One of the many methods used in futures studies is what is called environmental scanning. "All futurists do environmental scanning,” write Theodore J. Gordon and Jerome C. Glenn, “some are more organized and systematic, all try to distinguish among what is constant, what changes, and what constantly changes.” The process, which includes several distant early warning techniques (e.g., expert panels, literature reviews, internet searches, conference monitoring, etc.), helps inform the pursuits of issues management and strategic planning. According to William Renfro, President of the Issues Management Association, issues management consists of four stages: identifying potential future issues, researching the background and potential impacts of these issues, evaluating issues competing for a corporation or nation’s operations, and developing appropriate strategies for these operations.
A little further afield, science fiction is another place we look to "see" the future. Citing Karl Marx’s reification and Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum, Adam Roberts writes, “Science as simulation is the reason why fictional science, or ‘SF’, is so much more fun to watch than real science…” Spaceships, robots, cyberspace, the metaverse: These all exist in some form in the real world, but the widespread perception of these contrivances come from science-fiction books and movies. "In the context of SF,” Roberts writes, “this reification works most potently on the interconnected levels of representation of technology and the technologies of reproduction.” At varying levels, we look to science fiction to show us the potential directions in which the technology of the future is going.
Derek Woodgate, founder of The Futures Lab, calls this method the “wide-angled lens” approach. Analyzing the work of William Gibson, Woodgate writes, “Here, in the various levels of connectivity, we need to study the patterns and signals suggested by the ‘lens’ and models. More important, we must be able to recognize the patterns and make connections between seemingly unrelated data in a way that will provide us with powerful and effective future leverage points." As much as Gibson denies being a predictor of any stripe, his work is invariably consulted as a map to the future of technology.
The above approaches represent applied systems thinking for future planning. I briefly outline them here in order to analyze a few trends I’ve witnessed in recent science fiction, trends I do not believe are reliably predictive. Pointing out the wrongs is much easier than getting it right, nonetheless, the following are four misrepresentations of future technology that I’ve seen popping up on movie screens:
We all remember how futuristic Princess Leia’s message to Obi-Wan Kenobi looked when beamed out of R2D2’s projector in the original Star Wars (1977), and holograms have persisted throughout the series. Dennis Gabor was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1971 for his invention and development of the holographic technique for 3-D image representation. Since then they’ve shown up all over the science fictional universe in film, television, and novels: Total Recall (1990), Vanilla Sky (2001), Paul Levinson‘s novel The Pixel Eye (2003), The Island (2005), Avatar (2009), the Fringe television series (2008-2013), Spike Jonze’s her (2013), The Giver (2014), and perhaps most famously in the Star Trek series, home of the Holodek, as well as the aforementioned Star Wars films.
The best holograms have the resolution of old, black-and-white television. No one is going to turn away from the high-definition flat-screens found on every surface these days to look at a choppy, transparent, 3-D ghost.
This is another invention that’s been used throughout science fiction, from Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward (1888) to Star Trek. While the movie her (2013) uses voice activation throughout, there’s a particularly unlikely scene showing main character Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) checking his email while riding home on public transportation. That scenario is currently as commonplace as they come, but he’s doing it via a voice-activated interface. It’s like widespread adoption of the Bluetooth headset: Can you imagine everyone everywhere reciting commands to their communication devices? It would be Bedlam and then some!
Using a microphone for information input is the opposite of listening to headphones. The former is impossible to do in a crowded car, bus, train, office, or living room, while the latter happens more often than not. I’ve also never seen modality expressed gracefully via voice. Without a supplementary input device, how does one, for instance, differentiate between writing, editing, and just talking?
Robotic and semi-robotic exoskeletons are often shown as military contrivances used to augment human strength and agility. They’ve appeared most recently in Elysium (2013) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014). While these provide nice narrative crutches by keeping humans in the fore, and one can easily envision other uses for them, the future of warfare is largely un-personed. Remotely controlled devices like missiles, bombs, satellites, and drones are the more likely path of future skirmishes. For an excellent speculative tale on the latter, see Daniel Suarez’s novel Kill Decision (2012).
Outside of a radar room, I’ve only seen round screens in one movie. The Wachowskis' adaptation of David Mitchell’s brilliant novel Cloud Atlas (2013) is full of bad ideas, but this has to be one of the most wrong-headed. Like the hologram, round screens look futuristic, but the grid as a textual and architectural form predates Gutenberg. Unless we stop using symbolic language, its displays need to be rectangles. Screens, like the pages they emulate, require right angles.
To paraphrase Kenneth Burke, science fiction provides equipment for living in future and alternative worlds — even when it gets it wrong. As Elizabeth Grosz writes, “History is made an inexhaustible enterprise only because of the ongoing movement of time, the precession of futurity, and the multiplicity of positions from which this writing can and will occur." Science fiction’s speculative trajectories often show us what’s possible, even if its just by showing us what’s not.
Special thanks to my futurist friends Scott Smith, Frank Spencer, Stuart Candy, Jamais Cascio, Bruce Sterling, and Emily Empel for getting me psyched about futures studies in the first place, and to Lily Brewer and Kathleen Tyner for providing additional texts and inspiration.
This piece originally appeared on my website a while back. Since finishing my book, Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body, which is coming out next summer from punctum books (more about the book later), I’ve been thinking about futures studies again. As a member of the Futurist Board of the Lifeboat Foundation and fancying myself an amateur futurist, I enjoy dabbling in these techniques. As a lifelong fan of science fiction, I love using the speculative stories I love to talk about what might happen next.
Burke, Kenneth. (1974). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Glenn, Jerome C. & Gordon, Theodore J. (2003). Futures Research Methodology, V2.0. Washington, DC: AC/UNU Millennium Project.
Grosz, Elizaneth. (2000, Summer). Histories of a Feminist Future. Signs, 25(4), pp. 1017-1021.
Hollinger, Veronica. (2010, March). A History of the Future: Notes for an Archive. Science Fiction Studies, 37(1), pp. 23-33
Hurlburt, Allen. (1978). Grid: A Modular System for the Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books. New York: Van Nostrand Reinholt Co.
Renfro, William L. (1993). Issues Management in Strategic Planning. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.
Roberts, Adam. (2006). Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge.
Williamson, Jack H. (1986, Autumn). The Grid: History, Use and Meaning. Design Issues, 3(2), pp. 15-30.
Woodgate, Derek (with Pethrick, Wayne R). (2004). Future Frequencies. Austin, TX: Fringecore Publishing.