Gidley, M. The Future: A Very Short Introduction

The Future: A Very Short Introduction, Jennifer M. Gidley, Oxford University Press, 2017, 164 pp.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a brief period when new modes of futures engagement emerged within several mainly Western societies. They helped to support various initiatives, projects and a rich literature that opened out alternative views of social trajectories, of dreams and goals that could be explored. Within a very few years, however, many of these were extinguished, set aside and forgotten. Of the many reasons for this the most central is arguably the way that the rich and powerful were able to ensure that their own very particular vision of the future took precedence above all others. The rise of neoliberalism, as it came to be called, launched new world-spanning organisations, installed a powerful new code of behaviour, imposed a range of widely accepted economic prescriptions, and insisted on a rigorously exclusive set of values that quickly became dominant. Many promising initiatives disappeared.

Half a century later, however, it’s evident that the neoliberal future is not merely unsustainable it now represents a classic ‘failed future.’ In other words, the key trends that define neoliberalism – growing inequality, conflict, resource depletion, a sixth extinction, emerging waves of high-tech devoted to ambiguous or openly dangerous ends and finally, the slow but steady increase of global temperatures – show that neoliberalism became its very own nemesis. Moving from the global to a societal scale what other evidence is there for such a view? We only need to recall what happened to various future-oriented organisations such as the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, the Office of Technology Assessment in the USA and the Commission for the Future in Australia, each of which was undermined by right-wing politicians committed to ‘smaller government.’ Nor should we forget the continuing up-hill battle to establish futures in education as a core component within school and university systems. Anyone who has been involved in such efforts will have seen the same process repeated again and again. In each case the results clearly demonstrate highly positive outcomes. Yet even now, as global upheavals creep ever closer, such programs remain vulnerable and rare.

During these decades academia has been a passive and largely unwilling partner. Yet organisations like the World Future Society, the World Futures Studies Federation and, more recently, the Association of Professional Futurists, along with a broad and very diverse field of practitioners continued to work and evolve their field of enquiry and practice. At all times a small, but widely distributed, number of scholars and practitioners have moved things forward regardless of obstructions. The two authors whose books are reviewed here are both members of that select group who have worked for the further development and application of futures studies. It’s not an easy path and, thus far, the rewards have been few and far between.

It should also be noted that books about ‘the future’ clearly present writers with major challenges since the subject appears intangible, existing only as subtle traces within human minds. The future, by definition, cannot be experienced directly, but only though images, thoughts, feelings and the multiple ways these are subsequently expressed in the outer world. It begins, therefore, as an essentially interior phenomenon. Hence studying ‘the future’ cannot be divorced from how human beings think, perceive and act. Viewed in these terms it’s regrettable that in our time forward thinking is most commonly associated with entertainment and high-tech innovation.

Thankfully Gidley avoids all such traps with ease. In fact one of the strengths of her deceptively small-scale book is how it begins with Jean Gebser’s account of ‘structures of consciousness’ over centuries and ends with a concise account of the ‘grand global challenges’ facing our species. As such it is neither a demanding review of esoteric concepts nor an idle stroll through popular territory. It is something else entirely – a thoroughly researched and beautifully expressed invitation to look deeper at this fascinating field of enquiry. The first words of the introduction give some hint of what is to follow: ‘the future we face today is one that threatens our very existence as a species.’ In a novel such an opening would qualify as an effective ‘narrative hook.’ But the reader does not have long to wait before a hint of resolution appears. Turning the page reveals the view that ‘as a species we have never been more conscious, more globally connected, more capable of radical positive change than we are today.’ So there it is – at the very least the future can be seen as a domain of threat and of promise. What anyone makes of it depends on how humans operate, how they choose to care (or not) and what, exactly, they’re motivated to do about a world spinning out of control.

The theme of chapter one is ‘three thousand years of futures’ which is an inspired choice as it grounds the book in lived historical experience. So one could hardly argue that the work lacked context. It also provides the beginning of a language for making futures accessible in part through the varying structures of consciousness noted above. The following chapter – futures multiplied – draws on a variety of sources to show how during the 1960s futures enquiry moved steadily away from empirical and extrapolative concerns toward more pluralistic approaches consistent with developments in the social sciences. This provides far greater meaning and explanatory power to notions of alternatives in general and alternative futures in particular. Futures enquiry became more democratic and global.

It’s very much to the credit of the author that chapter three on the ‘evolving scholarship of futures studies’ covers a lot of ground without sacrificing a certain necessary degree of depth. The main device employed is to show the evolution of the field from ‘critical -‘ to ‘cultural -‘ to ‘participatory -‘ and then finally to ‘integral futures.’ This is entirely appropriate as it both reflects more recent developments to futures per se as well as some of the ‘layers’ or approaches within futures work. That accomplished the book turns to what is ironically termed ‘crystal balls, flying cars and robots.’ Such ‘pop futures’ icons are firmly put in their place and a refreshingly brief but effective critique advanced of the ‘transhumanist’ fallacy – i.e., that humans could one day merge with their machines. To this reviewer the author is on firm ground when insisting that the lethal combination of arrogance and hubris is nothing if not dehumanising. Similarly she adds that ‘from the perspective of psychology of intelligence the term artificial intelligence is an oxymoron.’ A quote from McLuhan that must have passed me unnoticed some years ago had real impact – namely that ‘every media extension of man is an amputation.’ Play that as you will, but it is one of those rare insights worth reflecting on since it challenges the narrow and vastly over-confident views of those high tech innovators who unthinkingly saturate human life and culture with devices that do exactly that.

The next theme is the conflict or tension between ‘technotopian’ and ‘human-centred futures’ and here you can sense that the author is on the home straight, so to speak. It’s a brief chapter but it clearly draws on the author’s own philosophical commitments and her impressive body of work. It touches on one of the great ‘secrets’ or truths of advanced futures enquiry – when performed well it leads decisively away from ego and despair toward genuinely positive and empowering outlooks. For example: ‘when all of this research is taken together it indicates that we humans are already becoming capable of far greater powers of mind, emotion, body and spirit than previously imagined.’ This liberating view sets the scene for the final chapter which summarises both the great global challenges of our time and the equally broad range of global future alternatives that represent a collective ‘tool kit’ of possible responses. It was also heartening to see in the conclusion a clear recognition that some of the most recent developments in futures enquiry are, in the author’s view, up to the task of dealing with climate change since the latter qualifies as among the most critically challenging and urgent issues facing us. It is well researched, concise and lucidly written. This excellent book also contains a useful guide to further reading and websites as well as a handy index.