This is Part One of a three-part series on Futures Studies: Trajectories and Planning and in this video, we are going to look at the ancient origins and historical practices of predicting the future.
Parts Two and Three are below.
In the following square brackets ‘[ ]’ represent a slide transition.
The broader aim of this three part series is to introduce you to the origins of Futures Studies, also called futurology, which seeks to understand what patterns in the world are likely to continue, and what might change.
[The Foundations of Future Studies, W. Bell, (2003 ). Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick.]
I’m going to be drawing on the work of Wendel Bell, a Futurist and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Yale University.
A prediction is a statement about the future. The word ‘prediction’ comes from the [Latin] ‘præ’ meaning ‘before’ and ‘dicere’, which means ‘to say’, thus a prediction is to say an event will happen before it occurs. Humans have evolved to be able to reliably predict many natural phenomena, such as the movement of the sun, the change of seasons, the effects of gravity, and the inevitability of mortality. But up until recently in human history, the future was considered as fixed, inevitable, and predestined by the Gods.
In classical antiquity, roughly around 8BCE to the 5th Century CE, the civilisations around the Mediterranean Sea, including Ancient Greece and Rome, considered prediction to be an important part of everyday life. An Oracle was someone thought to have direct communion with the Gods. Oracles were different to Seers, who interpreted various signs sent by the gods, through animals, viscera or bone casting.
[Pythia] – ‘Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia’ by Eugène Delacroix (1835)
Pythia was the name given to the high priestesses of the Temple of Apollo in the 8th Centre BCE, at Delphi in Greece. Known as the Oracle of Delphi, Pythia was said to have been filled with the spirit of Apollo, and prophesied the future. Pythia was a high authority in Ancient Greek society and was consulted by rulers, philosophers, and other important figures on matters of state, warfare, social policy and laws, and even personal issues and family matters.
Prophecy has its role in many religions, typically in the form of prophets who claim to have communicated with gods and make sense of their divine will concerning the future. Prophecy is often connected to divination and the ‘occult’, a term which roughly means hidden knowledge and is associated with astrology, alchemy, and magic. Speaking of Magic, Harry Potter fans will be familiar with the role of prophecy in that series.
Divination, historically, is highly ritualistic, with many totems, practices and systems involved that are intended to provide insight into a problem. Many civilisations and cultures have practiced divination rituals often in a religious context that involves interpreting meaning from signs sent from a supernatural power.
“Divination, for example, is found in some form in every society. Sometimes it involves, as its root meaning suggests, discovering the will of the gods, but, more generally, it refers to finding obscure or secret things, including discovering the future by eliciting a divine response. In some cultures, a belief in fatalism predominates. In others, the hope of taking action to avoid a calamitous predicted event or to bring about a desirable one is common. Although it often concerns the everyday interests of particular individuals, divination also may involve grand prophecies dealing with the destinies of whole tribes and nations.” Bell 1997
“The range of techniques of divination is truly staggering.” Bell 1997 p3.- Pyromancy, scapulimancy, tyromancy, oneiromancy… ouija boards water diviners, phrenologists, I Ching, tea leaves, Tarot cards, astrology.
[Fortune telling] ‘Fortune-Teller with a Fool’ by Lucas van Leyden (1508)
While divination is often concerned with large social issues, like the prediction of rainfall, fortune telling is about the personal prediction of the events in individuals lives. Fortune tellers became popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries BCE emerging from parts of the folklore, medieval ceremonies and renaissance magics: these included crystal-gazers, soothsayers, clairvoyants and augurs, although they were actively prohibited by Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
It’s not until the 19th Century, that we see the impulse of prediction, begin to be formalised within the information gather systems of the natural sciences as forecasting. William Channing Woodbridge created an isothermal chart for early meteorological forecasts in 1823 from data collected by Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian geographer and explorer.
The art of prediction has gradually given way to the science of forecasting in the 20 and 21st Centuries, as we developed the ability to distinguish between predictions that we can reasonably be assured of through the scientific method and predictions based on superstition and the supernatural. Although we have developed new technologies for predicting the weather, mathematical models for understanding climate, and statistical methods to predict outcomes and affect them, we have also engaged in two World Wars and developed earth-shattering weapons, shaking humanity’s confidence in the certainty of tomorrow.
[Renaissance and the Enlightenment]
There have been many periods and events in human history that have influenced the way we understand the future and demystified what was once the inscrutable domain of the gods. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment, are two very broad terms, for understanding the way that European societies developed new rules and ways of being that foreclosed on one set of possible futures and made possible another.
