A fellow professional futurist bills himself as the practical futurist. The label has always rubbed me the wrong way and it’s not because I don’t also believe that some futurists can get a little ahead of themselves. Rather, it is because I think the phrase “practical futurist” is an oxymoron. By labeling himself as “practical” what he is really doing is confining himself to only “practical” ideas and if history teaches us anything it is that the future is rarely practical.
In 2006, would a practical futurist have predicted that the social networking site, Facebook, would be larger than all but three countries in this world or that Apple would have the most successful cellphone in the world and that it would possess over 150,000 different “apps” and these apps could do everything from tell you what song you are listening to … to mimicking the sound of a fart?
In 2001, is it likely that a practical futurist would have predicted that people working for free and with no overhead would ultimately produce an encyclopedia larger and more accurate than anything Encyclopedia Britannica could produce? Or that this “people’s encyclopedia” would thump Microsoft’s plans to hire a hundred of the brightest PhD’s to construct Encarta—an online encyclopedia? Of course not, but today everyone uses Wikipedia and it is available in no fewer than 250 different languages.
In 1991, when a cellphone was the size of a large brick and cost $5000, would a practical futurist have predicted that in less than two decades 2 billion cellphones would be in existence on the planet and that fishermen in Africa would be using the devices to do everything from checking the weather to exchanging cash?
In 1981, when video games were only as sophisticated as Pac-Man, would a practical futurist have predicted that someday video games would be a larger industry than all of Hollywood? Would a practical futurist have predicted that bottled water would be a $17 billion a year industry?
In 1971, would a practical futurist have predicted that Moore’s Law would continue unabated for another 40 years and ultimately make computer chips so inexpensive that McDonald’s would give these computers away (in the form of cheap disposable toys) with a $3 Kid’s Meal?
In 1961, when computer memory devices were the size of a large desk, stored 5 megabytes, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, would a practical futurist have predicted that some day tiny memory devices with a million times more storage capacity would be given away for free as trinkets at a national conference for gays, lesbians, trans-gender and trans-sexuals? (Perhaps they may have predicted the former but I bet the latter was nowhere near their “practical” radar screen).
In 1951, would a practical futurist have had the foresight to see that in the future pet food would be a $40 billion-a-year industry and that people would hire pet psychologists or that an airline would be created to cater specifically to those pet owners who wished to fly their pets in first class?
In 1941, would a practical futurist have predicted that the United States two greatest threats—Germany and Japan—would rank among our staunchest allies in less than two decades? Or, on the heels of the Great Depression, that some day obesity—and not hunger—would be among our greatest health threats.
In 1931, when no less of an authority than Albert Einstein was saying that there “wasn’t the slighest indication that nuclear power can be harvested,” would a practical futurist have predicted that an atomic bomb would be created less than 15 years later?
In 1921, when planes still hadn’t crossed the Atlantic Ocean, would a practical futurist have predicted that Atlanta would someday have the world’s largest airport and that 90 million people from all across the globe would fly through the once sleepy southern city?
And, in 1911, would a practical futurist have had the audacity to predict that just a decade later that an innovative entrepreneur would have created a way to transmits the human voice across the Atlantic Ocean? Not likely since in 1916 Lee De Forest was prosecuted by government officials for making such a preposterous claim. (Luckily he wasn’t found guilty and founded RCA in 1919.)
My point is simple. The future is accelerating and advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, robotics, genomics, stem cell research, regenerative medicine, brain-scanning technology, data storage, Internet bandwidth, photonics, energy technology, algorithms, voice recognition technology, social networks and synthetic biology—among others—are going to rock our world in ways that are difficult to imagine today.
If you want to be told that tomorrow is practical—because it might make you feel comfortable or because you don’t have the guts to hear things that may sound impractical—then, by all means, hire a practical futurist. I offer only this caveat: What I might say as an “impractical futurist” may not come to fruition but I can guarantee you this: If the future sounds “practical” it definitely isn’t going to come true.