This is a tale of two keynotes. One, by a working scientist explaining the work being done in her field. The other, by a recycling expert dropping an inexcusable f-bomb: “futurist.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am interested in the future. I expect, as inventor Charles F. Kettering once noted, to be spending the rest of my life there. But these two keynote speeches at one tech-related conference confirmed for me why “futurist” is an outdated term – and perhaps antithetical to understanding how the future is created.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/45499571@N00/3522340819/in/photolist-6nfVd8-6o6Pnp-6tX2Gm-6w8gaN-6w8gvq-6yYsXq-6yYt23-6yYt5J-6AnC26-6B35Yy-6MofQD-6PDcWn-6QkiRz-73zzxP-73Dy7G-7iuJh2-dW89A6-de2Rbd-dCAQnx-9X5aox-ejtCRg-8C3R3Z-cL3RYW-e863Xf-7HtKkQ-7HpRHx-7HpQEe-7HpShp-7HtLZL-7HtJQA-7HtNwC-7HpQ6v-7HpTfZ-7HtPw9-7FvHWe-8wXkWP-bNzxLM-83NcTF-ah6ajr-8MQq88-ejtCUT-cL3Zoo-8ZyS5h-dv1mNo-dpkEpx-8mveD4-e2rh3V-8GobyH-fNNm54-7HtXwj-aMWjZB
(Photo by cometstarmoon [CC-BY-2.0] via Flickr)
The scene: the opening session in a cluster of more than one-thousand attendees at the Association of Test Publishers’ Innovations in Testing conference, filled with psychometricians and assessment professionals for a high nerd quotient. On stage bounded the enthusiastic keynote speaker, a self-proclaimed “global futurist.” He began his talk on “The Future of Knowledge” and, faster than you can say, “ripped from the pages of Google News Alerts,” ran through descriptions of self-driving cars, delivery and agricultural drones, robotic pharma therapy monitors and a bunch of other gee-whiz stuff.

Entertaining? Yes. The problem? All of it was happening not in the future, but now. And worse still, few firm connections or predictions were made, other than the tired, “we’re educating kids for jobs that don’t yet exist.”

As a matter of fact, this futurist went so far as to say he was re-using slides that he’d used in other keynotes, and peppered his patter with prominent references to talks he’d given to CES, NASA, the National Association of Dental Laboratories, the Texas Municipal League, the College Board and – I kid you not – “two trucking conferences in the past two months.”

It led to my not-too-kind observation that if I could create the perfect job, it would be to cobble together a bunch of cool engineering and technology factoids, be hired by an industry association or brand-name corporation to give a speech, spend an hour or two while I was there finding out what was new in their field, and regurgitate that into my next presentation.

Then rinse, repeat and re-sell.

I don’t mean to pick on this speaker in isolation. He’s probably a nice guy. Hell, he says he is on his Twitter page. He entertained. And there are other self-described futurists who probably deserve equal or more abuse (a search for “futurist” on LinkedIn alone returned 5,688 results).

But his talk is symptomatic about how meaningless and empty the title of “futurist” is.

It doesn’t go far enough. The future, by definition, is not what’s happening today. And the cool developments that ultimately change everything almost never evolve in a straight line. They combine with other new developments in unexpected ways, often on time horizons that defy expectation. (The classic PBS series Connections is full of historical examples, and look what the melding of the web and WiFi has wrought recently.) “Futurist,” basically, is shorthand for “failed science-fiction writer.” Because writing good science fiction requires internal consistency that holds together over time.

Mark Anderson: not a futurist
Mark Anderson: not a futurist

It doesn’t have any requirements. Want to be a futurist? Congratulations! You’re a futurist. Frequently the title is accompanied by the words “writer” and “speaker,” but watch out if there are no other credentials. It’s like being a celebrity. It used to be that someone became a celebrity because of what they’d accomplished in a field such as acting, sports or science. Today you can be famous for just being famous (e.g., Paris Hilton or any reality show contestant). Every activity like blogging or speaking self-perpetuates the self-promotion that reinforces the self-proclamation. If it helps, think of most futurists as simply uglier celebrities.

