Howe, L. & Wain, A. (Eds.) Predicting the Future / Bird, J. (et al) Mapping the Futures

Predicting the Future, Howe. L. & Wain, A. (Eds.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, 195 pages + v (A$49.95)

Mapping the Futures: local cultures, global change, Bird, J., Curtis, B. ,Putnam, T., Robertson, G. and Tickner, L. (Eds.) London, Routledge, 1993, 288 pages + xv (£11.99)

There is a tendency for all fields to engage in territorial battles and to erect boundaries, define turf. To some extent this is understandable; but all too often the boundaries get frozen in place for centuries. The need to organise, classify and exclude seem to be part and parcel of discipline building. Yet the price may be high in terms of excluding interdisciplinarity and the collegial interchange of ideas between different fields. The world is one, but a confusing ‘tower of Babel’ effect confounds the attempts of subject-, or discipline-based, approaches to understand it.

Futures study is not immune to the attractions of discipline building. After all, it must define some conceptual and methodological space to foster its own approaches to scholarship.1 Yet trying to erect boundaries does not, in this case, seem appropriate. Although they might be good for futures, they would be bad for what futures study is about: understanding the present and its futures-related extensions in time, space and across cultures. As many have noted, this is necessarily a pluralistic, multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural enterprise. So while the lack of boundaries certainly creates a host of analytic and legitimation problems, this same lack more freely permits futures researchers and scholars a very enviable degree of latitude. It follows that futures-related work from beyond the futures field per se should be welcome.

It was in this spirit that I approached these two books. One is derived from a series of lectures at Darwin College in Cambridge in 1991 and reflects a traditional academic outlook. The other emerged from a 1990 ‘futures’ conference at the Tate Gallery in London, and embraces an intersecting set of interests which include cultural studies, social theory, critical geography and art. Hence, each book considers, or constructs, a view of what futures is about from very different starting points. It is therefore unsurprising that the outcomes are different.

To take the academic approach first, Predicting the Future is a beautifully produced and handsome book. It provides eight essays by eminent figures such as Steven Hawking and Don Cupitt. The chapters cover cosmology, chaos theory, comets, economics, medicine, history, Buddism and what might be called ‘intelligent eschatology’. Leo Howe’s introduction attempts to provide a rationale for the choice of this subject. But his account does little more than assert the importance of prediction. In this view “accurate prediction and careful planning would … appear to be more necessary than ever” (p. 3). To my mind this rather misses the point. Prediction and planning are by no means the whole story and the former has been too often over-identified with futures work. In one mode predictions are ubiquitous in everyday life. In another they have endless applications in technical and physical systems that may be subjected to measurement. But where predictions manifestly do not work, are not useful, is in the context of social systems where qualitative phenomena are dominant and aspects of chaos theory and non-linearity rule. Moreover, I would not have thought it beyond so eminent a company to reflect on the logical contradictions of “predicting the future” – an act which, if successful, would rule out the possibility of human agency. So for me there are conceptual problems in the way the lectures and book were conceived. A naive view of prediction may simply not be the best peg to hang these lectures upon. For it to be useful in this context it should be problematised and related to other futures concepts, methods and epistemological frameworks. 2 But this is not attempted here.

To be sure, the standard of writing is of a uniformly high standard, as one might expect of the academic luminaries gathered here. But only two chapters really appealed to me. One is Ian Kennedy’s chapter on The Medical Frontier; the other was Richard Gombrich’s on Buddist Prediction. Kennedy, more than any of his colleagues, is a man of the late 20th Century who understands that the “frame” of human existence is not static. For example, he regrets the “natural conservatism” of the courts which “has meant that they have looked backwards in prescribing for the future” (p. 114). Here is a reference to what has rightly been called “the British disease”. That is, a culture and outlook so conditioned by the past that a substantive futures orientation is literally unthinkable. To his credit, Kennedy breaks out of this view and puts the case for “a bioethics of rights, with public policy in the form of a law expressed in the form of rights” (p. 116). There is not room to elaborate further on his argument. He clearly outlines a number of problem areas for medicine and an innovative approach to dealing with some of them.

