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From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the future

What will come after the pandemic ? An even worse plague? Or will we return to the path of development and technological advancement? Will the environmental catastrophe befall us each day closer? Or will something totally unexpected happen? Issues of this kind have plagued us since the lockdown began and come back to haunt us as new variants of the coronavirus appear and the horizon darkens.

Nothing is strange, uncertain situations have always given wings to the futuristic imagination . In ancient times, oracles and horoscopes sought to unravel what wars, droughts and comets that threatened to collide with Earth would bring. The Industrial Revolution brought with it transformations that spawned science fiction. Later, out of the fear of a nuclear holocaust, futurology would emerge.

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the future

The fragility of the present exposed by the pandemic has exacerbated concern for tomorrow

Ramón Ramos, professor at the Complutense specialized in sociology of time

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the future

Our troubled 21st century is not far behind. “The fragility of the present exposed by the pandemic has exacerbated concern for tomorrow,” Ramón Ramos , professor at the Complutense University specializing in the sociology of time, tells SINC.

Therefore, the exhibition The Great Imagination:   Stories of the future could not be more timely , inaugurated at the Espacio Fundación Telefónica in Madrid. The exhibition reviews the representations of tomorrow produced in the last 250 years and makes us reflect on the unknowns opened by current circumstances.

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the futureRepresentation of the Oracle of Delphi in a painting by Camilo Miola. / Google Arts

Archeology of future pasts

From the review of this archeology of the future past, the visitor draws some certainties. First: the history of the future is relatively short, beginning with the Enlightenment; second: each age imagines it in a way that is its own; and third: although we cannot predict with certainty what will come, we can inspire it and help it materialize.

The retrospective begins with the publication in 1771 of a description of Paris in the year 2440 written by the Frenchman Louis-Sébastien Mercier . Why that date? Because before it was thought that the future would be more or less the same as the known. Furthermore, it was believed to be predetermined, as if it already existed in the minds of the gods or was written in a sacred book that only a few could glimpse. Guessing tomorrow did not serve to modify it, but only to better adapt to the inevitable.

Industrial Revolution and French Revolution

On the tour we learned that everything changed with the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. It was realized that the past no longer served as a guide, since the days to come would be entirely new.

With the idea of ​​progress, we stopped believing that “everything in the past was better”, since happiness awaited us tomorrow. Reaching that happy future depended only on us, helped by technological advancement and progressive politics

Thanks to the idea of ​​progress, we stopped believing that “everything in the past was better”, since happiness awaited us tomorrow. Reaching that happy future was up to us alone, aided by technological advancement and progressive politics. The acceleration of capitalist society generated the need to anticipate the future through rational (prediction) or imaginative methods such as utopia, and speculations proliferated that quickly grew old.

Retrofuturism

The interest in obsolete futures is called retrofuturism, and the exhibition at Fundación Telefónica is an example of it. The first editions of Thomas More’s Utopia —the book that coined the term that would apply to any ideal society— are exhibited there, along with movie posters such as [ 19459014] Metropolis or Blade Runner , since in the 20th century cinema took over from literature as a generator of images of the future, with an emphasis on [ 19459002] dystopian visions that showed the other side of utopian promises.

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the futureSpanish edition of Utopia by Tomás Moro. / Telefónica Foundation

The retrofuturism reveals the awareness that the future is an imaginary construction, and, as such, conditioned by the ideology of its authors. As pointed out at the inauguration Pablo Gonzalo , responsible for Culture and Digital Knowledge of the Foundation, the prejudices are obvious in how they thought about the kitchen of tomorrow: their prodigious gadgets could vary, but “there was always a woman in charge.”

The distribution of housework was unthinkable and let’s not say homosexual marriage, of which there is not the slightest hint. A macho bias that the scenarios devised by feminism and by LGBT science fiction have begun to correct.

Most of the imagined worlds did not materialize, except for a small minority (trips to the Moon, for example). Pure causality? “No”, declares to SINC Jorge Camacho , the curator of the exhibition. “The futuristic imagination is very bad at predicting the future but very good at inspiring it. A current example is the metaverse development project .”

Camacho believes that “if after a few decades it becomes a reality, it will not be because Neal Stephenson predicted it, but because those determined to develop it were inspired by the stories of Stephenson and other authors”.

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the future

The futuristic imagination is very bad at predicting the future, but very good at inspiring it. A current example is the metaverse development project

Jorge Camacho, curator of the exhibition The Great Imagination: Stories of the Future

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the future

Catalog of Failed Predictions

With those exceptions aside, the bulk of past futures constitutes a catalog of failed predictions, which is disappointing for those who trust everything to prediction. “It happens that it is confused with prophecy and is believed in with unconditional faith,” warns Ramos. For this reason, futurology prefers “to talk about scenarios instead of predictions,” says Camacho.

A scenario is the description of a possible situation that may or may not occur and guides us to specify or reject it.

A sample is provided by the four archetypes represented in the exhibition. Conceived by the American John Dator, a ‘pope’ of the Future Studies , they outline alternative options for the year 2050.

The first of these archetypes is called [ 19459014] Continued growth: plus globalization , automation and economic development (the future advocated by politicians and large companies). The second is the Collapse: total crisis due to climate change , pandemics , giant meteorites; wars; economic ruin… The third is the Discipline : society imposes severe rules of consumption, production and ethics that make it sustainable and supportive. And the fourth is the Transformation : unforeseeable events suddenly disrupt globalization in a way that enables balanced development, social welfare and respect for ecosystems.

