Stewart Brand is a leading proponent of long-term thinking, the sort of thing that builds cathedrals and, perhaps one day, starships. In this excerpt from his book The Clock of the Long Now (New York: Basic Books, 1999), Brand discusses science fiction and the various forms of futurism.
According to Kevin Kelly, ‘Isaac Asimov once said that science fiction was born when it became evident that our world was changing within our lifetimes, and therefore thinking abut the future became a matter of individual survival.’ The nanotechnology futurist Eric Drexler concurs: ‘I have found over the years that people familiar with the science fiction classics find it much easier to think about the future, coming technologies, political effects of those technologies, and so on.’ At Global Business Network (GBN), the scenario-planning business that employs me, we frequently send out science fiction books to the Network membership, and when we can get writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, David Brin, and Vernor Vinge to attend scenario workshops with client organizations, the quality of work deepens. Scenario planning involves exploring several widely variant futures of an organization’s world persuasively in depth. Skill in science fiction adds to the depth.
Still, the most important developments in the future, says Freeman Dyson, keep being missed by both the forecasters and the storytellers: ‘Economic forecasting misses the real future because it has too short a range; fiction misses the future because it has too little imagination.’
Too little imagination? Yes, for a structural reason almost never taken into account. At any time the several ‘probable’ things that might occur in the future are vastly outnumbered by the countless near-impossible eventualities, which are so many and individually so unlikely that it is not worth the effort of futurists or futurismists to examine and prepare for even a fraction of them. Yet one of those innumerable near-impossibilities is what is most likely to occur. Reality is thus statistically forced always to be extraordinary. Fiction is not allowed that freedom. Fiction has to be plausible; reality doesn’t.
Notice Brand’s use of the coinage ‘futurismists.’ Here’s the distinction he’s aiming at: ‘Futurists’ focus on the rigorous and objective analysis of possible futures. ‘Futurismists’ propound what is essentially a belief structure that is highly subjective in nature and often comes with an agenda. Brand quotes Paul Saffo on the macro-myopia of the futurismists: “We overexpect dramatic developments early, and underexpect them in the longer term.”