Jennifer M. Gidley

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Trivial Futures: Crystal Balls, Flying Cars & Robots. Part 1 A

[This short blog is a second entrée to Chapter 4: “Crystal Balls, Flying Cars and Robots” in my new Oxford book The Future: A Very Short Introduction.]

“In this brilliant and concise overview [of The Future,] part of the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series, [Jennifer Gidley] gives readers multiple insights into the field and ways of thinking about the future… She is careful to emphasise that the future is not just something that happens, nor is it inevitable, but we co-create it through our thoughts and actions within both a cultural and global or planetary context.”

David Lorimer, Editor, Network Review: Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network (2017) No. 123.

3. Fast Thinking Futurists

Trivialisation of the Future

Which is the more compelling image in thinking about future time?

The magnificent bronze “Celestial Globe” was created by the ancient Persians in Isfahan, Iran, around 1144 CE. An artefact of Persian astronomy celestial globes, like astrolabes, were a way to try to understand the cycles of the celestial bodies to help to predict the future. This one is the third oldest surviving in the word, and is held in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The ancient Persian culture is a great example of an early culture with a strong relationship to both time and the future. For example, the old Persian calendar is one of the oldest chronological records in human history, in existence since the second millennium bce, pre-dating Zoroaster.

The second image is a typical cliché of how the media trivializes the future, by using a crystal ball image, frequently accompanied by a rather silly looking person – aka a ‘futurist.’

No matter how many scholarly books are written about futures studies, or how many university courses provide education in futures concepts, theories, and methods, the media frequently trivializes the future, and especially ‘futurists’. Commonly, futurists are dismissed as crystal ball gazers (see image above). The second trivialization is that futurists are all involved in high-tech, especially flying machines or space-tech, and science fiction (see second article in this blog series). Thirdly, there is the idea that futures studies is dominantly involved with robotics, AI, drones and so on (see third article in this blog series).

Believe it or not, a large body of futures literature has been published over fifty years, which includes conceptual and methodological innovation and engagement with real world issues. In spite of this, misconceptions abound in academic, professional, and policy circles. The term ‘future’ is increasingly used in these circles, mostly without reference to the published futures studies material. As a consequence, futures literature is under-appreciated, while decision-makers and policy-makers work largely in the dark.

Why is this so? I see several reasons.

First, futures writing is transdisciplinary so does not easily find a home in academic journals, which are largely discipline-based. Secondly, some futurists ideologize futures concepts and methods as if they were the next new grand theory that would save the world. This contributes to academic siloism rather than knowledge exchange and circulation.

A third challenge is that futures/foresight journals are the most likely to accept futures and foresight articles, increasing the likelihood of futures literature becoming cut off from other academic discourse. The problem here is that if futures research becomes too isolated within its own domain, the field may not remain up to date with other leading-edge discourses. Furthermore, others will continue to miss out on the futures resources available. It is vital in these complex and challenging times, that futures literature is more widely accessible.

These challenges are exacerbated because of media misrepresentation of the futures studies field and futurists. At one end of the spectrum is the misbelief that futures studies is solely about prediction and forecasting based on extrapolation from present-day trends. At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that the future is inherently unknowable, and therefore futures studies can be nothing more than ungrounded speculation. While there are many futurists who rely on predictive methods and some pop futurists who engage in poorly researched speculative fantasy, these extreme views do not reflect the breadth of the field.

I have decided, somewhat mischievously, to do a ‘quick and dirty’ experiment on LinkedIn by presenting the exact same blog twice. The first time I will use a meaningful image as the featured image, to reflect something of the depth of the field, with a trivial image as the second image. The second time I will reverse the two images, and lead with the trivialized cliché. I am curious which will attract most attention.

The strange case of the crystal ball

I was interviewed a few years ago by journalists from two Australian magazines, because I had become President of the World Futures Studies Federation. Given that both magazines claimed to be writing balanced and informed articles about futures studies, and in fact they both did, I was astounded to discover that both used the visual metaphor of the crystal ball to illustrate their articles. Even more surprising is that researchers from one of the Grand Écoles in Paris held an event in 2016 on the histories of prediction using just another cliché crystal ball image to advertise it.

This strange case of the crystal ball appearing so often to represent futures thinking makes me wonder if there is something very deep in the human psyche, a kind of collective memory of when humans used divination and talismans to get a handle on the future. This cultural memory goes back as far as the ancient Druids, yet still inspires us today, even if unconsciously.

Another possible explanation is that the futures studies field is so hard to grasp from the outside that the media resort to trivialization as a defence mechanism. One interviewer even asked me how my ‘pot of rabbit entrails’ was going on the stove. I proceeded to offer him some insight into the complexity of ways to approach the future that are more recent than the sibylline oracles.

And yet there are so many compelling images of transformational futures that are already being designed and even developed.

For instance, here are two images that could very adequately represent ‘the future’ or, even better, ‘alternative futures’. The first is a very impressive Solar Power Plant already developed in Andalucia in Southern Spain.

7. Andalucia Solar Plant 2011 gemasolar-solar-power-plant-537x332

The second is a design for a self-sufficient Sub-Biosphere that can house up to 100 people under the sea, as an adaptive response to rising sea levels. Designed by London designer Phil Pauley, over twenty years, it is a prototype that no doubt will be given serious consideration as global warming increases and seas continue to rise.


I hope this short piece offers a broader view of how we can metaphorically represent the complexities of non-trivial futures in a more nuanced way, and that you will think again next time you see a crystal ball being used to illustrate an article on the future.

More about these ideas can be found in Chapter 4 of my new book “The Future: A Very Short Introduction” published by Oxford University Press (2017).

See also my Amazon Author Page.

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