Category Archives: Basic Concepts

Notes: The Foundation Trilogy

My battered copy of Asimov’s trilogy

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (1951) is a remarkable piece of science fiction not just because of its future vision of a galaxy full of humans, or its iconic stature in the genre. It is “future fiction” about predicting the future.

Asimov builds the tale around the work of an imaginary psychologist, Hari Seldon, who uses mathematical equations and statistical analysis of human social behavior (called “psychohistory”) to predict the rise and fall and recovery of the galactic empire over the course of a thousand years.

The action of the story revolves around just how clever Seldon and his colleagues were at planning, in detail, what needed to happen to restore the galaxy. The “Foundation” of the title is a special planet, where a kernel of rationality and science is preserved as war and economic collapse ravage the galaxy — just as Seldon predicted. In Asimov’s fantasy, even the unpredictable, in the form of a mutant with the power to control people’s emotions, is somehow accommodated in this homage to (exceedingly male) rationality and planning.

Foundation was enormously influential in its time. As a small reflection of that influence, two co-authors of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth — Dennis and Donella Meadows, who used computers and equations at MIT to try to understand what was likely to happen if the global growth trends of the 1960’s and 1970’s persisted — named their countryside residence in New Hampshire “Foundation Farm.” To be clear, they were under no illusions that they were preserving civilization there; Dennis Meadows has said it was simply a “sardonic reference” to a book they both admired.

When re-read from the perspective of the early 21st century, the Foundation trilogy seems impossibly dated. Men still carry briefcases, smoke cigars and run the world from small conference rooms, even 20,000 years after humans have fanned out across the galaxy.

And yet, there are aspects of Foundation that seem hauntingly familiar, in the age of global social media and populist politics. Apparently, great masses of people are predictable, and potentially manipulable, given the right psycho-technical tools. At the moment, we call those tools “Facebook” and “Big Data.”

Footnote: In a later 1980s novel, Foundation’s Edge, which expanded on his original trilogy, Asimov invents a planet called Gaia, where the humanoid “Mentalic” inhabitants are completely integrated with both the living and inorganic material around them, and each other, to the extent the entire planet functions as one mind. I wonder what dreams that Gaia would have? 

Notes: Future Justice

As a concept, “future justice” is theoretically vast, for it encompasses all the rights of all the people (and nature, as some countries have begun to recognize the rights of ecosystems) living in the future. If all goes well, the people of the future will greatly outnumber all the people alive today. Their rights to clean water, a stable climate, and a world free from oppression and war should therefore count greatly in our decision making.

In practice, however, the topic of future justice is frighteningly small, occupying no more than a few small pixels on the great screen of the world.

The early years of the 21st century saw a sudden growth of interest in future justice, and several countries began experimenting with the creation of new governmental commissioners or “ombudsmen” whose job was to safeguard those rights. Most often, the initial focus was on the environment; but issues of human rights were also in the picture. Hungary, the Philippines, and Namibia have functioning ombudsmen, with varying degrees of autonomy and authority, ranging from the ability to prosecute environmental crimes to advisory and educational activities. Perhaps the most prominent and well-functioning such office is Future Generations Commissioner for Wales.

Future justice is also a catch-all term for legal proceedings brought on behalf of children or future generations, such as lawsuits against governments for not acting on the threat of future climate change or other environmental threats. A few of these lawsuits have been remarkably successful, including a landmark decision in 2015 that forced the government of the Netherlands to accelerate its action to reduce carbon emissions. (The government is appealing that decision. A good summary of what is happening internationally, as of early 2018, was published in English by Germany’s DW, a development media organization.)

An early draft of the United Nations agreement from the 2012 “Rio+20” summit, The Future We Want, proposed the creation of a United Nations High Commissioner for Future Generations, a global role similar in authority to the  high commissioners for refugees and human rights. But the proposal — which advocates criticized as weak — did not survive the negotiating process and was dropped from the final text.

As of 2018, several non-governmental organizations continued to promote the concept of future justice generally, and the role of independent commissioners and ombudsmen specifically, including the World Future Council and the Network of Institutions for Future Generations. (For a 2-minute video on the concept, see below.)

It is surprisingly difficult to get up-to-date information on the status of these institutions, because the NGOs that promote them appear to be understaffed, or at least slow to update their websites. Nor is there a relevant Wikipedia entry. (These are just two indicators that the movement is still, as noted above, “frighteningly small”.)

