The Technium

The Futurist’s Dilemma

In this 1964 clip from the BBC Horizon show, Arthur C. Clarke makes a fairly precise prediction, but one that is only half right. “We’ll no longer commute in cities,” he says, “we’ll communicate instead.” He also says, “I am perfectly serious when I suggest that you’ll be able to call a man and not know where he is, whether he is in Tahiti or Bali or London.” He got that part right, with cell phones everywhere, but on average we still do commute in cities.

However it is the preamble to his prediction, where he hedges his bets, that I think he is the most insightful. Clarke says that if you find a prediction reasonable, than it is probably wrong, because the future is not reasonable; it is fantastic! But if you could return from the future with the exact truth about what will happen, no one would believe you because the future is too fantastic! By fantastic he means issuing from the realm of fantasy and the imagination — beyond what we expect.

This is the futurist’s dilemma: Any believable prediction will be wrong. Any correct prediction will be unbelievable. Either way, a futurist can’t win. He is either dismissed or wrong.

Except if he hits that razor’s edge between the two realms, right on the cusp between plausibility and fantasy, where it is almost true in the improbable future. This is the sweet spot that science fiction authors aim for. Occasionally one hits it. Like Arthur C. Clarke.

Getting it right is very, very difficult. Most people, particularly most smart people, even most science fiction authors, will err on the side of not being fantastical enough. Because absolutely no one wants to be dismissed. What’s the point of making a prediction if no one is listening? So 99% of future predictions will fall short of the necessary unreasonableness for a correct prediction.

  • Jake Dunagan.

    That dilemma is central to futures work, and finding ways to make people take seriously the seemingly impossible constitutes a very large percentage of our efforts.

    Cf. Jim Dator’s 2nd law, “any useful statement about the future should at first appear to be ridiculous.”

  • Quentin Hardy

    His prediction that cities will look remarkably different in 2000, is striking. Even 10 years beyond that date, the look, layout, and means of transport and distribution in cities have changed little from 1964. More little parks, maybe, but overall not the kind of sweeping change he suggests. Why?

    Possibly, as with effecting change in health care or cars, there are too many incumbent forces with little incentive to change. We could mention regulatory barriers etc., but even greenfield cities aren’t all that different from older ones, and there seems little rush by the world’s elite to live in them.

    Possibly because the core thing cities do — put people close together — is now more valuable. The cores of London, Shanghai, New York and others are now out of reach of the average wage earner, while in 1964 they were readily available. Likewise, some of the most expensive housing in America is in the Silicon Valley, supposedly a leader in virtual reality and remote communications.

    It seems odd, but it may be that ubiquitous relatively trivial communication (SMS, Twitter, even cell phone calls) has driven up the value of the deep communication of hanging out. Live contact, with greater emotional depth, and less time constraint so that ideas and associations can arise, is relatively more valuable in environments of rapid change.

    There are other examples. Music is “free,” but major bands get paid more than ever for live events. Internet journalism yields little in terms of ad revenue, and most of the outfits involved make money on their fan club-type conferences. Pundits post on the Internet for all to see, and make some money from books, but generally do better from their exclusive speeches and corporate talks. TED talks are visible from anywhere, but some of the world’s most powerful people go to great lengths to be in the room with each other for them.

    The benefit may be display, or participating in something that will disappear, or getting some kind of extra insight in a world of fast change. Certainly though, the death of distance has not led to the equivalence of property values.

  • AnthonyC

    “But if you could return from the future with the exact truth about what
    will happen, no one would believe you because the future is too

    Sometimes when I’m walking to work I set myself a little test along the lines of, “Do I understand [concept] well enough to explain it to someone who lived millennia ago?” You can’t just dive into explaining something like the internet. If you did you’d sound like this: “This is a long, thin piece of glass. By shining a light next to it I can instantly transmit words, images, and sounds anywhere in the world for free by pretending they’re made out of numbers.”

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Exactly. I am reminded of Einstein’s explanation of radio: “The telegraph is a kind of very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is mewing in Los Angeles. Radio operates in exactly the same way, except there is no cat.”

  • grisscoat

    This sounds like G.K. Chesterton’s Cheat The Prophet in a way.  This is where a bunch of people listen politely as somebody very wise tells them what will inevitably happen.  And then out of a sense of boredom and mischief the people conspire to make sure it never happens.  Just as people don’t want to be told exactly where they’re headed, neither does their stuff. 

    Also, why do we assume that Clarke “predicted” the future?  How do we know that he didn’t “influence” it with his predictions?  If Warren Buffet made a prediction tomorrow, the strength of his reputation could influence the outcome of his prediction.  If this is true, would it be right to say that Mr. Buffet “predicted” the future?

    Imagine an experiment where ten leading futurists each made ten predictions about where technology is headed in the next one hundred years. And of those ten predictions, five predictions from each futurist are randomly selected and placed in a vault.  Each futurist agrees to never disclose the nature of his vaulted predictions. The other five predictions from each futurist enter the public sphere in a very high profile way. In one hundred years, what do you suppose we would discover?

  • Kirk Holden

    I see this clearly in PDK’s later work (Flow My Tears,,, and Radio Free Albemuth). He has the instant world wide communication  but the means are all land-line telephones, faxes and such. Same with Wm Gibson and Neuromancer. The interconnections are there but the interfaces are either mundane or magical compared to our present choice of reality.

  • I must assume you know there is an entire body of study to this area you mention. This activity can be learned.

  • AviSolomon

    James Burke of “Connections” fame seems to be a visitor from the future! His 911 “predictions” are chilling in retrospect – the “impossible” possibility in Burke’s case is Bin Laden watching “Connections” and concocting the plot for attacking the WTC towers:
    “The Trigger Effect” (4:30 and 8:50 in this clip)
    “Faith in Numbers” (7:45 in this clip):
    Clarke should have added a new law: “Smart People are indistinguishable from Prophets”!

  • the landscape of cities is changed discretely. This future is more fantastic than cities with flying cars. the internet and world’s knowledge in the palm of my hand, how is that inferior to postmodern looking cityscape?

  • citronrobotlord

    We’re on the way to not commuting. people are working from home more and more these days. I wonder if an office space will be necessary in the near future.