The invention of the future

I met a futurist the other day. A traveller from a future land. We both gave keynotes at a conference on education. I sat next to him at dinner afterwards and asked him a bit about the futurism business, including what he charged for talks (I’m shameless). He shrugged. ’10, maybe 15’. ‘Pounds?’ ‘No…thousands’.

This man wasn’t inventing the future, he was repeating headlines from the internet. For £15,000 an hour. It reminded me of that scene in the Big Short, with the CDO manager eating sushi. He says: ‘You think I’m a parasite don’t you? But apparently society values me very much.’

I then met another futurist, at a spiritual retreat. He’s called Hardin Tibbs, and he used to work at a future-prediction company called Global Business Network (more on them later). I liked Hardin. He gave a talk about how various possible futures exist and we need to call the one we want into existence, then it will reach from the future and participate in its becoming. It struck me as mystical eschatology along the lines of Teilhard de Chardin or Terrence McKenna. Yet this mystic advises major corporations and governments on strategy.

That got me thinking: what exactly is future studies? What is it's history?

Aldous Huxley noted: ‘Most of us do not realize that our view of the future is a fairly recent phenomenon.’ Ancient cultures tended to have a cyclical view of time – civilizations rose and fell, and there was never genuine progress. If anything, the Golden Age was in the past and we’re in the Kali Yuga (the shit age). Still, there was a role for oracles to say how the heavens favoured particular policies: Hadrian travelled to Delphi to consult the oracle, Xerxes and Herod consulted their Chaldean astrologers, Elizabeth consulted the magus John Dee, while Chinese emperors consulted the I-Ching. These court magicians were the Accenture and Cap Gemini of their day.

Christianity and Islam then introduced the idea of a definite progression towards a definite future – a final battle between Good and Evil, followed by a blissful end state for the righteous. The prophet’s role is to tell their society where we are in this fixed narrative, and what actions are necessary to hasten the apocalypse. One still sees this sort of religious futurism today: ISIS’ strategy was dictated by their end-times prophecy, while the Religious Right support Israel because they think a herald of the apocalypse.

The modern idea of the future began with the works of Sir Francis Bacon in the 16th century. Rationality, the scientific method and new technology will radically improve the human lot, liberating us from the conventions of the past. This idea becomes more and more popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, but only really seizes the popular imagination in the early 20th century, when the impact of new technologies – trains, planes, cars, electricity, plumbing – became obvious.

HG Wells (left) pondering the future with Julian Huxley (right)

The father of modern futurism is HG Wells. He was ‘one of the first writers to see the importance of technology and to derive social consequences from specific innovations’, according to modern futurist Herman Kahn. Wells painted future scenarios in the public’s mind, both through science fiction (The Sleeper Awakes, The Time Machine) and through non-narrative books of prediction like Anticipations. Wells made many interesting predictions, such as the future importance of flight and air-bombing to war, or the growth of suburbs, or the development of one-world government or a federalized Europe.

His popularity inspired other scientists and authors to try their hand at future prediction. The geneticist JBS Haldane wrote Daedalus, or the Science of the Future, as part of an influential 1920s series called Today and Tomorrow. The biologist Julian Huxley, a friend of Haldane’s, tried his hand at sci-fi with The Tissue-Culture King (about the science of immortality) and wrote The Science of Life with HG Wells. And of course Aldous Huxley entered the fray with Brave New World in 1931. These and many other future predictions were part of the giddy tumult of Modernism, in which everything seemed up for grabs: politics, sex and the family, the city, the future of religion, the future of the body and the very nature of homo sapiens.

Central to Modernist dreams of the future is the idea of the enhancement of homo sapiens through genetic engineering, mind-altering drugs, the eradication of illness, and synthetic implants. There is a dream that humans can become like gods through new technology – this is the secular religion of ‘transhumanism’, a word coined by Julian Huxley. The nightmare flipside is that humans are degenerating, the mentally unfit are outbreeding the fit, and over-population or man’s lower impulses will send us into a new dark ages.

We need, therefore, to consciously intervene in human evolution with genetic, robotic and chemical engineering. So argues JBS Haldane (Daedalus called for state-run test-tube baby factories five years before Brave New World), HG Wells, Julian Huxley, Aldous Huxley, and many other futurists.

The idea that genetic engineering could decisively alter the fate of humanity goes back to a Victorian biologist called Francis Galton. He noticed that many members of Who’s Who seemed to belong to the same families and wondered if intelligence was hereditary. We breed plants and animals to bring out their best qualities. ‘Could not the race of man be similarly improved?’ Galton asked. ‘Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?’ He suggested the genetic elite could be identified by tests and then encouraged to marry in state weddings, while the unfit could be put into monasteries.

His vision became very popular in the 1920s, when there was a moral panic about the unfit over-breeding and destroying civilization. A 1929 Joint Committee on Mental Deficiency warned that the number of mental defectives in England and Wales had doubled in 20 years. Thinkers on the Left and Right warned of what Sidney Webb called the ‘national deterioration’ of England’s genetic stock. Aldous Huxley thought England was likely to be over-run by ‘half-wits’, and there should be sterilization of the unfit. American thinkers became obsessed with national degeneration caused by immigration, and many American states introduced enforced sterilization programmes in the 1930s, much to the admiration of Nazi Germany.

