Featured prophecy image: Tiger & Crow Mannequins, Shop Display Bangkok
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, Friday 13 May 2016
The art of prophecy & William Gibson
I hadn’t intended to write this article about prophecy at all. Following Classic Scifi 4: William Gibson Neuromancer the next step was to analyse William Gibson’s prescience and his ability to prophesy elements of the future. More accurately the article was to analyse Gibson’s ability through his fiction to hold a mirror up to our real future. We could then use that understanding to analyse what it all means, through concrete examples of prophecy presented in the Neuromancer trilogy. More of that later.
Yet, I wanted to present this in the context of what it does take to prophesy future trends. As I began, I realised that it was crucially important to understand the nature of prophesying the near future and how others had gone about it, before we could understand what a rare talent Gibson has.
The art of prophecy
I’m going to discuss four types of prophecy or ways of getting a handle on the future, particularly technological, social and related futures.
Nostradamus prophecy (1502-1516)
If you think that the prophecy of a 16th century French apothecary has anything useful to say about the world today, if you believe in conspiracy theories or alien abductions, don’t bother reading any further, as I don’t have anything relevant to say.
Sad to say, although I pride myself on being open-minded, I’m not really. I need some form of disciplined-thinking system to hang my hat upon, which in my case is science and while I’ll entertain ideas outside of that system, I’m too sceptical and too critical to accept anything without question.
I also need relevance. If Nostradamus did have some sort of prophecy or cosmic revelation about the distant future (a la Douglas Adams and the intergalactic war fleet swallowed by a small dog) it isn’t useful, because it wasn’t relevant then as prophecy and it certainly isn’t now, particularly in the way it is presented.
I think I noticed before 1984 and the publication of Neuromancer that much of the cheap fiction (popular or pulp) that I read for entertainment was prescient in some form or other, about how we lived now and what trends for the future we seemed to be involved in. This was more particularly true in science fiction but not necessarily so, detective & crime fiction, thrillers and other popular fiction also had things to say.
It was only later when I met Fred Emery and began to run Search Conferences that I could put a logical or academic framework on this. The thing is that quite a large number of people and particularly for some reason writers, especially of pulp or popular fiction, are also quite good at predicting emerging trends, whether they are cultural, technical, socio-political or something else.
At the time I had no idea what social project, leading edge or futures scanning were; and even now they are only convenient jargon to put a handle on useful but complex ideas. I’ll only explain one of them and it is not the ideas but the practice that is important (see Further Information for more detail).
Back to the ability of popular fiction to prophesy. Certain movies, for example Blade Runner, also demonstrate the same phenomenon. But, it is rarer in movies for obvious reasons, related to how movies are produced.
The movie Men-in-Black satirises the idea beautifully, when the Tommy Lee Jones character consults conspiracy and alien sighting magazines to find out what is going on.
Fred Emery & Futures Scanning within a Search Conference
Fred Emery designed the Search Conference, a participative design workshop lasting two-and-a-half-days (the early ones lasted longer), in the UK in 1959 to help amalgamate two hostile aircraft-engine companies Bristol and Armstrong Siddeley, under intense pressure from their only customer the RAF.
The Search Conference is ideal for any organisation or group desiring to change and wondering how to approach the future. The Search Conference typically begins on a Friday evening and finishes on a Sunday afternoon (a constraint of modern life). The two sleeps are a critical part of the process and participation is the key. The event begins with a process known as futures scanning (more information on Search Conferences is presented in Further Information.)
Futures scanning is a brainstorming technique used at the beginning of a search conference to get the participants to gain a collective or shared idea of what the relevant future (the external environment of the organisation) is likely to be. I often used Fred’s lozenge graph in the facilitation briefing to show how any group of people could predict the future.
In the graph, the three lozenges (or columns) are poking from the past into the future and represent trends say social, cultural or technological, often all three. On the left of the graph is a trend that is almost complete. There is only a little left poking into the future. A good example of a trend that is almost over might be the automobile and its impact on society and culture. This began slowly in the late 19th C, dominated the twentieth century, particularly in its massive societal impact after WWII and presumably it will diminish in importance in the next forty years.
The middle lozenge is a trend that is half way through, perhaps the impact of the micro-chip and the computer is a good example.
The third lozenge is something that is only emerging or just beginning and a group can actually tease out the implications of such trends, sometimes better than an individual. Examples of such emerging or leading edge trends are: the impact of genome and DNA sequencing (I can think of literally hundreds of diverse areas that may develop from these); or the development of nanotechnologies, molecular biology and quantum computing.
