Futurism’s Cultural Blindspot

There’s a thought-provoking article in the recent issue of Nautilus on futurism’s blindspot: culture. The author argues that our “innovation-obsessed present” conditions us

to overstate the impact of technology not only in the future, but also the present. We tend to imagine we are living in a world that could scarcely have been imagined a few decades ago. It is not uncommon to read assertions like: “Someone would have been unable at the beginning of the 20th century to even dream of what transportation would look like a half a century later.” And yet zeppelins were flying in 1900; a year before, in New York City, the first pedestrian had already been killed by an automobile. Was the notion of air travel, or the thought that the car was going to change life on the street, really so beyond envisioning—or is it merely the chauvinism of the present, peering with faint condescension at our hopelessly primitive predecessors?

…We expect more change than actually happens in the future because we imagine our lives have changed more than they actually have.

I think this point about technology is debatable. However, the main thesis is that “Ideas, not technology, have driven the biggest historical changes. When technology changes people, it is often not in the ways one might expect:

…Why is cultural change so hard to predict? For one, we have long tended to forget that itdoes change. Status quo bias reigns. “Until recently, culture explained why things stayed the same, not why they changed,” notes the sociologist Kieran Healy. “Understood as a monolithic block of passively internalized norms transmitted by socialization and canonized by tradition, culture was normally seen as inhibiting individuals.”

In other words, “when it comes to culture we tend to believe not that the future will be very different than the present day, but that it will be roughly the same. Try to imagine yourself at some future date. Where do you imagine you will be living? What will you be wearing? What music will you love?”

Predicting the behaviors and ideas of the future are far more difficult than predicting the technology.