Future finders (Washington Post )

Another end-of-the-year highlights montage is clicking along to a percussive tune on television, and one thought comes to mind repeatedly as the pictures fade in and out.: “Who would have ever thought that would happen.”

I mean, who could imagine that those appealing images of sunny jets soaring through the clouds or flashing by overhead just out of the reach of skyscrapers would now bring on these spidery new emotions. Who’d have expected stodgy old congressmen to be sitting at a hearing in half-glasses talking about legislation on a cloning.

Who’d have thought high-tech schmoozers would zap their business card by infrared beam to each other’s PDAs.

work show - utility magazine
work show – utility magazine

Who’d imagine we’d check out at K-mart by scanning our own purchases.

Who’d have thought we’d be scanning so much. It makes me jumpy just thinking about how fast stuff happens these days. I walk out of Best Buy with a new product and can almost hear it emitting a high, sad little whine as it speeds toward obsolescence. Wars and Hollywood stars last only months. Trends begin and end in weeks. Political issues flame out overnight. And these high-tech devices are outdated before their likewise quickly-outdated creators can put them on the shelf.

So is anybody taking a look ahead for us to see what’s coming – besides good-looking, good-news reporters filling a 30-second time slot, or smart-alecky news analysts who are really just taking a guess like the rest of us? As things speed up at this frightening rate, is anyone keeping track of what’s about to whiz by? In a small, well-worn conference room, one wall lined with books whose titles frequently include the word “tomorrow,”

Edward Cornish looks for a minute like he might just smack me on top of the head with a rolled up copy of his magazine, “The Futurist.” He is a slight, owlish man, xxx, slouching slightly in his seat with his hands grasping the edge of the table in front of him. He has on a light blue shirt, dark blue pants and tan socks. His sparking blue eyes flash for a second behind his light-rimmed glasses and he’s tightened his grip. “We don’t make predictions” he says calmly in response to yet another question that I’ve inappropriately begun with something like “When you predict…”