“The consensus of visitors is that these installations are very provocative, particularly the collapse scenario, and help them evoke desirable futures,” Camacho tells SINC. Precisely, one of the objectives of the exhibition is, in addition to promoting a reflection on the future, to encourage “an active and critical contribution in its construction process”.

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the futureA room in the exhibition The Great Imagination / Fundación Telefónica

Spanish Futures

It is clear that these are global scenarios conceived in the United States. But what about the Spanish? How do you imagine the future of your country? The exhibition offers a sample of how it was seen in 1908 with The Electric Home , a short of Segundo de Chomón about a hotel automated. Spain has not been on the sidelines of the history of the future, defends Javier Fernández Sebastián .

Although utopianism did not prosper under the Counter-Reformation, in the 19th century liberalism, anarchism and socialism defended the belief in a better future , and even a similar science fiction emerged about which Jules Verne and others wrote in more developed nations .

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the future

From the Transition, optimism in the ability to build the future became widespread; People thought that they would live better than their parents and that their children would in turn surpass them, but that confidence has lately diminished

Javier Callejo, sociologist at UNED

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the future

“The enlightened confidence that we can shape our future permeated mainly the Spanish elites, without disappearing the Christian idea that the future is a divine matter and that God will provide for good or for wrong”, explains to SINC Javier Callejo , a sociologist at the National University of Distance Education (UNED).

Callejo adds that “since the Transition, optimism in the ability to build the future became widespread. People thought that she would live better than her parents and that her children would in turn surpass her, but that confidence has lately diminished.

The studies carried out by the UNED researcher and his team reveal that, “after the 2012 crisis, Spaniards began to feel that the future was receding, although they did not lose hope, since they thought that, although It took them more years, in the end they would get a permanent job or buy a flat. And despite the difficulties on an individual level, they continued betting on a collective future”.

His recent research reveals a change: “Now they look at the future from a passive position, because they do not think that it depends on them, but on what the State, technology and scientists do,” he observes. “And for the first time we have detected a minority sector of the population that disbelieves in a collective or individual future. You are sure that the catastrophe is inevitable and you only wonder: when will it all end?

Futurological overload

Although the exhibition does not stand out, the profile of the “fortune guards” of the future has varied. For millennia, the shamans in the tribes, the palace astrologers, the religious prophets were in charge of probing it… They were joined in the Modern Age by utopists and scientists; then philosophers were added, followed by science fiction authors; and, finally, by the futurologists with Herman Kahn and Alvin Toffler at the helm. In short: the futuristic imagination has become less elitist.

In recent years the trend has taken a leap; now the pundits, epidemiologists, economists, politicians, advertisers, Internet users and large companies predict

In recent years, the trend has taken a leap. Now the commentators, epidemiologists, economists, politicians, advertisers, Internet users and large companies are predicting, since these, underlined Camacho at the inauguration, in addition to promoting dream worlds linked to new technologies, also “produce methodologies for study the future, such as strategic foresight ”.

But this kind of democratization, accelerated by the use of digital networks, has led to a host of scenarios, many of them contradictory. This generates a ‘futuristic overload’ that makes the horizon even more inscrutable. And despite the fiasco of many anticipations , the anxiety caused by uncertainty forces us to live as aware of them as the ancient Greeks of their oracles.

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the futureThe shock of the future a classic of futurology.

“The means of each society to probe the future can be magical or rational, but its psychological mechanism remains the same,” says Ramos.

In his opinion, “what has changed is that we do not consider computer simulations with the ingenuity with which our ancestors interpreted the flight of birds, in which they saw the infallible design of a god. We use anticipatory techniques that are exposed to failures, and knowing this causes us great confusion,” says the sociologist, who was also president of the Center for Sociological Research.

Culture of anticipation

The confusion takes place at a time when times are rushing. This is suggested by the concept of “Great Acceleration” thought by Nobel Prize in Chemistry, John Cruntzen : the transmission of the crazy rhythm of human activity to ecological dynamics, with the effect of speeding them up.

It is urgent to anticipate the consequences of this frenzy if we want to stop them, and that forces us to improve anticipatory methods and reduce the confusion caused by the sea of ​​forecasts, many of which deal with “the relationship of humanity with nature, in a range that goes from radical technological optimism to equally radical catastrophism”, points out Ramos.

With the futurological overload it happens similar to the misinformation . How to distinguish correctly prepared forecasts from mere expressions of wishes or paranoid despair?

According to Ramos, there are two ways of dealing with uncertain futures: “The first consists of training anticipatory thinking so that citizens acquire critical knowledge of predictive techniques, simulations, scenarios, Delphi panels, etc…”. This is, then, another facet of scientific literacy. The second, more practical, “is trust”, continues the Complutense professor.

“Most people, who do not have time to acquire that knowledge, trust those who inspire them most confidence; an option that entails the risk of adopting absurd forecasts from supposed experts”, points out Ramos.

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the future

The imagination and construction of the future is an eminently political issue. The question should always be: who has the ability to imagine futures and the power to build them?

Jorge Camacho

From oracles to pandemic predictions: a story of our obsession with the future

“Current social and political struggles are, ultimately, struggles over futures,” Ramos concludes. Along the same lines, Camacho adds: “The imagination and construction of the future is an eminently political issue. The question should always be: who has the ability to imagine futures and the power to build them?

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