Even those who could proudly and accurately claim the title shy away from it. Mark Anderson, trained in biochemistry and marine biology and whose well-regarded Strategic News Service newsletter goes into significant depth on “advanced information” makes, unlike most futurists, specific and documented predictions. But he told me he’s never taken the title for many of the reasons I cite here. “By grading myself publicly since 1995,” Anderson explained. “I have worked to make a reliable science out of prediction. To that end, I consider myself a predictions scientist who has become a predictions expert.”

It obscures the real work.  Without other credentials, futurists are flashy observers, not doers. It takes substance and perspective to create the future. Those doing so generally don’t have time to fly to back-to-back keynotes, or write blog posts and Tweet endlessly about said keynotes while they prepare their next keynote

Hilary Mason: not a futurist
Hilary Mason: not a futurist

Which brings me to the closing keynote speaker, Hilary Mason, Accel Partners’ Data Scientist in Residence and former Chief Scientist for Bitly. In her 40 minutes, the well-spoken Mason took a single, misunderstood concept – “big data” – and defined, dissected and discussed its current and potential impact, on everything from ambulance response times in New York City to words in song lyrics.

Mason’s talk was nerdy (classical and Bayesian stats), practical and thought-provoking. Data visualization as narrative. Cheap sensors, everywhere. And this bit of advice for how CEOs should think of data scientists: “They need to hire Spock to sit on the bridge next to Kirk and tell them what to do.”

The big difference between hearing a scientist and a futurist talk about the future is the difference between human and parrot speech. The former does the work, providing depth and what-if vision. The latter is more like a stone that skips along the water, never pausing long enough to understand what’s below the surface. Then it sinks.

It’s time to kill all the “futurists.” Not through actual physical harm, but by eliminating their crutch of a title.

Or, for those who want to be more gentle, perhaps just change it to something more accurate: “Fauxturist.”

Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is an independent strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech (see the column archive). Yes, he also speaks at a lot of conferences, has written science fiction and many speculative columns, but prefers the term “analyst.”

Comments

  • http://www.venturestab.com/ Jerome Gentolia

    Is there anyway I can get a hold of slides or video of Hilary Mason’s talk? Anyone?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      The ATP conference organizers have posted session presentations for attendees for most sessions except the two keynotes. Hilary kindly emailed me hers directly, but they’re primarily images and probably wouldn’t be helpful without her narration. And, to my knowledge, the conference did not video record her presentation. If I get any better info, I’ll post it here.

      • http://www.venturestab.com/ Jerome Gentolia

        Thanks Frank! Hopefully you’ll be able to get something!

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          HIlary had a good suggestion, since her slides are not very helpful in isolation: “I’d encourage them to search for me on YouTube, where several of my talks (on other topics, but still related to data) have been posted.”

          • http://www.venturestab.com/ Jerome Gentolia

            Thanks Frank! Will do as suggested!

  • CurtAnderson

    What is wrong with talented speakers spreading ideas of the future? There are far too many people who are so stuck in today that they will be threatened with a culture shock-like reaction to the extremely disruptive technologies coming in the next 5, 10, and 20 years. As long as a speaker doesn’t pretend to be an expert but just an informer, and as long as the audience is entertained and walks away having learned something, why is that a problem? I say let the experts do the work, and as long as the speakers or ‘futurists’ aren’t spreading false ideas, live and let live.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Perhaps I give tech-related audiences more credit. But on one point, I simply note a prominent part of the speaker bio — “Futurist, trends and innovation expert” — and rest my case.

      • CurtAnderson

        Fair enough, this one speaker is possibly a bit of a fraud. Does that mean that every ‘Futurist’ speaker without an advanced STEM degree is a fraud as well? Or did you just happen to see one bad apple? I’m not sure, but I would bet that some of the speakers for the World Future Society don’t have advanced STEM degrees either.

