Futurism is not about crystal balls, but working out how to prepare us for tomorrow’s present

If you’ve ever spent extended time in a second-hand bookshop, you may have noticed a tome entitled Future Shock nestling somewhere within the non-fiction section.

Written more than 50 years ago, the work, by American futurist Alvin Toffler, was conceived as a study of the psychological consequences of the seemingly accelerating rate of technological innovation.

“Future shock” was the term Toffler used to describe:

“…the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”

In an age of smart watches, social media and screen addiction, such a succinct and prescient expression of our collective anxiety in the face of our own devices is arguably more apt than ever.

The University of South Australia’s immersive museum of discovery MOD. was created as a space to explore possible futures.(Supplied: Sia Duff)

But the fate of Future Shock (the book, not the concept), and its relegation to the dusty shelves of discarded literature, is itself an illustration of a strange paradox: the future gets old.

The dustbin of history is littered not just with relics of the past, but with possible futures that never came to pass.

“When I was a small boy, it was generally accepted that by the 21st century we’d have … domestic humanoid robots that would do the washing up,” said British television presenter James May, in his show Big Ideas.

“What a load of tosh that was.”

The meme “where’s my flying car?”, often accompanied by images from the cartoon The Jetsons, is perhaps the most popular distillation of the idea.

The Jetsons waving from their flying car.
The Jetsons gave fuel to the fantasy that, by now, we would all be zipping around in flying cars.(The Jetsons)

For Adelaide futurist Kristin Alford, the flying car is an example of what she calls (borrowing the term from a colleague) a “used future”.

“[It’s] a future that hasn’t come but it’s become so ingrained in our expectations of the future that it’s almost second-hand,” she explained.

The process by which some potential future triumph, and others fall by the wayside, is something that fascinates futurists, who describe it almost in terms of natural selection.

“A lot of those popular sci-fi futures have been futures that have been proposed or championed by a really small, narrow band of interests,” Dr Alford said.

“They don’t pick up currency because the market isn’t there for those ideas.”

Of ships and shipwrecks

Dr Alford is the director of MOD., Adelaide’s future-focused “museum of discovery” run by the University of South Australia.

She spends much of her professional time reflecting on social trends and tendencies, but her main tool for looking forward is not a crystal ball.

a middle aged woman in a dark cardigan wearing spectacles
As a futurist practising, Dr Alford combines skills from a variety of fields, as well as her background in engineering.(Supplied: Sia Duff)

Futurism, also known as future studies and futurology, exists at the crossroads of the natural and social sciences.

It is a zone of informed speculation, using past and present developments to make predictions about, and preparations for, future challenges.

Appropriately enough, it was uncertainty about her own future that Dr Alford took down her chosen path.

After pursuing engineering, human resources, marketing and communications (among other things), Dr Alford decided she “wanted to do something really strategic and really big picture”.

“Study of the future is really about pulling on multiple disciplines and thinking really systemically,” she said.

“For me, [it involves] a diverse range of interests, but also a diverse range of sources where I can pick up information that sits at the edge of those fringes where people are playing and experimenting.”

Utopian and dystopian visions have captivated and haunted the human imagination throughout history, often concurrently, and among contemporary futurism’s concerns is the double-edged nature of human ingenuity.

an aerial satellite image of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant showing a plume of smoke rising from a building
During Russia’s invasion, Ukraine has repeatedly warned about the risk of catastrophe at the Zaporizhzhia power plant.(Supplied: Planet Labs)

In the industrialized West, material living standards have improved immeasurably in the last few centuries, but the same spirit of inquiry that has given us nuclear medicine has also given us nuclear bombs.

“Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress,” wrote the late French futurist Paul Virilio.

“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.”

Balancing innovation with mitigation

If Virilio’s vision seems pessimistic, it’s because futurism is — at least partly — dedicated to the question of how to avert various catastrophic disasters.

The mirror exhibit at a futures museum.
The Mirror Ritual item from the Invisibility exhibition, which examines the implications of facial recognition technology.(Supplied: Sia Duff)

One way to do this, numerous futurists and risk theorists have argued, is to enhance our understanding of the unintended and sometimes hidden consequences of our own innovation.

It’s one of the topics currently showcased at MOD.’s exhibition Invisibility, which explores the impact of algorithms on our daily lives and, by extension, the invasive nature of social media.

“We thought we were getting a network that was going to connect us to family and friends, but we’ve got networks that are now threatening democracy,” Dr Alford said.

“We thought we were getting a cool photography network that we could [use to] share images with our friends and now we’ve got social issues around body dysmorphia and lack of transparency in terms of advertising.”

The futuristic exhibition at the University of South Australia.
One recent exhibition at MOD. looked at how the brain maps our bodies and the implications of extended reality.(Supplied: Graham Hancock)

For Dr Alford, futurism offers one of the few means at our disposal for future-proofing – and the fact that we’re not driving to work in flying cars is testament not to its failure but its success.

“The idea of ​​a jet pack or a flying car is fantastic if you’re a young kid,” Dr Alford said.

“But if you’re a parent with three kids, and you’re thinking about safety, it becomes really less attractive.

“By thinking about those things, you can think about the types of mitigation we might want to put in, and you can think about the types of innovations we might want to create.”


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