[The British Industrial Revolution and the American Revolution]
The British Industrial Revolution and the American Revolution demonstrated that such progress came at a human cost, while imperialism, colonisation and globalisation continue to show us that the future for some humans has been immensely richer, this effect is uneven, often cruel and impoverishing.
In the following part of this video series, we will begin to drill down into the recent past and focus on the ways we have come to think about the Future has changed over the course of the last century. We will also consider the impact of the World Wars on the importance of planning.
[End Part One]
In part two of this three-part series, we are going to examine the early formations of the discipline of Futures Studies, leading up to the impact the World Wars one had on the emergence and importance of planning at a national level.
[The Foundations of Future Studies, W. Bell, (2003 ). Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick.]
One of the distinctions between the ancient and the contemporary is the awareness of our ability to impact on the life-support system of the planet. You might have heard the term [Anthropocene] mentioned in regards to climate change. The term ‘Anthropocene’ refers to the current geological age, viewed as the period during which humans have been the dominant force impacting on the planet. There is not yet a consensus on when the Anthropocene begins. Some used the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution 12-15 thousand years ago as the starting point, others refer to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Steam, and there are some who refer to the [Trinity Nuclear] test as the start of the Anthropocene. The [Trinity test] was the first denotation of a nuclear weapon by the United States Army on July 16, 1945 as part of the Manhattan Project in the Jornada del Muerto desert in New Mexico.
The import thing, argues Wendell Bell, is that we have developed a sense that the planet and its ecology has been changed and even diminished by human actions:
“Increasingly, people are coming to realise that they must take responsibility for the future, both for their own individual futures and collectively, for the shared future of all humankind. Such people seek the knowledge and wisdom to speak for the well-being of future generations, including those of the far future hundreds or thousand of years hence.” (Bell 1997 xxviii)
[ The Foundations of Future Studies]
The Foundations of Future Studies is a two-volume work, in which Bell charts the influences and directions Futures Studies has taken over the last century and beyond. Futures Studies (notice the plural ‘futures’) as I mentioned in the previous video is also known as futurology, and it is a branch of the social sciences, sharing much in common with history but focussing on the study of possible, probable and preferable futures. The key to Futures Studies as an academic discipline is the systematic approach to examining patterns of the past and present in order to anticipate the possibility and the potential of future events and trends. What I want most for students in BCM325 Future Cultures, is for you to get a sense of the role of the media and communication industries, technologies and practices in the futures of Future Studies and we will being to make those connections in these and further videos to come.
Futurology has the same impulse as the art of divination and prediction, but it draws on the methods of the social sciences, economics, philosophy, politics and so on, in order to seek out the values and ways of being that will lead to the flourishing of human society for everyone. Modern futures studies argues Bell is a continuation of the futurological quest to understand the world and to make a good life in it. Bell admits that Futures Studies is often done badly, but at its core, it is about taking part in the conscious decision to act. Futures studies recognise that its methods contain an element of uncertainty, but that is a result of not being able to possess or interpret all information; Future Studies is not omniscient. Future studies seek to make the future better, not just preparing for the worse, but ensuring that we make the things happen are the things that we want to happen, and to stop the things that we don’t, with the full knowledge that things may not turn out as we plan.
This is why the creative industries are important to Future Studies. It is through our experience with media texts and communication practices, that we shape our plans for the future. It is through our consumption of mediated fact and fiction, and through the communication of our creative works, that we express our ideas about the patterns of the past and the potential of the future. It is through movies, books, comics, games, and even our Instagram posts, that we imagine what life could be like. It is though news and media that we consume narratives about both the ancient and the new, and we begin to understand that our actions have positive and negative consequences. The media and communication industries, not just science fiction, but all genres and formats, help us to understand what courses of action are available and helps us imagine what we want the future to be.
The seeds of Futures Studies were planted in the disastrous human cost of World War 1 (28 Jul. 1914 – 11 Nov. 1918) one of the bloodiest and most devastating conflicts in human history and the global economic crises (typically dated between 1929 – 1939) which followed. Those seeds take hold during World War 2 as events required that national leaders make plans, formulate policies and design blueprints for the future, which took into account the new technologies, global alliances and geopolitical tensions that had developed. Planning is as old as humanity, argues Bell, from scheduling hunting parties to the shepherding of animals and the rotation of crops, but as the complexity of society increases in the nuclear era of post World War Two, the complexity of planning also increases. Before 1914, the biggest planners were Generals and military strategists, but following World War One, the non-military leaders of governments began planning aspects of national economies, social services, health, education, energy, agriculture and the security of borders.
