Kurian, G.T. & Molitor, G. Encyclopedia of the Future

Encyclopedia of the Future, G.T. Kurian and G. Molitor (eds), Macmillan, New York, 1996

How do you set about creating an encyclopedia of the future? That was the question facing Graham Molitor back in 1990. He began by co-opting several other leading US futurists onto an editorial board and together they developed an outline several hundred pages long. But it became too unwieldy. So the plethora of material was aggregated into some 44 broad categories, and this provided a much more workable focus. From there the team scanned the professional directories for contributors. There followed several years of intense networking and consultation with over 400 writers worldwide. The result? – To this reader, impressive.

The encyclopedia is the first of its kind; that is, the first reference work to begin the huge task of methodologically and conceptually tracking through the vast territory of futures studies (FS), defining key elements and presenting short, accessible accounts of them. It comes in two large volumes which together comprise 1,115 pages. Many of the great names of the field are there, as well as quite a few other well-known names (such as George McGovern and William Buckley). There is a generous preface by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, followed (somewhat awkwardly at first sight) by a trenchant introduction by Daniel Bell which takes the Tofflers, and their simplistic ‘future shock’ thesis strongly to task. However, in reflecting on this, I realised that the editors had a distinct purpose in mind: rather than attempting to conceal some of the tensions and dissonances within FS, they had elected to let them stand. This is all to their credit, in my view. It adds to the stature and maturity of the work. After all, FS is not a monolithic enterprise with one central ideology and a single, approved, worldview. It is diverse, pluralistic, multicultural and, some would argue, multicivilisational.

The range of issues chosen certainly reflect the continuing difficulty of deciding just what is part of FS and what is not. For me the books range very widely, perhaps too widely. Yet this breadth will certainly be useful to students and others who are seeking a futures view of various themes. For example, I would not have included ‘Cosmetics and Toiletries’ or ‘Nostradamus’ believing them to belong to quite different enterprises and traditions. But, then, one of the stimulating things about FS is that its boundaries are genuinely open and permeable, subject to change, not closed and settled. Hence there is probably no chance of ever settling the question of what should be ‘in’ and what should be ‘out’ in such a work. The point is, many different people will come to these books, and they will not be disappointed. For, on the whole, the contributions are concise (ie. under 1,000 words) well written and clear.

Inevitably, perhaps, the whole product has a very American ‘feel’. But then the USA still remains the heartland of futures work, so the majority of contributions are bound to reflect that. On the other hand, there are good pieces from many far-flung places, a number of them by non-westerners. I particularly liked some of the entries on various aspects of ‘change’, and some that explore conceptual and methodological aspects of FS itself. They all provide excellent starting points for enquiry.

An unusual feature of the encyclopedia is a substantial piece by David Barrett called A Chronology of Futurism and the Future. Part One looks back over the history of futures speculation from the earliest times. While the selections made are idiosyncratic in some respects, this section does powerfully underscore the notion that ‘the future’ has long been a major preoccupation of our species and is not simply a 20th century invention. Part Two presents some 500 possibilities ranging from the near future to the very, very distant far future. Overall the ‘chronology’ provides a stimulating, if not mind-numbing, overview of past and future. To those who care to probe it carefully and who are not put off by the somewhat trite mode of expression, it will provide a useful stimulus to creative and long-term thinking. While the cost of the Encyclopedia may be a deterrent to some, the books are a sound investment for anyone interested in exploring the wider territory of futures issues, themes, concepts and methods. They certainly occupy a privileged place in my own library of quality futures books; and I am sure I will consult them often over the coming years.

Published in The ABN Report 5, 1, 1997 pp. 18-20.