Speculation about how society will change in the future is a relatively modern idea. Two hundred years age, people didn't contemplate much beyond whether crops would fail or taxes would go up in the year ahead. Life was static and progress an unfamiliar concept. Futurology, the study of the future bused on current trends, traces its roots to the Cold War era, when fear of war and destruction occupied the collective American consciousness.
Not surprisingly, early futurology had an alarmist ring. Government-funded scientists carried out mathematical analyses about how quickly the Soviets would develop new weapons of various sorts, while the Rand Corporation hired military strategist Herman Kahn to predict whether a nuclear war could be won-leading Kahn to contribute to the vernacular the infamous expression “mutual assured destruction.”
But futurology was poised for wider appeal. In 1970 Alvin Toffler published Future Shock, a book about how rapid waves of change were overwhelming Americans, leaving them in a state of “shattered stress and disorientation.” The book flew off the shelves. With a bestseller on the charts, futurology had come of age. Sixty thousand new recruits flocked to the World Future Society (WFS), and futurology departments opened at universities across the country.
A decade later, Toffler's The Wave foretold widespread societal changes based on information technology. The threshold of the new millennium loomed large, a golden age that would usher in new values and looser social structures.
Ironically, however, the arrival of the new millennium has quelled interest in the future. In this age of terrorism and economic gloom, the optimism that marked futurology at the close of the twentieth century rings hollow. WFS membership has plunged, and futurology departments have shut their doors. Toffler hasn't had a best seller in over a decade, and no futurologist of equal stature has appeared.
“There used to be a real sense of the future in society, and what we should de about it,” says Michael Marien, editor of Future Survey. But that was then. “Futurology never developed,” Marien says, “lt never fulfilled its promise.”