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          Don’t misunderstand the main point of the column. The job title “futurist” is the fraud, not any one individual. I’ve seen many keynote speakers at many tech conferences. And there are lots of people doing the work of connecting the dots to the future without such a self-important label. It’s what needs to go. Not the ideas, if they are backed with solid examples and well-reasoned conclusions.

          • CurtAnderson

            I see what you mean now, thank you for the clarification. I think we will have to agree to disagree on the title part, though. Have a good weekend!

  • Sara Robinson

    Actually, there is such a thing as a credentialed futurist. And there are, in fact, graduate schools in the US and around the world that offer graduate degrees in futures studies. (In the US, it’s the University of Houston and the University of Hawaii.) There’s also a small professional organization — the Association of Professional Futurists — that’s attempting to set some benchmarks and standards on what a futurist is and does.

    Guys like Carroll have their place, but it’s probably not at a tech conference. It’s probably a pretty sad commentary on American business generally that this kind of “futuring” actually does have an audience. Generally, that audience is people who are attending a conference in some very conventional, traditional old-tech field, and who desperately need a keynoter’s permission to think a little bigger than the narrow trench they’re usually in. If it works for them, fine — but you’re right that nobody on the bleeding edge needs or appreciates this kind of permission.

    One of the way to tell a good futurist from a bad one is that the good ones refuse to engage in the business of prediction (the promise of predictive analytics notwithstanding). We see ourselves as scanners and spotters, spinners of solidly plausible scenarios, processors of massive amounts of data about potential futures — but we make no promises about any of them. And the work we do is infinitely varied. Personally, I work as a street sociologist — I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of how people think about the future, how they prepare for it (or refuse delivery on it), and how their own hopes and fears get twisted up in their images of potential futures — work that has useful political applications. Other futurists focus on a wide range of other things, from speaking and writing to plotting military strategy to doing disaster preparedness work for FEMA to teaching kids to think more concretely about their adult lives.

    It’s a small field, but one with very big scope. I’d encourage people with a serious interest in the future to check out the Association of Professional Futurists (www.profuturists.org), engage with the World Future Society, and even contact the grad programs at the two universities noted above. There are people attempting to set some standards in the field, and Catalano does a good job here of explaining why this is a good thing.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Sara, thanks for the thoughtful and detailed response. First, I’m pleased to hear of efforts to credential/professionalize this practice with some standards. Second, I think a key point you make is, “the work we do is infinitely varied.” That there is underlying work, not just tech headline scraping, seems to me to be a important underpinning of really understanding possible futures and how to create or avoid them.

      • Sara Robinson

        I remember the “financial planner” era. They had it relatively easy, compared to us: there was a universally recognized need to put standards in place that would protect the public from incompetent or invidious actors. Right now, nobody’s really clamoring for that kind of protection from bad futurists, which makes it had to justify any kind of credentialing scheme. Still, we’re slowly making headway on thinking the problem through.

        A look at the standard curricula of the futures grad schools points to some common skills that people should expect from their futurists. A solid grounding in systems theory. Deep familiarity with theories of history, and of social change, and of humans’ weird and wacky past attempts to grapple with the future through the millennia. Mastery of a very wide variety of scenario-building tools (along with development of an acute awareness of these tools’ manifold flaws and failure points). Statistics and other quant skills, which are becoming more important all the time. Structured frameworks of inquiry for ensuring that your survey of potential futures has thoroughly covered every possible base, and uncovered all essential information. Strategic planning (frankly, trained futurists are better at this than anybody you’re likely to meet).

        And quite a bit of organizational behavior, because a huge part of the job is meeting people where they are, and making them feel safe enough to move just a step or two beyond that place — which is all the farther most of them will willingly go. Most geeks are really comfortable imagining radically different futures. It’s easy for us, and we enjoy it. But most non-geeks are markedly less comfortable with this. They find it hard and scary — and not without reason, because most organizational cultures will go way out of their way to punish people who get out too far ahead of the consensus reality. For those groups, the futurist you’re discussing here (who, by his own admission, was used to working with slower-tech folks like dentists and truckers) may have been operating at precisely their speed.