By contrast, Gombrich is a Buddhist scholar with an intimate understanding of texts, cultures and cosmologies. His chapter considers some of the ways that predictions can be understood in these contexts. It is by no means a simple matter. For example: “free will and cosmological prediction do not clash in the texts – or apparently in Buddhist minds – because they simply do not meet; they belong to different spheres of discourse” (page 150). Much hangs on what, or who, the Buddha actually was. The facts are lost in the past. Subsequent traditions have constructed their own canons of truth; indeed are such. So myth, story telling and cosmology each have their part in this fascinating account. Prediction of the social future can be readily seen as a recapitulation of the past. Except that there is “a spiritual prognosis” involving an escape from time. Buddhism, it appears, is reductionist, since the self is considered “a mere illusion”. Prediction at this level becomes part of the illusion. But “for the enlightened past and future are abolished, there is no time and no prediction” (p. 167). The future remains open, but ever fixed between suffering and salvation. Inevitably this is a mere sketch of a much richer account. Basically, what Gombrich has done is to take a fairly unpromising notion, filter it though his rich understanding of an ancient, non-Western religious culture, and give us a brilliant essay that helps to question taken-for-granted views.

Overall, this is a curious book of disparate themes clustered about an unlikely core. Most readers will certainly find something of interest in it. There are some fine historical pieces. But most of the contributors appear to stand content in an uncontested present as if the future were assured; as if it stretched out unproblematically into the infinite distance; as if the sturdy world of empire still provided a stable backdrop to the present. As if, in fact, we were not living through a series of de-stabilising, multiple transformations which throw the whole human project into doubt – or at least profoundly question its foundations. So with the exception of the two chapters I have discussed, at heart this book is too solidly academic, remote, even dissociated from the world of the late 20th Century. Reading between the lines, it suggests that the world of higher academia, the British “ivory tower” is as distant now as it ever was.

Of equal concern is the absence of a futures perspective in the book. This lack can be empirically verified by counting the number of history courses on offer in Oxford and Cambridge and the number of futures courses there. (Result: many, and few or none.) H. G. Wells complained of the same thing in the 1930s. It is not a new problem but an old one. In other words, the book reflects a tradition of scholarship that is more motivated and inspired by the past than by the future. Each of the authors has responded to the notion of prediction in their own way, but the richer arena of futures discourse is not even in view. Instead of contributing to the latter, the book misses it entirely and, on the whole, provides a commentary more suited to the 19th Century than the late 20th. It is therefore essentially a lost opportunity.

Mapping the Futures is a very different kettle of fish. In fact it almost goes to another extreme. It is so socially conscious, so aware of its shaping assumptions and social interests that it has some difficulty in seeing the wood for the trees. But they are both there. The contributors are not dissociated academics but people engaged in a wide variety of contexts where action and reflection engage in a continuous dialectic. The ‘mapping’ of the title is a clever reference to geographers’ concern with space. Part One of the book begins with an erudite piece by David Harvey on the cultural politics of space. To the uninitiated (in which category I include myself) the paper seems a bit dense in places, but its conclusions are clear enough: “places, like space and time, are social constructs and have to be read as such” (p. 25). Several other chapters extend, or take issue with the issues raised by Harvey. Part Two is headed Changing Places and looks at issues such as homelessness, development and Dystopia on the Thames, and an interesting piece on ‘the home’. I particularly liked a section on Deconstructing ‘The Modern Home’ which highlighted issues such as the feminist critique of ‘liberating consumption’ and the ‘rhetoric of appliance promotion’. Overall, this is an incisive and welcome critical reading of these themes.