In comparison, with this type of analysis is the failure of imagination one often sees when marketers discuss new technologies. I remember mentioning to a friend recently about some new emerging communications technology and said that it would be useful for video-on-demand, and remote medical procedures. He laughed. We are old enough to know that this hoary old chestnut has been used as a wow factor since the beginning of the 1980s.
Michio Kaku born in 1947 is a Japanese-American futurist, theoretical physicist and populariser of science (Wikipedia). Kaku published a book in 1997 as the millennium approached entitled Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century. The book examined three themes the quantum revolution, the computer revolution, and the biomolecular revolution, noted their convergence and delivered an upbeat message for the outcome.
From our point of view, we are interested in the prophecies Kaku makes for science and technology up to 2050. Kaku is a brilliant scientist and for this book he interviewed many top scientists as part of his job in media.
Kaku genuinely assessed and made predictions for how science and technology were going to develop for the period to 2020, 2050 and 2100. We’ll ignore 2100 because for linear prediction it is much too far. He used the 2100 predictions to define how he would like to see science and human society evolve. Whereas, for the periods to 2020 and 2050, he tried to the best of his knowledge, using the opinions of all the scientists he interviewed to make genuine predictions and to establish them within a time frame.
Kaku is a brave man. He states that he had the good fortune to interview over 150 scientists in the ten years he was developing the book and that there was an emerging consensus in science about the trends. He also makes the disclaimer that: There undoubtably will be some astonishing surprises, twists of fate, and embarrassing gaps in this vision of the future. Nevertheless, Michio Kaku put his reputation on the line and presumably expected to be quite wrong in the details. Yet he still provided a time frame.
We are approaching 2020 and some things that Michio Kaku mentioned are happening and some are not. His prediction for the rise of micro-machines is happening much more slowly than he would have expected. His predictions on the solution of genetic diseases, based on a single gene is happening according to expectation, but also may be slower. Quantum computing is probably happening faster than he would have expected, but there may be unforeseen stumbling blocks. Computing advances and the genetic and biomolecular revolutions are harder to fathom. As time draws on Kaku’s prophecies will look weaker and weaker. This is inevitable when one details specifics. Scenario analysis, which is quite popular in the military, suffers from the same problem — they only define limited trends and try to be too specific.
I mentioned in Classic Scifi 4: William Gibson Neuromancer that William Gibson had joked that he didn’t predict the mobile phone or the smart phone. Kaku didn’t predict the smart phone either, although the Apple iphone appeared in 2007 only ten years after his book was published.
I’ve read the reviews about Visions on Goodreads from 2007 to 2015. The Goodreads reviewers are in general kind to Kaku and not critical that some things he predicted have not come about. I also think his general overview of science and where it appeared to be heading at the millennium was a major achievement.
However, if you analyse the specific things he predicted to 2020 and 2050 and whether his timeline is accurate, then you must realise that this prophesying of the future is no easy task. The divergence will only get worse as we move to 2050.
We’ve looked at popular fiction in general, participative planning workshops with groups of people and their shared view of the future, and a scientist with privileged access to the best scientists from around the world, analysing science’s likely contribution to the future.
I’ll present my assessment of William Gibson’s abilities at prophecy in the next article.
All of the methods above are looking at general trends, trying to get a handle on the way the world is going. None of them can make accurate or specific predictions, not even Michio Kaku. Indeed, Kaku labours under a distinct disadvantage because he is trying to be more precise, until the second half of the 21st century, when he is really entering the realm of hard science fiction.
Gibson fits within the popular fiction and science fiction category, yet his predictions are different. Some science fiction provides limited ideas on some aspects of the distant future. And, for readers of hard science fiction the predictions have to be at least plausible. Some science fiction does deal with the near future, but usually only limited aspects.
Gibson covers much of the near future as a whole scenario. He has puzzled about and set-up a credible dystopian punk noir future of the not far away, peopled mostly by characters at the fringes, rather than in the mainstream of society. The scenario itself is an artefact, but the trends within it are what I would call prophetic.
He has provided some specific general trends in several areas, which mirror the way our society has developed since 1984 and are still useful in understanding where we are now and where we are going. In this I think Gibson is a rare beast and in order to understand unique nature of his prescience this digression into the art of prophecy has been justified.
Why is fiction a potent source for prescient trends for the future? Going back to the lozenge graph I think we all use the approach either consciously or unconsciously but that it is frequently impeded by our beliefs. I suspect that popular fiction provides a good source of relevant future insights, because it is speculative, unconscious and relatively ego free. I don’t mean that writers don’t have egos, but futurology is not their main focus, their trend finding is a byproduct of developing a plot and a story, which is why non-science fiction is as good or sometimes better than science fiction in this regard. The problem is that for some science fiction writing the future prediction is the most important aspect of what the writer has to say and that this (self-consciousness) sometimes gets in the way of speculation.