But some information be gleaned through these two portals: – Global view of mechanisms recognising future generations. Includes an interactive map that shows where institutions exist, or where reference to the rights of future generations (e.g. rights to a clean environment) are included in official national documents. Not all the links are working or are updated (as of Mar 2018).

Network of Institutions for Future Generations – Members List. Provides web links to a number of relevant national institutions, which take varying forms (at least one, Israel’s commissioner, is listed as “former”). The website does not seem to have been updated since early 2017.

Video on the argument for creating a UN High Commissioner, by the World Future Council (posted March 2016):


Notes: Future Shock

In 1970, Alvin Toffler (and his wife Heidi, they wrote as a couple but used only his name) published a book that took the world by storm, selling millions of copies and introducing a phrase — “Future Shock” — that soon earned a place in the dictionary.

Future Shock was not just a book about what was likely to happen, based on trends and patterns (though it did plenty of predicting). It was a book about how human beings were reacting to a feeling that the future was arriving faster than they could prepare for it. The principal thesis of the book is preserved in its dictionary definition: “the physical and psychological distress suffered by one who is unable to cope with the rapidity of social and technological changes” (Merriam-Webster).

The Tofflers (Alvin died in 2016) were surprisingly skilled at extrapolating from the trends of the 1960s into the world that later emerged, accurately predicting personal computers, the Internet, “Information Overload,” the sharing economy, telecommuting, the role of artificial intelligence in the workplace, and the rise of informal and less-hierarchical organizational structures. Their famous “errors” look wise in hindsight: Heidi predicted throwaway paper clothes, which did not happen; but the throwaway society certainly did. Today’s “fast fashion” garments may not be made out of paper, but they are not much longer-lasting.

Future Shock was not the first book to claim that “This lifetime is … different from all others because of the scale and scope of change,” nor was it the last. But it was the first to bring the speed of change into global public discourse as a topic of debate, and to highlight the counter-intuitive features of exponential growth — a topic that would stand at the center of another mega-bestseller that followed just two years later, The Limits to Growth. The Tofflers noted that accelerating economic expansion — Japan was the China of their day, its GDP growing at an average of 9.8% per year — translated into “a doubling of the total output of goods and services in the advanced societies about every fifteen years.” The individuals coming of age in the 1960s might live to see a world 32 times as “big” in economic terms (after five doublings) because of the compounding impact of exponential growth.

As it happens, the world economy has doubled in size more than four times since 1950. Graphs of that growth resemble rocket launches.

The Tofflers were not the world’s first futurists — the term had emerged during World War II, in connection with US think tanks — but they were the first to popularize the profession on the world stage. Alvin even taught the first known university course on the subject of “future studies” in 1966.

In introducing the systematic study of the future to a mass audience, they were careful not to let it be reduced to mere trend-spotting and prediction. Instead, they gave the popular understanding of future studies a decidedlhy philosophical and analytical character. Here they are writing on the advancement of technology, in words that seem to presage the significantly more developed and coherent theories of contemporary thinkers such as W. Brian Arthur (The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, 2009):

“[T]echnological innovation does not merely combine and recombine machines and techniques. Important new machines do more than suggest or compel changes in other machines — they suggest novel solutions to social, philosophical, even personal problems. They alter [humanity]’s total intellectual environment — the way [we think and look] at the world.” (Future Shock, p. 29)

The Tofflers noted that for humans to avoid the “shock” part of “future shock,” they would need to become more adaptable, flexible, and ready for the unfamiliar and unpredictable. It was wise advice then, and it also seems to have anticipated the emergence of an entirely new area of scientific inquiry, which is today called “resilience”. Becoming more resilient was imperative, wrote the Tofflers, because the advancement of technological civilization “offers no surcease from change. It offers no return to the familiar past. It offers only the highly combustible mixture of transience and novelty.”

While the Tofflers are usually remembered as cheerleaders for the future, their agenda was far more radical. In their book’s final pages, they called for a massive slow-down in the pace of economic, industrial and social change in order “gently guide our evolutionary destiny.” Their diagnosis of where “this wild growth, this cancer in history” was leading reads less like a prediction, and more like a hauntingly accurate premonition of the early decades of the 21st century:

“[B]efore we can build a humane future, [we must] halt the runaway acceleration that is subjecting multitudes to the threat of future shock while, at the very same moment, intensifying all the problems they must deal with — war, ecological incursions, racism, the obscene contrast between rich and poor, the revolt of the young, and the rise of a potentially deadly mass irrationalism.” (Future Shock, p. 486)

Today’s “ecological incursions” are happening at the scale of planetary ecosystems. The global “contrast between rich and poor” is wider and more obscene than ever. Phrases like “climate change” or “mass migration” or “school shooting” were not even in our lexicon when “future shock” was invented, nor was “social media,” which has become the most powerful technology ever known for spreading “mass irrationalism” in the form of conspiracy theories and fake news.

