History of the Future. In the introduction Wagar seems almost embarrassed at what he’s written, as he repeatedly tries to argue that it’s not an attempt to predict the future. He then goes on to describe in a huge amount of detail what he thinks could happen over the next 200 years to our politics, society and economy. For my money saying what you think will happen in the future is prediction. Obviously he felt otherwise. Essentially A Short History of the Future is bad science-fiction but without a plot and dressed up as a pseudo-academic book. By pseudo-academic book I mean that almost anyone could have written it.
The 1989 publication date is very salient here, and for anyone with even a passing knowledge of history you can probably predict what’s coming next. In Wagar’s future the Soviet Union continues to exist well into the 22nd century. In reality, about two months after the book was published, the entire Soviet system fell apart due to internal and external pressures.
Eventually Wagar revised his work in 1992 and then again 1999. The 1999 version doesn’t mention the next decade of conflict, and instead argues that Islam was largely in decline and would no longer be a factor in world politics. Equally he predicts a huge global economic boom that will last until about 2040. I presume there wasn’t a 4th edition because he just gave up at that point. If he genuinely believed that it didn’t matter that ‘his’ future hadn’t come true (or had been disproved repeatedly), why did he feel the need to keep putting out new editions?
The one obvious answer is that he didn’t want a whole generation to pick it up and point out that he was a Futurologist, whose entire career was based on predicting future trends, yet he couldn’t see the single biggest event of the last hundred years coming a few months before it happened. Now I have to admit here that I didn’t see it coming either, but I make no claim to study the future professionally for a living.
As usual with these kind of books, the reviewers, or at least the ones quoted on the back cover, seem ready to trip over themselves in their rush to praise it. According to the Washington Post, “his extrapolated near-term future is an incisive, dynamic vision of where we may indeed be heading”. Except of course it wasn’t.
Interestingly in his autobiography from 2001, “Memoirs of the Future”, Wagar spends quite a few pages listing and quoting from many of the bad reviews the book got. He also admits that it was swiftly rendered almost completely wrong, stating that “my chronicle of the 1990s was now inconceivable. When I drafted it in 1987, it made good sense. By October, 1991, it was nonsense”. He then attempts to argue that he wasn’t actually wrong, and that he predicted most of what happened, it just happened fifty years early. That’s like predicting someone will die when they’re a hundred, and then claiming you were still broadly right if they die at sixty. As is always the case with these books, I don’t mind people writing them, I just object to them being sold without a big sticker on the front declaring “this almost certainly won’t happen”.