Commodified futurism

By Robert Hickson 13/11/2015


An article by Lee Billings in the September edition of Nautilus caught my attention this week. While it looked at some of the forgotten work of Polish science fiction writer and philosopher Stanislaw Lem (someone I haven’t, yet, read), what struck me most was Billings’ phrase “commodified futurism”. He applied this to “Silicon Valley billionaires”, and meant those seeking to profit from investments in new gadgets and “disruptive innovation”. That is, those wanting to make a quick buck from technical fixes, rather than addressing important problems.

Others have made similar points about the fear of missing out mentality, and the narrow view of many inhabitants around San Jose, CA.

I see other ways in which futures can be commodified (in the sense of undifferentiated or low value products). Such as the regular publishing of trend (or more commonly now, “mega-trend”) reports that recycle the same information, and  environmental scans or scenarios that who may excitedly open but are a disappointment.

I’m not against selling foresight services for profit. But commodities only have value to the recipient if they give them something they didn’t have before, and it is of use to them. Even better if they can use it to create something of greater “value” (social, environmental, economic, or otherwise).

A problem for many futures “products” is that they can be of poor quality (such as lacking novelty, or not being sufficiently challenging to current assumptions or knowledge), or they can’t be used to inform strategic decisions. Consequently, the buyer gets no real value.

On the other side, someone who view futures or foresight as a commodity that is readily acquired and easy to use may expect an immediate “return on investment” rather than seeing it as something they have to work on and with themselves to derive longer-term benefits.

These risks are potentially an issue in New Zealand where, relative to other countries that we compare ourselves with, we haven’t developed a sophisticated appreciation of that longer term view.

As I noted in my previous post, I hope that is starting to change.

So I was disappointed to read the article on and short presentation by Thomas Frey from the Da Vinci Institute (“speaking with the agriculture sector and government agencies in Wellington”) was all about predicting the futures. I’ve written previously of my views on silly future job titles.

Hopefully, there is more sophistication in what he talks to his audiences about, and that his being brought here will stimulate them to consider possible and potential futures more actively, broadly and critically. There are good people already in New Zealand who can help with that.

As we see in our economic world, relying on commodities doesn’t usually help us in the long term.