Today the “runaway acceleration” of human history appears to be speeding up rather than slowing down. The ever-faster arrival of “the future” may have become less and less shocking to us since the Tofflers’ time. It may even be that the majority of humanity is not just accepting, but even desiring, of the “novelty and transience” they worried about.

But that does not mean that we have solved the problem of collaboratively making the future that we are creating more humane, more livable, more sustainable. In fact, we appear to have just caught up to the Tofflers’ vision of how we might start.

In the closing pages of 1970’s Future Shock, the Tofflers laid out a suggested program of activity that bears a striking resemblance to something that finally occurred, at the international level, in the years 2012 to 2015. They called for “a movement” that would “broaden and define in social, as well as merely economic terms, the goals of ‘progress.'” They imagined gatherings happening “in each city, in each neighborhood” whose purpose was to “assign priorities to specific social goals for the remainder of the century.” They even proposed the use of large-scale, participatory simulation games, involving thousands or even millions of people at a time, to help us “formulate goals for the future.”

In 2015, the largest-ever gathering of heads of state convened in New York City, at the United Nations headquarters, to formally approve a document that had been developed with the input of hundreds of thousands of people, from all around the world. Called “Transforming Our World,” the document included 17 broad “Sustainable Development Goals”, and 169 prioritized sub-goals, to guide global development through the year 2030.

It was not exactly what the Tofflers had in mind. But it was astonishingly close.


Additional sources to review:

Future Shock at 40: What the Tofflers Got Right (and Wrong)

Future Shock on Wikipedia

“Future Shock” Documentary Film on YouTube (starring Orson Welles):

Notes: The origins of prophecy

Photo courtesy British Museum (Creative Commons license)

In the British Museum, there is a stunning example of a duho, a type of chair used by the chieftains of the Taino people in the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus himself was offered the honor of sitting in one of these, on the island he later named Hispaniola (now called Haiti, then called Quiqueya). Columbus took his seat at the beginning of a century that saw the Taino people enslaved, oppressed, and almost completely extinguished by European colonization and disease.

But the duho represents much more than just a seat of political power or the representation of a ritual spirit (in this case, a dog-like figure with golden eyes, named Opigielguouiran). The duho was a doorway to the future.

The Taino, like many peoples throughout pre-history, used hallucinogenic drugs and ritual to enter another state of reality where they could commune with the gods and seek information about the future that was vital to them.

Seated on a duho, high on snuff made from cohoba bark, the Taino leaders — who were both male and female — could see what was coming and decide what to do: plant crops, prepare for a hurricane, go to war. Unfortunately, these seer-chieftains had not been able to foretell the arrival of the Spanish, and therefore could not prevent the collapse of their own civilization.

The duho is a powerful reminder not just of this one people, and this one decisive moment in world history. It stands, symbolically, for an enormous variety of pre-modern traditions in the practice of prophecy. For prophecy is a seat of power.

Human civilization was divided into several great tracks of development many thousands of years ago — African, Eurasian,  Australasian and American. Some of these peoples remained quite isolated from each other over many millennia, separated by vast seas and continental distances. And yet nearly all of them, based on the archaeological and anthropological evidence, had developed methods of prophecy: techniques, often supported by technologies, for peering into the future.

Ancient prophets were not always high on hallucinogenic chemicals: they could also achieve a state of ecstatic clairvoyance through fasting, asceticism, prayer, ritual, meditation, and arduous quests into the natural world. Some were simply gifted from birth with “second sight”, the power of seeing something that is otherwise invisible. People with second sight might see (or sense) non-human spirits, the ghosts of human ancestors, or events happening at a great distance. When second sight gives them knowledge of future events, we call it “precognition” — a word that literally means, “to know in advance.”

The capacity for prophecy was one of the most prized skills in the ancient world, equivalent in importance to the skills of war, conquest, and political leadership. We know this because many esteemed prophets of old are just as famous today as the kings and conquerors they served (or sometimes chastised and berated). Several of the world’s great religions rest on a foundation laid by ancient prophets, who not only foretold the future, but also adjudicated right and wrong behavior as well as belief.