You can see Julian Huxley explaining heredity in this public broadcast, in which he shows how an upper-middle class family – the Gielguds, friends of the Huxleys – has produced an unusually high number of creative talents, while a lower-class family has produced an unusually high number of mentally handicapped people. ‘It would have been better if they hadn’t been born’, says Julian (this was two years before the Nazi eugenics programme started sterilizing and then killing those deemed mentally unfit).

Julian Huxley was actually on the political left, never supported compulsory sterilization, opposed racial theories of heredity, and advocated egalitarian reforms to give the best genetic stock the best chance of succeeding. But you can see how his emphasis of a genetic hierarchy leads to a certain smug sense of a genetic elite (including, obviously, the Huxleys). It’s interesting, in that respect, to note the high incidence not just of intelligence in the Huxley family, but also mental instability. TH Huxley’s father and three aunts and uncles all went mad, TH Huxley had serious breakdowns, as did Julian, Aldous and their brother Trevenen (who killed himself). The Huxleys would have been sterilized according to some more aggressive eugenic proposals.

The Modernist futurists, then, dreamt of a godlike evolutionary future for humans, but had nightmares of a descent into savagery or idiocy. They dreamt of one world government, but had nightmares of tribal and religious wars. They dreamt of the conquest of nature, but had nightmares of ecological collapse.

In the 1950s and 1960s, future studies developed from the literary ‘what ifs’ of Wells, Huxley and others, into an institutionalized academic field with its own methodologies. A founding figure in this evolution of future studies was Herman Kahn, an analyst at the Rand Corporation in the 1950s, who published such cheery Cold War tomes as On Thermonuclear War and Thinking the Unthinkable. He was supposedly the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.

Kahn made more optimistic predictions in his 1967 book The Year 2000. They ranged from the ‘very likely’ (‘major reductions in hereditary defects, personal pocket phones, underground tunnels for travelling, programmed dreams’) to the less likely (‘AI, suspended animation, conversion of mammals to fluid-breathing creatures, abolition of war, extension of lifespan to 150 years, production of drug equivalent to Huxley’s soma’) to the ‘far-out’ (‘major modification of homo sapiens so no longer homo sapiens, interstellar travel, immortality, routine use of ESP, communication with aliens’).

Kahn’s methods were developed at Shell by a French futurist called Pierre Wack, a rather mystical figure who read Gurdjieff and burned joss sticks in his office. Wack tried to get CEOs to expand their ‘mind maps’ to include various possible scenarios. He supposedly helped Shell predict and cope with the 1970s energy crisis. Another Shell futurist was Peter Schwartz, who came from the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), an LSD-popping research centre which among other things helped to invent the personal computer. In 1987, Schwartz co-founded the Global Business Network, along with Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno and others. It gathered ‘remarkable people’ – a Gurdjieffian phrase used by Wack – at glitzy weekend retreats on yachts, and charged its clients astronomical amounts for its annual predictions.

You can see the influence of Huxley on this West Coast strand of futurism, which blends bohemian spirituality with techno-optimism and intellectual elitism. Willis Harman, for example, a leading figure at the SRI and member of the GBN, wrote a book calling for the development of an Island-type civilization based on Huxley’s perennial philosophy. Stewart Brand, one of the founders of GBN, met and was inspired by Huxley as a Stanford student in the early 1960s - he set up the Whole Earth Catalogue, which explored technology for sustainable living along with spiritual technologies for consciousness-expansion.

And you can see Huxley’s influence on the more pessimistic strain of futurism – eco-apocalypse – as found in the 1972 Limits to Growth report (which warned, as Huxley often did, of ecological collapse through over-population) or in books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (which was published with a preface by Julian Huxley).

Huxley’s influence is equally apparent on the leading futurists of today, such as Yuval Noah Harari, who called Brave New World ‘the most prophetic book of the 20th century’, and Michio Kaku, who says ‘we have about 80% of that book today’. Francis Fukuyama, who once predicted the end of history, now warns that Huxley was right, and that genetic editing will create a genetic hierarchy. Harari has even suggested homo sapiens will split into two species, the augmented and un-augmented – a prediction first made by HG Wells in The Time Machine.

It’s interesting to ask ourselves, what model of the future do we hold in our minds, consciously or unconsciously. What model of your own future do you see? More than one? How about for our species and planet? Where will we be in 100 or 1000 years time? Will we evolve beyond our present sense of the separate self? Beyond our present idea of mind & matter? Will we come to recognize our membership in a wider cosmic family of beings?

I have the precise answers to these questions. And I can tell you, for £15,000.

Check out this interview with Roy Bahat, CEO of Bloomberg Beta, about the future of work and how his fund uses science fiction to model the future. 

Here's a piece I wrote back in 2012 about transhumanism. 

There's also a whole chapter on transhumanism in my latest book, The Art of Losing Control.