The Search Conference
The Search Conference is a participative planning exercise and the purpose of the futures scan is to provide participants with a shared view of the future and more specifically the relevant external environment or milieu that the organisation is embedded in. In other words, the purpose is not to get an especially good analysis of the wider future merely a shared one. This means that the value of the futures scan depends on the nature of the group of participants and also on how important the facilitators see getting a really accurate futures scan is in the context of the problem at hand.
Nevertheless, the dynamic of futures scanning has been found to be reasonable and can be excellent depending on the range and expertise of the participants. Certainly the result is better than could be provided by the average participant alone without the group dynamic.
There are also possibilities of running search conferences with the specific aim of trying to analyse the future. I think that the search conference has more potential than other techniques to do this. Also collecting the futures scans from a large range of search conferences over a few years has been done previously and gives better results. My experience with focus groups based on the search conference also has potential.
Michio Kaku is a futurist and an idealist. What he attempted actually fitted the search conference methodology, starting broad and only honing in at the end. One of the steps of a search conference is to look at an ideal future, then at a likely future and the steps necessary to push the likely towards the ideal.
Kaku began with what science had achieved in the 20th century and the trends he could perceive into the 21st. He had a clear idea of what his ideal future would be, espoused in the book as what would happen by 2100. He was clear about the likely future to 2050 and the steps necessary to achieve his goals. A clear failure in his method is that he didn’t take any account of influences outside of science, which might derail the process but I’m sure he was well aware of this.
The only advice I could give, if he were to repeat the process, would be to try to run participative workshops and search conferences with his 150 scientists. This might not produce a much better vision of the future but it would certainly produce a group of potential opinion leaders committed to working towards it.
All three approaches, popular fiction, search conferences and Micho Kaku are very positive. Should one set up a committee in a bureaucracy to similarly give a portrait of the future, the result would be necessarily limited and dismal. We are talking about the best ways to go about the problem of prophecy.
Within this context, I think William Gibson fits the model and I’m sure that he talked through his ideas with others and used the collective wisdom of others to help. I think the prophetic analysis he presents in the Neuromancer trilogy is amazing under any criterion.
However, whatever way we choose to attempt to predict the future, we aren’t very good at it. We are still looking through a lens that is poorly transparent at what is beyond, which is rather dim.
Key words: prophecy, prophesy, Willam Gibson, Neuromancer, popular fiction, pulp fiction, Search Conference, Fred Emery, futures scanning, Michio Kaku, Visions, Q Research & Marketing
The art of Prophecy
Nostradamus 1503 – 1566
Men in Black 1997 Wikipedia
Men in Black Film 1997 IMDB
The Search Conference
At the time I had no idea what social project, leading edge or futures scanning were ….
Two definitions (that you don’t need to know)
Social project: means the dominant idea, or system of ideas, perhaps paradigm that dominates a particular society and guides its direction.
Leading edge: Is a loose concept, it is one of a system of technologies, ideas or even social or cultural beliefs, usually new, that for a time, often briefly, influence the direction a society is evolving in, whereas other things thought to be important do not.
Process in the Search Conference
The facilitators control the process of a search conference, whereas the participants are responsible for the content. The facilitators are only meant to intrude on the content to summarise; and as facilitators to help the group overcome hurdles. At the beginning the facilitation is fairly directive, but at some stage the facilitators are meant to cease facilitation and let the group takeover the whole process (a figure-ground reversal).
This is crucially important for a successful result, but often difficult for certain personalities. It is a failure to cease facilitation that is the prime reason for search conferences to go off the rails or worse. If the participants don’t get over their dependence on outside ‘experts’, it means that they won’t take responsibility for the ongoing process. The search conference is an open-ended process, the beginning of organisational change. Hence blocking the takeover by the participants means disaster inevitably.
When I began to run Search Conferences and later focus groups, based on the search conference method, I always tried to explain the process to participants. Although I soon learned that only about half of any audience understood or cared about ‘process’.
In a Search Conference the process is as important as the content. How did I know that only half understood process? Because I always said at the beginning: Some of you will come to me at the end and say that was marvellous, but why did we waste so much time with that rubbish at the beginning, when if we’d honed in on the concrete things earlier, how much more we might have achieved.
Inevitably some people would repeat this to me at the end, as if they hadn’t heard, and I could readily predict the people likely to do this.
I still presented the ideas of process and the reason for the futures scan (very briefly) because I always thought that even if only one in the audience twigged, it was enough. A doorway might be opened, which to that person could be a revelation even life changing.