[New Deal – Construction of a Dam]
World War One had a massive impact on the need for organisational capabilities, which established the groundwork for Futures Thinking. The Great Depression in the interwar years strengthened the resolve to regulate the economy in the United States, and President Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, which was a series of programs and reforms of federally governed economic and social engineering. Bell sees this kind of response to the Great Depression as the formation of the rudimentary elements of Futures Studies, which includes:
[Elements of Future Studies]
- Analysis and interpretation of the recent past and present;
- Projections of future developments with and without interventions;
- Descriptions of possible alternative actions and possible futures;
- Evaluation of Desirability of Alternative Futures;
- Selection of Specific Policies to Implement for Desirable futures.
[ Red Futures]
Bell argues that the rise of communist Russia was an important contributor to the advancement of futures thinking in the administration and management of the nation-state. The Bolsheviks created some of the first future planning organisations, including the State Commission for the Electrification of Russia in 1920, and demonstrated a serious political commitment to planning.
Planning, for the revolutionaries, was an experiment that was worked out by trial and error, which eventually developed into a system of [long range (10 years)], and [short range (1 – 1 and ¼ years)].
“The past is not a guide to the future. The past can be transcended. Conscious decisions and efforts to achieve great purpose can shape the future.” Wendell Bell (2003)  p.14). Following the first decade of planning the Soviet Union transformed itself into a great power and industrial nation rivalling advanced capitalist economies, but with generally low levels of living standards, an inefficient agricultural sector and social terror as an economic weapon with brutal repression”, argues Bell. So that’s where we are going to pause and conclude part two of this three-part series.
[End Part Two]
Welcome back to part three, and the final video in the series on the origins of Futures Studies and the rise of the emergence of planning. In this video we are going to examine the role of media and communication technologies and the creative industries in World War Two and see how the processes of planning became even more important following War War and during Cold War in the 1950s and contributed to global economic growth in the post-colonialism of the 1960s. We will conclude by thinking about how planning will be important to the future with regards to global warming and climate change.
Another important political organisation that excelled in planning rose to power in 1933, the National Socialist German Workers Party, led by Adolf Hitler. Rapid territorial expansion followed, and the Nazi ideology of a unified, dynamic and nationalistic spiritual identity was ascendant. The Nazi Party increased employment, national productivity, building new roads and buildings, ended inflation and guided new consumer goods to market, but national socialism brutalised its opposition through murder and imprisonment. The Nazi Party took the potential of planning and futures thinking very seriously, creating superagencies and planning councils to create guidance mechanisms and a model for the economy and society, called State-Monopolistic Capitalism.
The economy under control of the Nazi regime included the influence and even direct control over private firms. The education system was reorganised and manipulated. Hitler Youth replaced a range of youth groups, and the ‘German Faith’ replaced Christianity until Germany surrendered in 1945. It is vitally important to remember that Futures thinking can serve both good and evil purposes and values. It is important to understand the role of the media and communication industries in bringing the Nazi vision of the future into action
Joseph Goebbels was the Minister of Propaganda between 1933 and 1945 and the organiser of Hitler’s the propaganda machine, which used print, radio, and film as well as the recently invented television, to advocate for extreme discrimination and the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust.
Goebbels ran the Nazi media apparatus, which was a large and complex organisation that successfully indoctrinated a nation under National-socialist ideology and help realise the Nazi party’s plans for the future.
[New Media – Radio]
Radio was the real ‘new media’ of the 1930s and it enabled the German population to hear Hitler’s plans for the future, simultaneously regardless of their proximity to the rally at which the speech was taking place. Goebbels formed a Department for Radio and the Chamber of Radio, which monitored the broadcasts of all stations operating in Germany and help repeat short slogans and news reports designed to convince the audience of the Nazi’s parties complete correctness in its plans for the country.
Television was used to broadcast the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and broadcasts on German television stations were used to transmit Nazi speeches, films and documentaries until the allies bombed the Berlin TV transmitter. Planning for the future was not merely possibly under the brutal totalitarian Nazi party, the assurance that the media and communication industries gave to the people of Germany, helped to realise that future through unconditional support.
[World War 2 – Planning]
Massive advancements in planning were realised during the World War 2 era by Italy, Greece, German, the Soviet Union and the Western Democracies lead by Britain and the U.S. The enormous requirements involved in the training, transportation, clothing, housing, feeding and communicating with the millions of men and women involved in military service were unprecedented. This put huge demands on Military and Civil leaders to plan for the short and long-term, and carefully regulate the logistics of food, fuel, equipment, through rationing and distribution.
