Every future we think of follows one of four narratives

On a scorching afternoon about a year ago, I stood in the lobby of a Washington DC Hilton, waiting for a message from the future. Like most solitary people in the room, I stared at my iPhone while pacing the unfortunate paisley carpeting.

The email finally came at 1:33 pm, written by an 84-year-old man.

Do you know what I look like–Like a fat old lady with a dutch girl hair cut?

If so, let’s meet in the lobby now.

Jim

As he came loping towards me, it struck me that Jim Dator’s self-description was pretty dead-on. But don’t let his modesty mislead. Dator is an eminence in the field of what I guess you’d call professional futurists. These are people paid to think systematically about stuff that hasn’t happened. For several decades, Dator did it from his base of operations at the University of Hawaii’s political science department with an outfit called the Hawaii Research Center for Future Studies.

We shook hands and started talking. Dator was straightaway so crackling with ideas and seemingly un-creased by age I was a little shocked to learn he was born in 1933. I liked him instantly.

As we chatted over a couple of Cokes in the Hilton lobby, one of the first things Dator told me was that futurists do not predict the future. Claiming you can is a form of fraud.

“There is no such thing as the future,” Dator says. “Instead, there are before us a multitude of alternative futures, of possible futures, of plausible futures.”

Our meeting marked the start of a year-long odyssey taking our documentary team to tiny Pacific Islands and South Dakota farms, to Oregon forests, Canadian cities and Central American backlands, all in search of the future. The series I’m introducing here is the result.

Each episode focuses on central aspects of life: money, work, food, home, and facts. All are poised to see large changes in the years to come.

Journalists can’t see the future, but they are able to peer through the lens of history to better understand the present. It’s a founding principle of Retro Report, the co-producer of this series. The future may be starkly different than the present, but it’ll be easier to understand once you uncover its deep continuity with the past. The social and technical transformations we’re currently living through are profound, but this isn’t the first time rapid, singular change has occurred. Before computer networks disrupted our communications, networks of steel rails and grids of artificial light upended our very concepts of space and time, day and night. Subtract trains and light bulbs from a modern city, and how much of it is even left?

The future has a history. And the stories we tell about incoming change—the stories we’ve always told about such changes—fall into consistent patterns. Dator gained some of his stature in future studies with his famous observation that predictions about the future—whether they’re coming from a corporate spreadsheet, a church pulpit or Hollywood—all boil down to roughly four scenarios. Growth that keeps going. Transformation upending the past. Collapse of the present order. And discipline imposed, in some cases, to hold such collapse at bay.

“Most people, through their education, and through their acculturation, are locked into a single view of the future. They have never been encouraged to think about these alternatives, or forced to think about them,” Dator says.

Once I heard Dator’s four futures explained, I started seeing them in everything from the evening news to the Bible. Understanding these patterns helps drive home the idea that the future is multiple. Living as if there’s only one way things are going to turn out isn’t terribly resilient when events take off in a shocking direction. And for the last few decades, that kind of thing seems to happening more and more.

The 1970 book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler became a runaway best seller by keying into widespread anxiety caused by accelerating social and technological change. He encouraged a generation of readers to overcome this anxiety by summoning for them a clearer image of the future: A world where the product of human effort will be mostly measured in knowledge, where social implications of incoming change will be considered as thoroughly as the technical ones, and where thinking about the future becomes a way of life. You might say he called on his readers to ride shockwaves of change. Dator, a longtime friend and colleague of Toffler, calls this “surfing tsunamis.” For this project, our mission was to find people already paddling out to meet the waves.

The people we met during our reporting aren’t simply painting compelling images of the future. They’re actually living them. We met technologists building a new means of global exchange; workers taking up revolutionary tools; farmers preparing for a changing climate; journalists reaching deeper into viewers minds.

Their actions presuppose that huge changes are coming to fundamental aspects of their lives and ours. They believe that new forms of money will change how the world does business; that automation will remake what it means to have a job; and that immersive storytelling will alter how we come to know facts. We chose to tell their stories because trends that affect many people begin by first affecting a few. If the future only exists as ideas of the future, we think it’s wise to hear from the people betting the most on theirs.

Their version of a future may not come to pass. But I think they have much to teach us at a time when so many voices are selling much narrower fairytales about growth—or panic about collapse. The trends I started chasing that hot Washington afternoon while reading mail on my phone aren’t slowing down. The devices are getting closer to our bodies, and the forces of surveillance and commerce the technology conveys don’t seem to be keeping our wellbeing in mind.

If our only images for the future are victory or doom, the underlying message for regular people seems to be, “There’s nothing you can do. So maybe just keep burning hydrocarbons and upgrading those phones?”

We need more useful ways to consider and prepare for what happens next.

Watch: What Happens Next

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