Matthias Horx Futurist

Futurism Today

Since the dawn of time, people have tried to predict the future. The basic construction of the human brain forces us to look forward; this ability is our real (and maybe only) evolutionary advantage. In anticipating changes in our environment – what enemies or allies will do, how prey will act or threats develop – our species evolved to dominate this planet. In creating a model for what we will have to react to – droughts, rain, cattle herds, or just the next holiday – we create our inner worlds.

Futurism as a social factor started with the shamans of the hunter and gatherers, who claimed the ability to see, and traded it for power, or privileges. Then, in the Greek culture, a first attempt to institutionalize views of the future took place: in powerful think tanks known as the oracles. There are key lessons about future thinking to learn from the world's first and most successful future prediction business, the Delphi Oracle. Since then people from many disciplines and have tried to predict the future and we can learn from their methods and their mindsets. From scenarios and game theory to media scanning and Trendtrekking, forecasting methods have developed and diversified over the centuries. Half a century ago, futurism split broadly into four schools, or fundamental models of thinking, which still structure (and divide) our understanding of the prediction business today:

  • Warning and catastrophe: From the German “father of Angst”, Robert Jungk to the Club of Rome and more recently to Al Gore's global-warming performances – the “warning business” is still the biggest branch of futurism. Nothings sounds more plausible, and gets more attention than visions of doom, put down to the results of human misbehavior. This is the original and eternal function of looking forward: identifying threats and dangers. But the fact that doomsday predictions are today at the core of the construction of many Hollywood films does not mean that they are correct in either a scientific way or in terms of probability.
  • Technological transcendence: The other mainstream school of futurism was and is, the idea of redemption though technology, based on permanent acceleration, innovation, and sensational wonders of the “technium” (expression from Kevin Kelly). The most famous and radical protagonist of this tradition is Ray Kurzweil, who predicts the singularity, the coming fusion of man and machine into a kind of superbeing, in the next 50 years.
  • Macroeconomical megatrending: John Naisbitt founded the third school of modern futurism, which focussed on the outcome of globalisation at the culturaleconomic level. At the core: megatrends which spread around the world.
  • Marketing trending: The last branch of futurism is based on the logic of marketing. Faith Popcorn founded the school of social-emotional-wording, which directly influences and feeds the huge demand for trend-streaming of products and services. Her famous word creation “cocooning” shows the linguistic powers of trendspeech: our brain is craving for creating order by naming the world!

In all of these schools of thought, we can identify the prediction/prophecyparadox. Whatever your thesis about the future is, it becomes a powerful “meme” if it is heard and resonates with the public or certain groups of followers. The future is always a narrative, a myth, and like other powerful narratives, they can become dangerous – self fulfilling prophecies of a bad kind, or wrong causalities, which lead to fatal misinterpretations. Therefore, what we have to know if we talk about the future is: We are always talking about ourselves – our wishes, fears, projections, self-interests. We are always creating recursions, in which, via the cognitive process, future is produced by thought.

Good and real futurism acts consciously on this effect. It has to question and challenge what we SEEM to understand about the changes in the world. It has to IRRITATE under complexity, in order to create mental upgrading. This is the secret core of what we try to achieve in the next phase of scientific futurism. Lets call it metacognitive or holistic futurism.

Holistic Futurism

What we call holistic futurism is an attempt to reduce errors and biases of predicting through cross referencing different new disciplines of science. The final goal is to understand NON-LINEAR LOGIC – the fundamental rules in which the world is changing.

The main pillars of holistic futurism are:

  • Probability Theory: The science of likelihood, odds and chances originates in the attempt to calculate risk and chance in card games in the 16th century, when gambling started to ruin a large number of European counts and princes. Today probability is a fundamental science in the context of insurance or financial risks, but also the basement of ALL serious futurism.
  • System Theory: The world, no matter if atomic, biological, economical or social, is a system of connections. Connective systems develop rules, and these rules evolve along certain patterns. Systems can act chaotically, orderly, responsively, selforganizing, resiliently or fragile, emergent or along thermodynamic rules (entropy). System theory allows us to understand the brinks and borders between randomness and non-randomness, or calculate the probability of tipping points.
  • Game Theory: Evolving from military simulations of the cold war (Hermann Kahn, John von Neumann, John Nash) game theory created the most powerful predictive systems in terms of human behavior. With cooperative and non-cooperative game theory we can understand under which circumstances and conditions groups (societies, companies, organisations) are likely to act. This allows quite reliable predictions of global conflicts, even the development of wars etc.
  • Socioeconomics, BIG DATA and psychonomics: Economic sciences created huge errors in prediction of economic systems during the last decades. But how can we do better? By including human psychology, cognitive psychology and BIG DATA into economic models. This allows us for example, to understand the dynamics of population/birth developments and predict the human population peak in this century.
  • Evolutionary theory: Variation, mutation, selection – these basic rules of evolution, also shape markets, products, societies, technology. Evolution works through failure (extinction), and so do social and economic systems. Through agent based modelling we can combine the laws of system theory with evolutionary patterns. One example is the TECHNOLUTION-system: It tries to measure the conflicting or symbiotic connections between the human culture and the “technium”, the “species” of technology.
  • In total: Holistic futurism is a method, or a mindset, to understand the world as a complex adaptive system. This does not mean, that every event, every outcome is precisely predictable. But it means that even in complex, ambiguous, uncertain environments, even given the problems of path dependency and chaotic turbulence, there are rules, probabilities, directions, in which the system will very likely evolve! In fact, we can learn to understand them! And – while designing or at least influencing them – “create” the future!