Cornish is the founder and president of the World Future Society, a group whose well-credentialed members to a person bristle when they believe they are being lumped together with tarot cards and crystal balls. They even balk at popular lists of the hot new technology of the future, or crowd-pleasing predictions about everyday life in the future, although they wearily acknowledge that’s what people want to hear. When will there be video with my cellular phone? When will cars fly? When will we beam ourselves around.? Cornish says the WFS brand of futurist would rather spend time on and gain attention for a different kind of work.. “We try to scientifically suggest what might happen in the future based on a lot of research and study. Then maybe people can decide how they want things to unfold.” The questions they can’t answer, they’ll admit, have to do with why we don’t seem to care. Today’s futurism has it roots in the 1940s, when we suddenly found we had something on our hands called “technology, ” and it was marching on ahead of us, suddenly presenting a way for us to obliterate ourselves. Air Force General Hap Arnold lay the groundwork for future study by asking top scientists to consider how technology might be used in warfare. He also initiated the first “think factory,” Project Research and Development (RAND) It later broadened its mission and became the RAND Corporation. Government and business began to recognize we could scientifically study the future, and today’s futurism was born. In the mid 60’s, futurists were making a name for themselves as society became increasingly concerned about technology. There were people like early important futurist Herman Kahn, the founder of the Hudson Institute, and Alvin Toffler who wrote the groundbreaking bestseller “Future Shock,” where he warned of the impact of technology in scenarios that most of society had never considered “There was this feeling that everything was changing too fast and that things were a bit out of control,” Cornish says. “People were looking for some guidance about where it was all headed.” Cornish began the society with a small group of like-minded folks on his back porch in Bethesda in 1966. It has grown to have 130 chapters in 30 countries and 30,000 future-toting members. In an aging Bethesda office building, ten staff members work full time at society headquarters in small cubicles and offices with books and papers typically rising in piles from the floor. No sleek, vacant neon-lit space. No staff members in spiked hair and body suits wearing headsets. Nothing high tech. The place and the staff are anything but futuristic. It looks more like an office for environmentalists or economists. Prominent names from politics and business serve on the WFS board of directors and attend its conferences, which are the society’s primary function, along with publication of an array of books and periodicals. WFS is sort of the mainstream touchstone and clearinghouse for much scientific futurist material and a place for these often brilliant, often sort of quirky, folks to meet on common ground, despite their very different approaches. On one hand there’s Graham Molitor, vice president and legal counsel for the society, sometimes pictured in an ascot and looking like the retired Republican he is. His Public Policy Forecasting is based in his beautiful home in Potomac, where an expansive library, with a ladder to reach the ceiling-to-floor books, looks out onto a picture-book Asian garden. He’s been a confidant for presidents and a consultant and lobbyists for major corporations, and now he is one of the best-known futurist scholars, specializing in detailed examinations of past trends and careful consideration of economic-driven future ones. Molitar, has written and edited several books and has been hard at work for two years on a another, which reflects his specialty. It is titled “Chronology of Civilization” where he hopes to in 10-30 words describe the “worlds most significant events.” He thinks it will take him another five years and eventually fill five 1,000-page volumes. He calls himself a “backcaster,” carefully studying history and spotting cycles that he believes can tell us where were are headed, paying particular attention to economics. “What it all comes down to is the thing that’s central to people’s lives — their job and their livelihood.” Then there is Frank Ogden, AKA Dr. Tomorrow, who was a founding member of WFS in Canada and is still considered one of the country’s best known futurist. He lives in a houseboat jammed with high-tech equipment and docked in the harbor in Vancouver, where he collects tons of information about emerging technology from every source imaginable, analyzes it and produces books, lectures and a continual updates to his website, which was among the first on the Internet. Ask him about what’s interesting him these days, and he’ll talk about LSD (and its impact on the silicon valley) “just-in-time” learning and the fact that new information is being refined and filtered into new knowledge at an accelerating rate of 100 percent every 18 months. He’ll tell you about an artist who has given a rabbit a jelly fish gene that makes the bunny pulsate green under a black light, the first step in what he calls “the designer pet industry.” But there is something similar in the off-handed way these two and other futurists talk about things that make the average brain rattle. They typically have collected enormous amounts of information on a myriad of topics, love to talk about it all, and seem to enjoy mixing in a bit of startling conjecture about free energy, life expectancy of 150 or visits by extraterrestrials. . Cornish and WFS try to provide a forum for all sorts of serious thought in an area of study that is a magnet to the offbeat. He explains one distinction that separates out one segment. “The future doesn’t exist, so the only way we can have an idea about the future is to develop it in our minds. That means the only way we can understand it is by looking at the past,” he says, making it clear WFS doesn’t embrace those who attempt to “see” the future. Good futurists suggest possibilities from what’s happened, he says, not from visions. WFS also seems to look less favorably upon our fascination with popular future trends, hot technology or science fiction, but members grudgingly supply it. “We see ourselves as offering an entree to futurism, so we do that sort of thing. That’s the hook,” says Futurist Editor Cynthia Wagner, whose magazine is careful and sort of stodgy but nonetheless offers lead headlines like “Sea cities and other visions of tomorrow.”. She says she continually balances the pure science many members want with the “Popular Science” approach that draws readers and potential new members. Studies have shown the magazine gets passed to eight people on average, an extremely high rate WFS is among a growing number of futurist organizations that might either help the defense department project terrorist attacks, a fast food chain plan its growth or toy makers plan for next year’s Internet Barbie doll sales. They might look at the next 15-20 years (a time frame often referred to by WFS and its members) or far beyond. The respected Foundation for the Future, for instance, in Bellevue, Wash. is committed to studying the next 1,000 years. Then there’s the Long Now Foundation, spearheaded by Stewart Brand of “Whole Earth Catalogue” fame and Danny Hillis, computer innovator and former vice president for research and development at Walt Disney. The foundation hopes to push people to slow down their pace and consider the future 10,000 years from now, in part with a huge clock that would tick once a year, gong with the century and display a cuckoo every millennium. The different approach futurists take is also often distinguished by the driving forces they see and the disciplines they most closely study. The often admit that sometimes looking at the future just involves letting the imagination hum along. “We try to be generalists,” says prominent WFS member John Petersen, whose Arlington Institute in Arlington specializes in “helping U.S. military leaders develop forward-thinking images of a positive future” with a “proactive and preventative military.” “We take the helicopter view of things – looking at all the information, then we use proven systems to drill down and look at the details. and suggest options. We sort of roam around the leading edge of change and think about what might happen – and then consider what the impact may be.” He says things