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Are you a futurist?

You might be without even knowing it. Diversions hed: Are you a futurist? dek: you might be without even knowing it. by Michael Finley

A few years ago I started calling myself a futurist (as in “America’s best-loved futurist(tm)”) because the future was what I always found myself writing about–the horizon point where technology, management, and human nature all smack into each other.

But I’d probably have avoided a lot of misunderstandings if I had said instead that I was a journalist whose beat is the future. Because I personally have no idea what’s going to happen next. But that doesn’t stop at least one person per week stopping me and asking the gee-whiz question of the day. Last week’s was “Will we have solar-powered personal helicopters in the year 2020?”

Now when that happened, one part of me pondered what would happen when a solar-powered personal helicopter dipped behind a cloud. But another, better part of me had the handy answer: “How the hell should I know?”

There’s nothing new about futurists. There always have been peculiar people, like Nostradamus and Jules Verne, who peer into crystal balls and declare-they have to declare it; if they sound unsure, no one will buy the tabloid-what is going to happen to us all.

Some, like Verne, were uncanny in their ability to get a glimpse of what was to come, like nuclear submarines. Nostradamus’s predictions are really weird, because they can only be understood after something occurs that makes them seem roughly accurate.

Jeane Dixon was the bravest, because she flat-out predicted Jackie Kennedy would run off with Frank Sinatra in 1971. That either took guts, or the knowledge that no one’s keeping score on this stuff.

The truth is, as a journalist, I keep score of the predictions of some of the world’s smartest people, the authors and lecturers and megaconsultants who get paid millions every year to tell governments and corporations what’s coming down.

These are the people who can see around corners, know what is just around that bend in the river–people like Alvin Toffler and Michael Hammer and Lester Thurow. But I have to tell you, none of these bright beacons saw what was coming at us this past Sept. 11.

The only exception I have found is a book called “The Long Boom,” a prediction of an era of almost uninterruptible prosperity, by a trio of authors: Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network; Peter Leyden, formerly of Wired; and Joel Hyatt, the guy who used to do the rent-a-lawyer commercials on TV. They didn’t predict the attack, but they warned us pretty accurately of the threat to the Information Age by the Middle Ages. It is a clash that logically has to happen, unless these people want to walk meekly out of history like a circus clown sweeping up his spotlight.

The good news from “The Long Boom” is that the bitterness of these clashes is not enough to reverse the inevitability of global learning and democratization. If you could use a little happily-ever-after during these cold December nights, give the book a look.

Meantime, let me tell you what a friend and former teacher told me many years ago, just before she passed away. It was during the holidays, like now. She had been a mentor to me when I was young, helping me over one of the trying humps of youth. We both knew she was not long for this world. In my frustration, I told her I didn’t know what the future held for me without her guidance.

“Michael, old bean,” she said, looking up from a cup of cognac, “there is no ‘the future.’ There is only your future. And you can have almost any future you like. Just start living today as if it were true already. And when reality doesn’t mesh with the vision, stick with the vision.”

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