Today was the first day of the World Future Society conference (or “FutureFocus 2000” as it’s officially titled). I wasn’t sure what to expect from the event or my fellow attendees. Apart from a few speakers visiting college, the only futurists I’ve met have been on the same course as me, so I was interested to see what the rest of the field looked like. All I had to go on were the photos accompanying articles in The Futurist and those of speakers in the conference brochure. Consequently I was half expecting everyone to be badly lit and in shades of grey.
I was also expecting a large percentage of middle-aged men in suits, and I wasn’t entirely disappointed. Some people weren’t wearing suits and some people weren’t middle-aged or men. But they were in the minority. I’m 29 and I felt like a real youngster, with a large majority of atendees safely on the downward slope past 40. Another thing, that would have surprised me about all these futurists a year ago but doesn’t after a year of study, is that they look distinctly un-cool. Before I started the course my image of futurism was largely (day-glo) coloured by Wired so I was expecting revolutionary and dynamic people, shaking paradigms and overturning conventional wisdom several times before their exciting and futuristic breakfasts. But everyone’s so very, very normal.
This is at the root of the slight disappointment I feel with the whole profession (its practioners, at least, regard it as a distinct and recognisable profession). All futurists seem to believe passionately that everyone should know this stuff. Every person, company, school, organisation should be thinking about the world in thirty years time, should have a clear image of its own ideal future, think about how things interact with each other and what effect this will actually have down the line. Futurists seem to encourage far out thinking and unlikely ideas. But all this doesn’t match up with how small and mundane the profession actually feels.
Considering this is the biggest annual international get together of futurists, it all seems a little, well, small. Yeah, there are nearly 1,000 people registered, but I was just expecting something a little more. I think part of the problem is the strange divide between the big names and the rest of the field. Nicholas Negroponte and Faith Popcorn, for example, might not be regarded as “real” futurists by the majority of the profession, but whatever you may think of them these are the levels of person I’d expect to be giving the keynotes at the industry’s premier knees-up. Or at least slightly less overblown names like Peter Schwartz. I haven’t even heard of the keynote speakers at FutureFocus, and the biggest names I do know (Joseph Coates, John Petersen) just don’t seem up to scratch, despite being good speakers.
Maybe I just want everything to have a veneer of celebrity endorsement, and I’m not satisfied with a product unless it has a recognisable brand or face. But after a single evening it’s all slightly disappointing. Is this all there is? Is that it?
But two more days to go…