        There’s also the tussle between futurists who are committed to a detached, empirical assessment of potential futures — like journalists reporting on the future for their clients — and those who are deeply engaged with promoting one particular future (e.g. Kurzweil), and therefore aren’t able to assess the potential for other futures very dispassionately. This is a big issue in the field, one that we’ve mostly handled by saying that clients should at least know up front where their futurists’ biases lie.

        Finally: most large corporations do have futurists on staff, though they’re not always given that title. The APF includes futurists who’ve worked for companies as varied as IBM, Pitney-Bowes, Kimberly-Clark, and Hershey. (The future of chocolate? Yes.) Lots of us in various corners of the government, too, because there are actually federal mandates that foresight analysis be included in many kinds of projects. (Some states require this, too.)

        So we’re out here, we’re real, and yeah — telling people I’m a futurist is the fastest way to make people disappear at cocktail parties. It’s a real problem, for all the reasons you cite, plus quite a few more. And right now, if there’s a clear path to solving that, I’m not sure I see it.

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          I must admit, much of what you describe makes it sound as though Hari Seldon’s role as “psycho-historian” (from Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy) is on its way to being made real. Which would be cool. Especially if means even better chocolate. Thanks for the additional detail.

  • Bill Schrier

    Hey Frank, I agree and disagree with you.
    I agree that many of the so-called futurists are just parroting back what they see in the various news clippings (electronic, of course, not paper). I enjoyed your phrase “ripped from the pages of Google alerts”.
    But there are bonafide futurists. These are folks who either take the present news and extend it into new dimensions, or come up with genuinely new ideas. I’m thinking of folks like Arthur C. Clarke who proposed a satellite communications system in 1945. An example of “present news into new dimensions” would be new ideas on what societal and other changes autonomous cars will bring, e.g. it may be very hard to find an auto body shop in such a future, or the horrors of drunk driving may come to an end.
    Along with you and Kettering, I hope to spend many more years figuring all that out by living it!

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Bill, that’s exactly why I draw a distinction between actual future-leaning work and abuse of the title of “futurist.” Sir Arthur, as I recall, never called himself a “futurist” and was one of that breed of science-fiction writers who was trained as a scientist (physics, in his case). Of course, variations on the term have a long history in science fiction (a very prominent Golden Age fan group was called the Futurians). Though a few current science-fiction writers also describe themselves as futurists (David Brin and Brenda Cooper come to mind), they also have strong scientific or technical backgrounds and do more than warm over popular tech.

      • Bill Schrier

        I agree! Anyone who has the audacity to call her/himself a futurist probably is not. And yes, about the only fiction I read is science fiction and the best writers are scientists. Good article, Frank.

        • Sara Robinson

          Just a quick note on applying qualifiers like “so-called” and “self-styled” to futurists…

          Please tread carefully. I’ve got a masters degree (in science!) from a major university that says I’m a futurist. The World Futures Society and the APF have also certified that I’ve met their criteria to call myself a professional futurist. My clients will also attest to my skills as a futurist. It’s not something I just made up in a fit of “audacity;” nor did I “self-style” my way into it.

          For others, of course, “self-styling” is exactly how it happened. Which is our core problem here, and why throwing the whole problematic term overboard (as Frank proposes) is more deeply tempting than he knows. (I’m kinda liking the “psycho-historian” suggestion….)

  • be_seeing_you

    The title of “Futurist” seems to be on the same level as “Stand Up Philosopher”. While there are certainly people who are forward-looking, most of the self-styled futurists seem to be speakers just trying to cash in on a trend with vapid, meaningless, tripe that is about as forward looking as a rearview mirror. The “hard science fiction” genre provides far more “futurism” than most of the self-styled “futurists” that I’ve heard speak. I’m not sure where the situation falls on the scale from tragic to absurd, but it makes me constantly shake my head at the “tastes great, less filling” content I’ve seen them generate.