get interesting at “cross cuts,” where the driving forces in society intersect – the need for energy and potential for environmental damage, for instance. On top of that come what he calls “wild cards,” those unexpected events like the terrorist attacks of last September that send the world spinning. Petersen has written a book on that topic called “Out of the Blue,” where he methodically lists such potential wild cards — everything from shifts in the earth’s axis and a nuclear attack by terrorists to the breakout of altruism and practical development of free energy from cold fusion. He describes why each of some 80 events should be considered, and ranks it in 10 other ways concerning its impact.. Despite all this territory they cover and the obvious significance of topics like this, futurists often find themselves wondering why they aren’t taken more seriously, according to Dan Johnson, communications director for WFS, Why isn’t a futurist on the president’s cabinet? Why doesn’t every newspaper and television news show devote as much time to what might happen as it does to what just did? Why do equally as theoretical fields of study like sociology, philosophy or psychiatry merit serious study when futurism, with seemingly such a huge role to play, gets so little Cornish says it is not in our nature to want to know too much about the future, except as a sort of entertainment. “It is difficult for people to think about the future. If you have no particular specific interest in an event, you just don’t pay attention,” he says. “One of the other reasons this field doesn’t get more attention is that a lot of futurists are wrong,” says Molitar. “Unless a futurist is very solidly based, the thinking is often off. That affects our credibility.” It doesn’t appear the WFS members’ batting average, as displayed in “The Futurist”, is too bad The first issue of the magazine in 1967 wrongly suggested that man would land on other planets by 1980 and that private vehicles would be banned from cities by 1986. One author said primitive forms of life will be created in a laboratory by 1989 and desalinated sea water will be widely used in agriculture by 1987. But nearly two thirds of the 37-year-old predictions were correct. Authors accurately envisioned things like transplanted body parts, computers that could talk and listen, widespread use of behavior modifying drugs and an doubling of spending on recreation and entertainment by 1986. Issues of the magazine since offer a similar mix. Twenty years later, in 1987, one writer said that in 10-15 years computers would directly read our thoughts, edit and enhance them and put them on a screen, Another author warned about the quasi anarchy of “international economic integration.” But there were also predictions of “computer networking” and the corporations where bosses assembled teams and society reacted to an increased number of women in the work place. Articles predicted a bracelet to monitor blood pressure and 3-D internal images of the body. Futurists for some time have often predicted what might happen by the year 2000 and their success was mixed. Viral and bacterial diseases were to have been eliminated, it was suggested, the paperless office would be here and we’d working less (only about five hours a day or maybe four days a week. ) and living longer — (in one projection, to the age 150 by the millennium). We’d fly in cars and soar around the planet in saucer-like jets. Energy would be provided by clean, efficient nuclear power, which would even run our vacuum cleaners. and toasters. The Internet would collapse by 2000, a futurist warned in 1995, and author Arthur C. Clark predicted planets would be colonized and houses would fly. But Clark deserves credit for his thoughts about artificial intelligence, the many uses of satellites and a “global library” which sounds a lot like the Internet. Cornish says even if the predictions are wrong, the futurists are doing their job by laying out potential routes for us. He says often their predictions don’t materialize because the description of the scenario allows society to choose another course. Futurists, he notes, have offered valuable insight into the global economy, the affect of the maturing baby boom generation, environmental challenges and the huge impact of communications technology. Besides, Cornish says, no matter what their batting average, it is important that they make us to take a look. And there is some comfort in this – having these folks out there looking out over the bow. Well, maybe. “I’m starting to worry about whether there is a future for futurists,” says Frank Ogden. “With such rapid and accelerating change, I believe it is a myth to even plan for anything beyond five years. My idea of a long-range planning today is lunch.” SIDEBAR — SOME HOT TOPICS While serious futurists generally say they like to avoid snazzy, eye-catching predictions, here are a couple of cool things they’re talking about. EATING –We’ll munch on safe, healthy synthetic foods or foods grown with vaccines in them. However, there is little use for a big kitchen or family meals because we have even more meals out and eat even more food that is pre-prepared and dished up quickly when hunger hits. SLEEPING — You might have your mood altered or get a dose of subliminal learning while you sleep — and you might be able to shorten sack time with “sleep management.” You’ll have more time for a nap, too, as we are allowed to devote 50% of our time to leisure in 15 years. ENERGY — Some optimism about energy, despite a bumpy road. Oil is gone, and clean-burning coal, renewables, fuel cells and, eventually, nearly free cold fusion take over. Your house may very well power itself soon. HOMES — In fact, houses will do all sorts of things – talk to you and listen, clean themselves and put you to other locations with wall sized screens and virtual reality. Controls over everything from the heat to the baby monitor and night light in the nursery will be easy from any spot inside the house — or remotely. We might live in huge mile-high buildings or on the ocean to protect natural lands and handle overcrowding. TRANSPORTATION — Cars might fly, finally (there’s one called the Skycar in production now) . Before that we’ll travel by guideways, major highways that control your car for you, sending you hurtling along at tops speeds only inches from other cars. Off the guideway, an onboard computer will keep you safer (your car can sense and avoid a collision) give you clear, quick directions and entertain the kids. We’ll fly across the globe in a few hours or potentially through the oceans at remarkable speeds if we can break the “water barrier” much the way we did the sound barrier. EDUCATION School textbooks, maybe schools, will disappear with cyber-education and universities will be webcentric with much of the activity on-line and an increasing number of purely online courses. “Just-in-time” learning gains popularity, meaning that rather then getting an general education that provides you with credentials to work in a field, you get specific education on a specific topic when you need it. Virtual reality cuts learning time in half. WORK — Lots more contract, temporary and home-based work. “Corporate hotel,” space that businesses lease for employees when it needs them. If you work for a “dirty” industry, you may work in space. .HEALTH – A quick do-it-yourself blood sample will diagnose some 10,000 diseases, and you can get an easy home health problem assessment online or continual check-ups with a wrist-watch-like band. You also might get a record of your genomes at birth, which can then be plugged into a database where researchers are continually adding information about genetic disorders. Genetic therapy cures most disease and there is longer and longer life expectancy until a new phrase dominates: optional dying. TECHNOLOGY — you carry one card that contains your driver’s license, keys, library card and medical records – and replaces all other cash and credit cards, Ever more powerful computers easily recognize voices, handwriting – even people. They become smarter than us, allowing them to make more and more decisions that we struggle over. Some serious futurists worry about which of us will be in control. “Synthetic” life forms clean house, prepare meals, write letters, fight fires, work in the garden, help the disabled and aid in workouts. By 2020 robots will outnumber humans in the U.S. and the highest paid movie star will be synthetic.

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