Why Futurists Suck

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 August 1998

So far, only my Melbourne sponsors have let me keep the original title of the talk I’ve been giving around the world this month, “Why Futurists Suck.” I shouldn’t have been so surprised that 500-or-so concerned Australians would fill the cavernous Malthouse Theater to participate in a free exchange about our collective fate as a digital society. I have a feeling the crowd showed up less to hear me speak than to support the underlying premise of our evening together: the future that futurists futurize may not be the one we want.

The act of futurism itself, as practiced by today’s leading cyber pundits, is less predictive than it is propaganda. Think of the shady fortuneteller who foresees “a terrible illness” in her client’s future, just so that she can sell some herbs and schedule a follow-up visit. Futurists use their authority and our timidity to shape a future that keeps them in business.

Likewise, the companies and magazines selling us the future do so for their own gain. Through intimidation, they seek to make themselves the exclusive purveyors of news from the future. In an age of constant change and widespread disorientation, it is particularly heinous for those who stand a chance of teaching us how to negotiate the digital terrain to instead work so hard to keep us confused about what’s going on around us.

As the Internet came to prominence in the late 1980’s, there was a lot less talk about the future than there was about the present. We were experiencing a communications revolution like none before. People who were lucky enough to stumble onto the Internet were struck with the kind of awe that hit psychedelics users of the 1960’s. This jubilation had nothing to do with technology, streaming or otherwise. It was about newfound contact with other human beings from around the world.

The problem for big business was obvious: the millions of people discovering the Internet were turning away from traditional media and towards one another. Unlike television viewers, people participating in great conversations, forming communities, and achieving new contacts online can’t be coerced into product purchases so easily. In the demystified zone of truly interactive communications, the monitor is a portal not an oracle. And when we’re having a great time with one another, we’re not worried about anything at all. We’re delighting in the present, and working to bring this delight to others. That’s why we called it shareware.

The communitarian ethic of the Internet had to broken at all costs. So, along came the futurists. Their first job was to distract us from what made the Internet so much fun. By reframing the communications revolution as an “Information Age,” they pulled our focus away from contact, and onto content - something that can be bought and sold. The World Wide Web interface, originally just one way of accessing data, became the new dominant paradigm because it offered a way to distribute content without all that human feedback.

The futurists and pundits circulated through the Fortune 500, demonstrating how the Web would be as easy for business to monopolize as television. More importantly, they warned how businesses that ignored the promise of the information age would do so at their own peril.

To convince Wall Street of the infinite economic growth to be reaped from their investment in new media, the futurists have come up with a new version of free market capitalism called the Long Boom. That’s right: as long as the entire world opens its markets, one after the other, the pyramid scheme will go on forever. The object of the game is simply to get in early. Invest now, before it’s too late.

In the meantime, the revolution will be funded with the dollars of those who already online. Glitzy magazines - themselves designed to be as intimidating as possible - will convince proud “early adopters” that they need to upgrade at regular intervals. As long as the Windows operating system gets clunkier every year, people will need bigger computers with faster chips. Those who refuse will not be able to take advantage of the Internet’s new “features” - streaming video and other technologies that add to the shopping experience and, not surprisingly, little else.

In the United States, we’re told that, thanks to the business of technology, all is well. Inflation is low, and employment is high. But one commodity that seems to continue inflating is the future itself. Stocks and other investments are at record highs compared to their intrinsic value and earnings. Their evaluations are kept soaring by little more than words of business futurists, who encourage us to rob from the present in order to cash in on the prophesized future. And we’re warned that if we don’t stake our claim to the digital winfall now, we’ll be left hopelessly behind.

The enemy to this scenario is satisfaction. If we were ever to decide we have enough stuff, and that the Internet we’ve developed is already good enough to satisfy our needs, then the Ponzie scheme would crumble, taking all those futurists along with it.

Futurism of this breed sells more devices and services to more people in less time. Though they may be insightful and articulate, most of our beloved futurists don’t even have the ability to see beyond their own stock portfolios or the next quarterly report. They do succeed in bringing more investment dollars to high technology and, in some cases, bringing people to the Internet a bit earlier than they might have discovered it on their own. But at what cost?

The Information-Age-Shopping-Mall they foresee doesn’t satisfy the underlying urge drawing us to these technologies in the first place. Worse, it threatens to make us lose the plot altogether.