Indeed, it was not uncommon for these two roles — prophet and ruler — to be merged, in one function. Anyone who can predict the future more accurately than others, whether through supernatural means or by exercising superior observation and deduction skills, can accumulate great power. That statement remains true today: for example, a skilled financial observer can make a fortune by observing and acting on economic signs and portents that other investors miss. (George Soros, to pick just one modern illustration, became one of the richest and most powerful people in the world by accurately predicting changes in currency exchange rates, among other insights.)

That ancient prophets and prophecies are so deeply embedded in today’s religious practice is evidence of the massive power of future-thinking. For many people, the way ancient prophets thought about the future still provides the basis for their entire contemporary way of life.

A modern, secular worldview would dismiss supernatural prophecy — foreknowledge of the future, gained by means other than scientific observation and prediction — out of hand. The universe simply does not work that way: direct observation of the future is impossible for human observers (except in science-fiction). So why has prophecy been so essential, and so overwhelmingly powerful, throughout so many millennia of human experience, right up to the present day?

Fear is a very powerful emotion. As anyone who watches a horror movie knows, the frightened anticipation of meeting a monster is more uncomfortable than the actual moment of that monster’s appearance. However we choose to do future-thinking — whether it is by ascribing supernatural meaning to natural events, seeking out drug-induced hallucinations, praying intensively to the divine, or studying phenomena for patterns that repeat and can therefore be predicted — we do it to reduce uncertainty and anxiety, danger and risk.

Ancient prophets (and modern ones as well) usually return from their journeys into the future with instructions. If we do things in this certain way, if we align our beliefs and ethical principles according to these guidelines, we will be safe and we will prosper.

If we do not, all is lost.

Video: Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century

This short video — a collection of short interviews with professors and consultants — summarizes a forthcoming UNESCO book that covers the field of “anticipation,” the latest way of framing foresight and future studies. It draws on the work being done in UNESCO Futures Literacy Knowledge Laboratories, all around the world.

Here are some notes from the video. Actual quotes are marked; otherwise the notes are summaries of statements made by the named expert.


Transforming the Future (Open Access): Anticipation in the 21st Century (Hardback) book coverAnticipation is a new name for concepts like future studies, foresight, though there are nuanced differences in these terms. (Lydia Garrido Luzardo)


The work of this group is based on the groundbreaking work of Robert Rosen, a mathematical biologist who was trying to understand “what is life.” Rosen developed the idea of anticipatory systems. He found “most of reality is anticipatory in one way or another.” (Roberto Poli)


[Anticipation] is not about looking at a target future; it is about looking differently at the present. (Luzardo)


“All our actions are based on predictions of their consequences. We see the world as a meaningful world, not a collection of objective atoms. We see the world as a set of possibilities for action. We see objects and things where we think that we can do something. This is the meaningful world that we operate in. But the meaning itself is all the time based on what would be the consequences of my action. The world is not out there to be discovered, but it is actually constructed by ourselves.” (Iikka Tuomi)


“What people say is the future is just their story of the future. So storytelling, the words, can becoming important tools for imagining and creating the future.” (Kewulay Kamara)


“You can only make sense of things after they actually exist. So you have to try to create the future — and then try to think what it means.” (Tuomi)


We are trying to get people to the insight, I am *using* the future. Then they will ask, “if I am using it, what is it?” (Riel Miller)


Foresight is used by both policy (“la politique”) and politics (“le politique”). … “There is autocratic foresight: you construct the future, and you require people to follow it.” These kinds of foresight — autocratic, ideological — always end badly, often in catastrophe. (Kais Hammami)


“If we become better at appreciating complexity — seeing uncertainty as a resource, not an enemy (because of course it is an enemy of planning) — we can shift the origins of our fear, and construct our hope in a different way. And if we can do that, it allows our identity to be more whole with respect to our origins, that is the past, but also our aspirations. And that will make people happier, and more at ease with who they are, in this universe that has this amazing potential to change.” (Riel Miler))


“Anything that perpetuates the status quo is basically a colonisation of our futures.” (Roumiana Gotseva)


“It’s a very inclusive way to create knowledge, because no one has better knowledge than anyone else.” (Lizard)


Forces from the past are just half the picture. There are forces, feelings, etc. coming also from the future, so to say. “The social sciences need to be rewritten to give equal weight to the past and the future.” (Poli)


We tend to think that if we change the structures, we will change the way people think and behave. For me, it’s the other way around. If we change the way people think and behave, we will bring new structures naturally into existence. For the why is changing the assumptions underneath what we think change is. (Gotseva)



Quote: Watching a weather report (Polli)

Anticipation is the transformation of what we are able to see about the future into action. Watching a weather forecast is not anticipation. Watching a weather forecast and, as a consequence, taking your umbrella before going to work is anticipatory behavior.

