Last year Facebook launched a virtual assistant. It was called Moneypenny after the secretary in the James Bond books. Yet again, a vision of the future was shaped by the past, possibly with a nod to Walt Disney’s Tomorrow Land in the 1950s. Is this sexist or just a natural outcome of the fact that more than two thirds of Facebook’s employees are men? Whatever the reason, the future is generally shaped by white, middle-aged, male Americans. The majority of the World Future Society’s members are white men aged 55 to 65 years of age and when it comes to the media’s go-to guys for discussing the future they’re men too. What this means is that visions of the future are overwhelmingly created by – and to some extent shaped for – a tiny slice of society, one that’s usually in some way employed in science or technology and has not had to struggle too much.
This is perhaps why technological advances usually define the future and why portrayals of the future are almost always optimistic scenarios in which technology will solve all of mankind’s problems. In the future, for example, we’ll all live far longer, which is fine if you have enough money, but less fine if you are already struggling to survive in the present.
Is this a problem? You bet it is. For one thing a lack of diversity in terms of the people imaging the future means that we are missing out on vast networks and frameworks of perspectives, experience and imagination. Second, by focussing on technology we are missing out on the social and emotional side, not to mention the politics of futurism. Scientists and technologists are essential to explore what’s possible in the future, but as Alvin and Heidi Toffler pointed out in their book Future Shock in the 1970s, we also need people from the arts and humanities to explore what’s preferable. We need ethical code alongside computer code. At the moment a tiny minority of people has hijacked the future – less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s population perhaps. What the remaining 99.9 per cent urgently need to do is reclaim it and especially add a softer and more human perspective to the discussion.