The crystal balls turn cloudy

Observations on futurology

The future's so bright, I had to wear shades. Just outside Nice, in the gated luxury of the Cote d'Azur, I joined a small group of futurologists, meeting under the auspices of the Global Future Forum, to peer collectively into the middle distance. We were helped by blazing hot weather, a ready supply of fine food, and an open-air swimming pool.

But futurology is a bastard discipline. At its best, it can offer an exciting synthesis of various debates about technology and society and, by bringing together hidden trends within different academic subjects, a useful corrective to the deadening over-specialisation of university departments.

Built into futurology, however, is a tendency to exaggerate the shock of the new: it helps to drum up business. Most irritating is the mantra that we live in an era of constantly accelerating change, which is an entirely fallacious claim. The public has become sceptical because previous soothsayers' promises failed to materialise. A survey a couple of years ago, for example, found Britons disappointed with the rate of technological advance. At the age of 15, one in three had imagined that robots would be doing the household chores by the turn of the millennium and half had banked on scientists discovering a cure for cancer. Almost one in five had been led to believe that they would be driving around in flying cars. They were not at all happy to be still stuck in traffic jams.

Not that futurologists are daunted. The World Future Society, based in the US, still doles out predictions on everything from climate change to e-commerce: it boasts 30,000 members and a widely respected bimonthly publication, the Futurist. The University of Houston in Texas offers a degree in "futures studies".

Just recently, however, the futurological community has been feeling the pinch. The deepening recession - which few futurists managed to predict - has led many companies to give the soothsayers the boot. The backlash has found its way into the culture. Recent print advertisements for BT poked fun at CEOs who would rather spend money on stargazers than invest in information technology. TV shows such as the animated Futurama implicitly satirise the idea that the future will be all that different from what we already know. A Master's degree in "foresight and future studies" at Leeds Metropolitan University has been scrapped, presumably due to lack of interest. Even the BBC's Tomorrow's World has been axed as a "dated format".

At Nice, it was evident that futurology has eaten much humble pie since the heady days of the 1990s. Predictions were hedged with myriad qualifiers, and offered without any solid time-frame. More disturbing still was the obsession with national security in the wake of 9/11 and the war on Iraq. John Petersen, founder of the Arlington Institute in the US and an expert in planning for future "wild cards", spoke of stunning advances in facial recognition, voice identification and biomedical matching technologies. It will, he says, soon be possible to distinguish one person's gait from another's and use that to create a digital signature - and, doubtless, to spot a dodgy Arab at a hundred paces. It would be easy to write this off as the work of a crank - except that Petersen doubles as a consultant to the Pentagon, and came fresh from delivering an address at the US State Department.

As if they didn't have enough cause for gloom, many at Nice worried over Europe's apparent need for 47 million new immigrants by the year 2050 in order to replenish its workforce and offset its rapidly ageing society. One technology geek helpfully piped up to suggest that he build 47 million robots instead. "And I'm sure," the former editor of Marxism Today Martin Jacques shot back, "that they'll make very convivial company."