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The Future of Professional Futurists:
An increasing awareness of Acceleration Studies and Universal Evolutionary
Development Studies by tomorrow's foresight practitioner.

How will the practice of strategic foresight (forecasting, strategic planning, technology roadmapping, futures studies, history of prediction, etc.) be affected by accelerating change and the advance of science and systems theory? The following essay suggests changes to the profession that we might reasonably expect in coming decades.


One of the major goals of our affiliated nonprofit, the Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF) is to attract more research toward the high predictability of certain types of technological change. This is something many professional futurists today still fail to recognize.

Clearly many of the specific events in the world seem unpredictable. Furthermore, our time horizon for any kind of certainty with such events (the so called "prediction wall") shrinks closer to us, the faster and more powerful the world becomes. Yet at the same time growth in various technological capacities has become increasingly more predictable (the "prediction crystal ball") since at least the 1890's. If you look at the data of Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Nathan Mhyrvold, and others, since the 1950's and 1960's we have discovered a range of eponymous constants, or "laws" (e.g., Moore's, Cooper's, Poor's, Sayle's, etc.) that predictably describe technological growth over long spans of time. This is a new social phenomenon. The data are becoming quite compelling that certain types of technological acceleration are now the "levers that move the world," having a global effect that is far out of proportion to human agency.

The more capacity data we get, in fact, the more predictable future capacity growth becomes. In general, that doesn't seem to be true for any other forecasting area I've studied. So we have these two discrete foresight domains, one becoming steadily harder to predict, the other becoming steadily easier to predict. A global insight is about to emerge as to why this is the case, and it will likely come from a fusion of physics, biology, and information theory.

My suspicion here is that various technological capacity growth trends are part of a process of universal development, whereas most technological change follows evolutionary pathways, which are intrinsically unpredictable, chaotic, and contingent, but a special subset can be understood developmentally, following pathways which are convergent, statistically inevitable, and increasingly predictable, as one learns to see the developmental framework.

If one looks at a developing organism, one sees both evolution (at the molecular scale and over life cycles) and development occurring simultaneously within the system, at the same time. We are presently learning to see the universe this way as well. Both evolution and development seem to be going on in our social and technological environments, and distinguishing the two can give us great foresight into the nature of the future, and the natural accelerating framework that subtly influences and constrains every social choice we make.

There's pretty good evidence that the human being doesn't get significantly smarter with each generation. In fact, we've actually measurably regressed in recent decades in our math, science, analytical and written verbal fluencies, as a number of longitudinal studies like TIMMS have shown. First world humans face an epidemic of obesity, a surplus of leisure, and are more entertained (and distracted) than ever before. But at the same time the "house" around us gets exponentially more intelligent, transparent, and dramatically more resource-efficient (in all computational measures at least) with each passing year. The confluence of these powerful forces must clearly have some longer term ecological effect, in a world with declining human population and rapidly accelerating technological capacity.

We always need to guard against observer-selection bias. But the paradigm of universal evolutionary development is actually "infopomorphic", rather than "anthropomorphic." It makes the key assumption, and perpetuates the central bias (which may be wrong) that information processing is the one thing that continually accelerates in over the universe's life span, and does this by periodically jumping to new, more local, and more resource-efficient substrates over time. This process of increasingly independence of technological development from the resources that initially create it has been observed by a few professional futurists for decades, notably Buckminster Fuller, who called it "ephemeralization" in 1922. But to date it has not become a central observation in our field, it is not taught as a central tenet of futures education, and few practitioners today would argue its unique significance for our global future.

Most features of sociotechnological change follow a pattern of punctuated equilibrium, not smooth acceleration. Kenneth Boulding made an observation in 1970 that technological change had a significantly greater impact on the average human being at the start of the 20th century than in the decades since. Michael Elliott has noted that the truly labor-saving technologies for use by homemakers have been much less important in the second half of the 20th century than in the first half.

Yet while some types of change flatline or even regress cyclically for long periods, a number of technological capacities and informetrics have consistently grown at a double exponential rate over the entire 20th century. Most curiously, several of these, like price performance in computing, seem largely immune to human social cycles (like the Great Depression). Kurzweil and I suggest this is because these special accelerations are more due to human discovery (of intrinsic accelerations available in the physical microdomain) than due to human creativity/innovation. In other words, certain accelerations don't require a lot of manpower, capital, or genius, just a common intelligence, curiosity, and desire to tinker in a very special place: the microcosm, "inner space", a more virtual, ephemeral, and miniaturized instantiation of that which we have done before in more macroscopic and resource intensive ways.

This kind of transition is exactly what happened during the thousand year "Dark Ages" after the fall of the Roman empire. As any good history of technology will tell you, technological innovation continued to accelerate rather smoothly (both in Europe and globally), even as city sizes shrank and cultural repression and superstition set in at the scale of human social and political systems. The technological accelerations occurred in special subset of highly useful innovations, much more local and "culturally appropriate" for the times than the centralized engineering of the Roman era.

So it seems that a lot of technological acceleration always goes on "under the hood" of the engine, mostly hidden from our view, before it can develop enough sophistication to have a meaningful effect on human problems. But the central acceleration appears very real, and many physicists suspect it will continue as far into the future as we can currently see. So we might benefit a lot by studying these issues more closely. As a systems theorist, I suspect that comparing across systems/substrates/platforms will allow us to more easily see predictable developmental trends and to distinguish them from the typical unpredictable evolutionary change we see in most average samples of world events.

In sum, I feel that the best of today's professional futurists should be selectively making falsifiable predictions as part of their work, and then going back and analyzing their performance against reality. Only by doing this, and by continually educating themselves on the insights of modern science and technology, including the emerging paradigm of evolutionary development, can we better discover the zone of predictability, which includes not only physical law but various types of accelerating technological change.

While I don't expect to convince many professional futurists of this perspective in these early years of developmental future studies, the process of idea exchange on these topics with various futurist groups, such as the Association of Professional Futurists, has been very beneficial.

If you are also a strategic futurist, I recommend you participate in a least one professional community, and do your part to influence them as they continually reengineer their standards and process in search of better foresight and value for their clients.