Following World War 2, the Marshall Plan was enacted by the U.S. to assist in the rebuilding of Western Europe, including $12 US billion in economic assistance, to aid in the recovery of Europe and the political and social transformation of Japan under U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.Just as the build-up and conduct of WW2 require new degrees of planning, the demobilization for people required intense futures planning on a global scale. The importance of national planning and private enterprise planning took hold everywhere – which ultimately becomes reflected in popular culture
[Brave New World]
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, published in 1932, is a speculative work of science fiction set in a futuristic world governed by a single global government, which oversees the genetic modification of its citizens and a social hierarchy based on intelligence. Huxley’s scientific imagination included reproductive technologies, psychological manipulation and sleep learning, and he was inspired by the novels of H.G. Wells including A Modern Utopia (1905) and Men Like Gods (1923), as well as The Sleeper Awakes and the works of D.H. Lawrence. Huxley inverted the utopian vision for the future, with a much more frightening version, a “negative utopia” or dystopia, and was heavily influenced by the Depression in Britain in 1931.
The publication of George Orwell’s 1984 in 1949 followed the onset of the Cold War. 1984 is a dystopian novel predicting the outcome of perpetual war, omnipresent surveillance, complete government control and state-run propaganda. Much of its truly prescient imagining is related to the power of mass communication, first proven by Germany’s propaganda machine, but perfected by Democratic and Communist countries alike following World War 2. Orwell’s concepts including Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, the telescreen, 2+2=5, and Newspeak, are all based on the totalitarian use of media and communication technologies and techniques to surveil, mislead, and manipulate.
By the 1950s, future planning becomes an important function of government, and France – one of the incubators of the Futurist Movement – appoints Pierre Masse as the general commissioner of the French Plan, a committee to look forward to the year 1985 to consider the future of the French economy and society.
In the 1960s, argues Bell, one major contributor to modern Futures Studies is Bertrand de Jouvenel’s and his 1964 book The Art of Conjecture, which provides systematic and philosophical foundations for practical short and long-term planning. This book arrived at a time when Eastern Europe had nationalised large-scale industry, banking and trade, and had the incredible task of predicting futures needs where everything had to be coordinated – which was made possible by media and communication technologies. The practice of setting national goals, making official projections into the future, selecting policies, and monitoring the results, all became the standard operation of national planners of both Western Capitalist countries and Eastern Communist States, each developing new computational and informational processing and communication technologies and strategies.
Planning for the future had also become part of the post-colonialism in the aftermath of World War II – former African, Asian, Caribbean, and Pacific colonies began to emerge as nations by grasping the political reigns of power, which meant a tremendous global reorganisation that further fostered futures thinking. The rejection of colonial policies by new nationalist leaders involved not only recapturing a sense of lost culture, but also identifying new aspirations for these nation states. In many cases, the traditionalism of the past was used selectively to reinforce the future-oriented perspectives of often Western-educated political leaders who sought to establish non-colonial authenticity, identity and meaning.
New national leaders pushed for economic and social development by organising and enacting policies that planned for the future – by the mid-1960s nearly all new, post-colonial states, had formed national development plans and centralised planning units. Planning involved futures thinking but much of the planning become organised around economic growth, which became the dominant mode for nation-states in the 20th century. Economic growth has a very large impact on the future as it informs the ways that children are educated in schools, the way women use contraceptives, and the way people are treated in hospital and how news is reported by the media.
In terms of concluding thoughts, it is important to recognise that the future often turns out other than predicted. Natural disasters, happen, sometimes planning is done badly and make things worse with unintended consequences and as Bell says in the last century “strategies of conflict won out over strategies of cooperation”. We discussed the concept of the Anthropocene in part two of this video series and I want to end part three with a thought on global warming and climate change. Forecasts often are proven wrong – but this does not in any way diminish the importance of futures planning. Take current predictions of the effect of climate change and global warming. Those predictions suggest that corporations and governments should do everything possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately in order to minimise temperature rise, and it may even be too late. In this case, we want the predictions to be wrong and should do everything in our power to make sure they do not come to pass but governments around the world, including the United States and Australia, are failing to plan for the future and it reminds me of the adage, “Failing to plan, is planning to Fail”. Futures planning emerged out of human conflict with each other, but the futures planning of the next century might emerge out of our conflict with the planet. We should be anticipating the worst, and planning to ensure that scenario doesn’t come to pass, in order to make the best possible future a reality.
That’s it for this video – you’ll hear more from me next time, and remember: The Future Is Now.