The Search Conference Methodology is explained most simply in:
Merrelyn Emery Ed. Searching for new directions – in new ways – for new times Centre for Continuing Education (CCE), Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, 1976 (available National Library of Australia). This is the classic and definitive text from the source approved by Fred and if you are seriously interested in search conferences you should try to read it, because this is the raw description without modification or embellishment.
There is also a 1996 version by Merrelyn Emery and Ronald E Purser The Search Conference: A Powerful Method for Planning Organizational Change and Community Action Wiley 1996, but I haven’t seen it.
The free PDF download (no longer available but the Wayback Machine gives the text) of the ANU published book Research Integration by Dialogue Methods gives a reasonable description of the Search Conference on p 51 et seq. It also gives examples of similar but less successful futures techniques.
Neither the Wikipedia article nor the 1997 Obituary by Alistair Crombie a colleague (at CCE ANU, Canberra) really do justice to the importance of Fred Emery around the world. Fred was very conscious of and good at diffusing his ideas (against opposition). His reputation in many countries is much greater than it is in Australia.
He was also a bit of a gutter fighter and frequently bruised egos. He was impatient and often unfair, but at the same time one of the most generous people you could meet, if he thought what you were doing had any merit.
Regardless of his personality his ideas were path-setting, brilliant and very practical. His knowledge and the depth of his reading were extraordinary. His paper with Eric Trist on organisational environments is one of the most cited academic papers in the twentieth century.
The Future Search network
Merrelyn Emery continued with Fred’s work after he died in 1997. One consequence has been the development of the Future Search Network, an active group that I have only just discovered. They seem quite energtic and internationally focused. One hopes they are continuing on with the search conference methodology in the way it was originally designed. I’ve included some access to their work.
Future search network homepage
Interesting that this link no longer functions and that Future appears now to deny its history
Future search network history.
They claim two sources Eva Schindler-Rainman and Ronald Lippitt’s Large scale community futures conferences in 88 cities in the 1970s and Emery and Trist. They also cite Kurt Lewin who Fred Emery spoke of frequently. Their heart seems to be in the right place. Hopefully, their practice spans both enthusiasm and engagement, with a deep understanding of search conference methodology. They run much larger groups than was recommended in the original design but David Young and I ran two parallel groups of over 100 with the Australian Democrats in 1983 and both Emerys supported large groups at the huge Workplace Australia Conference in the 1980s.
More esoteric stuff on Search Conferences & focus groups
In the comments section I suggested that collecting the futures scans from a large range of search conferences over a few years would give better results; and that my experience with focus groups based on the search conference also had potential.
There are two pieces of evidence that demonstrate this:
1 A large number of search conferences were held in Australia from the early 1970s through the 1980s. Someone (I can’t remember who) analysed the future scans of many of these search conferences and found a remarkable commonality across the series and also that a cogent vision of a common future emerged. A collection of search conferences will tend to provide better collective or shared information than a single search both because of the larger number of participants, but also by expanding the range and experience of the personalities involved.
Nevertheless, a Search Conference with a diverse and skilled or experienced participative group, whose participative planning was focused entirely on developing a shared vision of the future for societal use, could probably do a good job as well. This would be even better, if the process was ongoing over time. (One wouldn’t run a whole series of search conferences merely to collect futures scans.)
2 I used to run a strategic market research group called Q Research & Marketing. We were mostly Canberra based and because of the small population of the city, we often recruited people we knew or who were recommended by our network for qualitative focus groups, who fitted the particular stratified sample we were after.
Unlike other focus groups we ran our sessions on the Search Conference model that is a funnel from broad (futures scanning) to specific (the topic). The reason for doing this was to get away from the superficial day-to-day stuff that is normally at the top of peoples’ heads and into a much more constructive space. It worked for us.
But, as a side effect of repeated exposure, we facilitators noticed of people we used regularly that their thinking patterns changed towards a planning mode and they seemed slightly smarter or sharper somehow as time went on. This was an unintended consequence but a good one. We consciously provided excellent food, coffee and nice presents at the end (I had a slight intellectual bias against paying people to come, if possible). However, we also felt that unlike a search conference, we were ripping information out of people’s heads without giving anything back. There is possibly something here that someone could use to provide better ways to look at the future in longer term studies.
Q Research & Marketing
The Q Research reports, 1988-2005 [manuscript] are held in the National Library of Australia. This is the library of Q Research & Marketing Reports produced during the period the company was active.
I’m so tempted to say I saw this post coming, but I’d be fibbing. 🙂 Very interesting.
I didn’t predict it either and I had the inside running. Thanks for your comment, prescience is difficult!
I didn’t see it coming either! I was only intending to write an introduction to William Gibson’s prophecy but it got too long. I hope it wasn’t too esoteric Peggy.