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 But these two keynote speeches at one tech-related conference confirmed for me why “futurist” is an outdated term – and perhaps antithetical to understanding how the future is created.
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.
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
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.”