Part Three, Moving Times, continues with local/global cultures, the city as post-modern metaphor and a short piece on the problematics of European unity and/or identity. There is a lot of good, incisive material in these chapters and they are well worth reading. Yet I grew increasingly concerned that an underlying implication was that the present is so complex/contested/occluded that any real discussion about the future was rendered too difficult. This may be a real concern for cultural theorists and others attempting to build bridges toward a futures discourse per se. Part Four, on Shifting Values, bears this out to some extent. There are essays on the cultural politics of consumption; values, culture and futurity; and on post-modernism, architecture and critical practice. A short piece by Robert Hewison completes the section. It is a brief meditation on the difficulties of attempting to think about futures in the UK. He writes:

   …Britain’s obsession with its past is profoundly entropic. That is to say, it encourages a creeping cultural inertia. As the past grows around us, creative energies are lost. Worse, as the past receives more and more attention, it becomes more and more attractive, and the present correspondingly less so (p 248).

He then adds, “what was important was not predicting the future, but finding ways in which we might think about it at all” (p. 249). In some ways this is the key to the whole volume. Here are some highly articulate, critical, engaged people with a range of cultural interests. But what they seem to be telling us is that futures thinking is simply too hard under post-modern conditions. Part Five is specifically about Thinking Futures, so this is where the above hypothesis may be tested. Ruth Levitas’ piece on The Future of Thinking About the Future is really an essay on the problems and potentials of utopian thinking, so it has an historical bias. However, it ends well with statements such as the following:

   The main reason why it has become so difficult to locate utopia in a future credibly linked to the present by a feasible transformation is that our images of the present do not identify agencies and process of change. The result is that utopia moves further into the realms of fantasy.

Or again:

   The solution … is not to call for more and better utopias, more and better images and maps of possible futures. These will follow when we have better analyses of the present which identify possible points of intervention, paths and agents of change (both p. 265).

There follows a short piece by Judith Williamson which basically says that the fall of communism by no means sounds the death knell of socialism, and a solid final chapter by Dick Hebdige simply called Training Some Thoughts on the Future”. This starts well by suggesting, for example that “we are living … through a crisis of cognitive mapping”. It continues: “the mapping crisis is … the direct product of a literal historical decentring as that geopolitical formation that used to be called the West is forced up against new and quite other historical horizons” (p. 271). Later Hebdige suggests that:

the various ways in which different futures are imagined will themselves be something we have to begin thinking seriously about. We shall have to establish how particular discursive strategies open out or close down particular lines of possibility; how they invite or inhibit particular identifications for particular social fractions at particular moments (p. 275).

All of which would be fine were it not for the fact that many futures people have been engaged in such activities for many years! The impact of this otherwise good paper is also reduced somewhat by the particular image of the future that it employs at the very end. The final image is of a journey into an unknown future – one which is “blank, colourless, shapeless, a space to be made over, a space where everything is to be won” (p 278). Hence, the mapping metaphor of the title of the book is subverted at the end by a view of the future that gives no credence at all to our contemporary understanding of it. 3

What both books suggest to me is that however broad our interests and deep our intellectual concerns, however wide our frame of reference, the hidden influence of disciplinary paradigms, or outlooks, is very real and the boundaries between what should be sister fields are still functioning to restrict discourse. The first book reviewed here harks back to an earlier world where the processes of exclusion were invisible and non-negotiable. The second brings great clarity to questions of culture, space, meaning and the irreducibly political nature of the social and spatial world. One is academic, remote and a bit smug, the other alert, critical and engaged. The strengths of both are strengths that the futures field certainly needs: scholarly erudition, and a critical purchase on the slippery contours of the meta-cultural map.

The constituencies, however, from which both of these solid and interesting books emerge, could also benefit from a sustained engagement with contemporary futures scholarship.


  1. See The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, Futures 25, 3, 1993 (special issue).
  2. See Inayatullah, S.Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Future, Futures 22, 2, 1990 pages 115-141.
  3. See Slaughter, R. Looking for the Real Megatrends, Futures 25, 8, 1993 pages 827-849.

Published in Futures vol 26 no 7, 1994, pp 792-795.