technology foresight from Back to the Future

Back to the Future, a technology foresight handbook

Eric Garland Culture Trends, Futures Studies, Technology Trends Leave a Comment

Sometimes, artists do a better job at futurism than non-fiction thinkers. I maintain, for example, that the best books on the subject of technology foresight happen to be fiction novels. James Halperin’s two books The Truth Machine and The First Immortal are genius works of futurism, exploring in extraordinary depth the implications of two different technologies: a Google Glass-like device that would tell you if a person was lying, and biotechnology that finally allowed immortality. The impacts on society from both of those technologies are, in Halperin’s imagination, both deep and broad, essentially changing everything from housing to banking to entertainment. His futures are neither utopian nor dystopian, but dramatically changed. Go read those books!

Now, a lighter version of this can be seen in Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future 2, which apparently is also a tour de force of technology foresight. Until I saw this listicle of twenty technologies that the movie got correct – from tablets to hoverboards – I never bothered to go back and see that their disruptive future was the year 2015.

Hoverboards! We apparently have hoverboards now!

They did a pretty killer job of foresight – but then again, Spielberg is one of the few Hollywood moguls to consult futurists for any movies that require good technology forecasting, such as Minority Report.

In fact, now that I think of it, I was asked by the Chicago Tribune to comment on the quality of the futurism in that film back in 2002, and I admired Spielberg’s understand of how human values shift along with available technologies.

“A lot of futurist movies are based on this apocalyptic vision, and the whole idea is to scare people,” says Eric Garland, a futurist consultant with Competitive Futures in Washington, D.C., who is working on a book called “Doing Business in a World Without Secrets.”

“Most of that is based on the passe idea of judging future situations with today’s values. Most of what constitutes daily life that we’ve taken for granted now would absolutely scare someone from 1820 to death,” Garland says.

“The technology being there is one thing. Getting everybody to agree on how to use the tech and to have consumer groups agree to that kind of invasion may be a different story,” Garland says, pointing out the backlash against telemarketers and credit card companies sharing personal information. “Most technologies, in the way they’re applied, are always based on our values.”

When doing technology foresight, remember two things:

  1. They always say that new communications technologies will lead to world peace and free schooling, and it never does.
  2. The people involved in history, the present, and the future are all flawed, confused, intelligent individuals who use available tools to solve pressing problems – just like you.

Hooray for Hollywood!