  • marcusbarber_futurist

    I think it’s a great observation Frank and worthy of further discussion. I say this because as a professional futurist the number of times I’ve had to realign thinking of people who’ve experienced one of your aforementioned futures approaches is too frequent.

    Perhaps there’s benefit in discussion ‘near term future’ which for many people would be of great benefit looking at what you’ve identified as trends.

    The label however does have significant value when it underscores those who look for deep drivers of change. The core issue with the approach you’ve found problematic is less of the content and more of its use. What ‘should’ have been done is identify potential implications – what could this mean and what might be done to accelerate or divert from the pathway? Then you at least have some useful input from (current) trends.

    And deeper thinking says ‘here’s what you techies reckon is happening and are focusing on – here’s what could disrupt that, make it redundant or even harmful and here’s some possible alternatives’. Without that, you rightly identify the problem with ‘cool hunters’, ‘trend spotters’ and ‘nowists’ with an inability to challenge the audience. In your case, it sounds like the audience deserved a far deeper and broader test of their thinking. A different audience however may have found the same content far too challenging.

    I wouldn’t perhaps be so keen to write off the label just yet – maybe you could start with ‘economists’ :-) and certainly holding those who claim to be ‘futurists’ to account is well worth it. Thanks for your perspective
    Marcus Barber

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Marcus, both you and another here make the valid point that what may seem obvious to some when a ‘futurist’ presents is challenging to others. That’s one reason I call for eschewing the surface ‘futurist’ title and looking beyond it for other or deeper credentials. The same, as you note, could be said for ‘economist,’ in addition to ‘financial planner’ and (dare I say it), ‘writer.’

      • marcusbarber_futurist

        Frank there is an automatic framing of expectations for an audience when the term futurist is used. That’s what makes the term useful. And that also makes it incumbent upon the person claiming that moniker to then deliver something new, challenging confronting about the futures that are possible. To do it well means relevant for the specific audience.

        To do it really well (imo) means grounding that futures assessment in a plausible reality which means showing how current, seemingly disconnected events, (no matter how new or ‘out there’ they are now, could evolve into the future you see.

        Now whilst qualifications might assist (and for the deeper assessments tend to add to consistency of the practitioner to do so) there’s a number of futurists there without qualifications that do some amazing work. I don’t see it as a pre requisite to good work – for me the pre-requisite is doing the research that stretches the thinking of the audience. The only flag that pops up for me is whether this is talk 300 of the one talk they deliver. Alas there’s a few of those…

  • https://www.dogdish.co.za Shane Locker

    I found this article… on Google Alerts.

    I am an aspiring sustainist, futurist, caucasian South African, family been here for nearly 300 years. Opportunities are rare, we have a Gini coefficient that is scary to say the least. Most people I know barely make it through school never mind make it to university. To keep your head up most days is a challenge, but dreams of the future keep you going. Reading an article to the likes of this, leaves a bad taste in my mouth – it has an privileged righteous indignation ring to it.

    The case that comes to my mind, is that of a child from a rural village or a poor town that has imagination, no chance to get access to decent education but the scales of economy, the critical mass and black swans of the internet spark a child ‘s (or adult’s) imagination. Someone in their community appreciates this individual’s insights, they adapt to their future better.

    Said child comes across this article, probably toil by being called out for what comes across as having been guilty of having less opportunity, and an above average intelligence relative to their community to scrape headlines. Yet despite it all, said child with limited resources, does a very good job as a futurist relative to their community and environment, brings value.

    While I anticipate I will be called out for not seeing the quality aspect point, I believe the global village we are now in, is your audience. Join the Professional Futurists for $150 per annum, sure that will feed a family in Africa too for the same period of time.

    If there is anything that I hope this article does, should scenario child encounter it (and yes I am that child too), is not take the wind out of said child’s sails, but spurs them on to see past it.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Lose the inflated and often-meaningless title. Keep the dreams. Build the future. That’s the message of the entire column.

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