— Roberto Polli, UNESCO Chair in Anticipation Studies, University of Trento, Italy, Jan 2017

In this video: Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century


Quote: A branching stream of probabilities (Musk)

I look at the future from the standpoint of probabilities. It’s like a branching stream of probabilities. And there are actions that we can take that affect those probabilities, that accelerate one thing, or slow down another thing, [or] introduce something new into the probability stream.

— Elon Musk, TED interview, April 2017

Quote: I just don’t do positive and negative (Sterling)

As a futurist, I just don’t do “positive” and “negative”. I actively avoid that kind of value judgment. Wishful thinking and fearful thinking gets in the way of an objective understanding of change-drivers.

Change occurs from pent-up energies: it’s like asking if a battery’s voltage is “good” or “bad.” All potential change has positive or negative potential: otherwise it isn’t even “potential.”

— Bruce Sterling, interview with Jon Lebkowsky, 2016

Notes: The Anthropocene

In September 2017, an esteemed group of scientists — geologists, physicists, chemists, archaeologists, geographers, biologists, and oceanographers — published a milestone paper in a relatively new journal called Anthropocene. Launched just four years previously, the journal followed the creation of its titular concept, but preceded the official declaration of that concept’s reality.

The Anthropocene is the notion that this particular time on planet Earth, the time when humans are changing global ecosystems and geophysical patterns in profound ways, deserves its own name. The Holocene is the name given to the last 10,000 years, after the glaciers melted and we restlessly nomadic humans began to settle down and invent houses, agriculture, cities, nations, economics and technology.

The Anthropocene is the result.

In the article, which is entitled “The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations,” the scientists declare the Anthropocene to be “stratigraphically real.” Here is what these words mean, in practical terms: we are leaving an indelible, geological mark on the planet.

Imagine a time, millions of years from now, when humans no longer exist (at least in our current form — perhaps we will have become clouds of sentient energy, wafting through a multi-dimensional cosmos, with vague memories of the blue-green planet of our birth). Imagine that the geologists of that time, who  have evolved from one of today’s lower mammals, start digging. What will they find?

At a certain layer of rock, which will be proven to be roughly the same time, all over planet Earth (or whatever they shall call their home in the solar system), the geologists will discover evidence of a profound transformation. They will find sudden changes in erosion patterns, and in the way sediments shift along ancient river beds. They will find molecular evidence of changes in the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the global dispersion of phosphorous and other elements. They will note a precipitous (in geological terms) rise in sea levels, and a rapid decline in polar ice. They will find the fossil evidence of extraordinary species that once walked the planet, but suddenly went extinct; and they will find evidence of other species, never before seen in the fossil record, that suddenly appear everywhere, in massive numbers.

It is unlikely that these future geologists will know that we called the new animals dogs and cats, cows and chickens, though they will be able to trace their evolutionary roots to wolves, larger cats, wild oxen, and a jungle bird from the area now called Southeast Asia. They will certainly find bountiful fossil evidence of our species, homo sapiens. But they will have no way of knowing that we called the extinct species elephant, pangolin, gorilla, rhino.

Finally, they will find copious “technofossils”, the geologically preserved remains of homo sapiens’ technology and industry. These might include plastics, buckyballs, graphene. The most surprising find will be the sudden appearance of plutonium, an element that occurs very rarely in nature, among deposits of uranium, but that suddenly will be seen as lightly distributed over large areas, “as  though it had rained from the sky”  they might say — which is exactly what happened.

The arrival of the Anthropocene as a concept appears to concern the scientific analysis of the recent past, because much of the academic debate around its introduction has circled around when, exactly, to declaim its historical beginnings. Should one draw the line in geological time at 1945, when the first atomic bombs began their rain of uranium and plutonium and other radioactive fallout? Or should we dial the clock back a few thousand years, to the global spread of agriculture?

In any event, the principal value of the Anthropocene is not as a tool for looking back in time, but for looking forward. Understanding that we have altered certain mega-processes in the Earth’s systems beyond restoration, that the stable and predictable conditions of the Holocene’s ten thousand years are in some definitive sense over, is a great mental aid in thinking about the future.

We are not just constantly changing our human world; we are creating a new Earth.