Becoming an accidental futurist

People sometimes ask me how I became a futurist.  It’s a flattering question, and the answer is a bit messy.

I haven’t written about it before, so I’ll share the story now.  Maybe this will be historically useful for showing one odd path into the futures business.

Let’s begin with modern times and a professional transformation.

During 2002-2013 I stopped being a professor and instead worked for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE).  That was a nonprofit that helped small, private, undergraduate campuses grapple with new technologies.  I focused on exploring and applying emerging technologies (mobile! Web 2.0! gaming! the open source LMS! ah, a different era) through research, workshops, talks, writing, and so on.

Over time two things occurred in that work which drove me into futuring.  First, it became simply too limiting and outright impractical to only focus on technology.  To understand the connection of education and technology I needed to explore patterns of institutional change, higher education finance, conflicting models of education’s purpose, the transformation of the professoriate, changes to literacy, digital literacy and more.  All kinds of domains came into play: sociology, economics, information science, etc.  Gradually futures work emerged for me as the best framework for situating and understanding the developing connection between education and technology.  Once I realized that, so much snapped into focus.

(The futures profession is fascinating sociologically and in terms of modern history.  It’s a very small world, but one with an awful lot of intellectual activity in a very short time.  It has multiple methods, schools, and approaches. Most people don’t see this.)

Second, I discovered a reframing technique which is nearly a language hack.  If I began a talk or meeting or workshop with the word “technology” certain reactions became predictable.  Some faculty and staff would immediately disengage, seeing tech as wholly under the responsibility of campus IT.  Others considered technology to not be a worthy intellectual topic, deeming it along the lines of campus electricity and water supplies.  Still other professors and staff would resist at once, putting up their shoulders and muttering about being Luddites.  I could see audiences disengaging and slipping away.

buy diflucan online buy diflucan no prescription generic

But if I replaced the word “technology” with the phrase “the future of education”, everyone would be interested.  That’s a topic which every person in education is keen on.

buy nolvadex online buy nolvadex no prescription generic

  And under that header we could talk much more effectively and productively about technology (and other things).  Even the soi-disant Luddites would participate without kneejerk opposition.

APF LogoSo I built on that shift to futures work.  I dove into the forecasting field, learning how to create scenarios, track trends, scan horizons, and build futures markets.  I immersed myself in the futures profession, reading the literature, participating in online discussions, joining a professional society, presenting to futures conferences.  I applied futures methods, assessed their efficacy, sought feedback, and improved.

My NITLE work got better, more effective, and more interesting to wider audiences.  In fact, requests for my services soon came in from institutions beyond NITLE’s remit: community colleges, research universities, military campuses, and schools from around the world.  A futures business began to take shape.

So moving into the futures world became the basis for my business, and for my career.

I hadn’t trained for that in the usual way.  I didn’t attend the University of Houston’s excellent foresight graduate program.  Instead my graduate work (MA, PhD) was in English literature (the long eighteenth century; Gothic lit) and composition.  My undergrad was in history, a field that often strongly opposes futuring.  So how could I make this professional shift in a serious way?

The answer really stems from my childhood, and a taste/mental habit I learned then: a love for science fiction.

I was born in 1967, and grew up reading as much sf as I could get my hands on: Golden Age, young adult, New Wave (American and British), space opera, time travel, you name it.  My mind was fired with thoughts of space travel, of course, and of sciences and technologies to come.  I also saw a transformed social world ahead.  Yes, the human race would think of itself as a species, rather than as a cluster of nations, and we’d be much more serious about ecology.  Gender equality was coming, and probably through widespread androgyny.  New forms of marriage, new body types, new relationships, religions, social arrangements all arrayed themselves in my preteen mind.

spaceship by erp_wyatt

I also became aware of how predictions could misfire, as I read older books and textbooks with incorrect visions of the future that I was growing up in.  That was when I first realized the present was often someone else’s future gone astray.  I was thinking pretty hard about the futuring business, without knowing it.

By age 10 I knew the future would be seriously different from the present.  I’d taught myself an unusual curriculum, and accidentally prepared myself well for the 21st century.  Not in terms of specific events or technologies (insert here a deep sigh for human spaceflight), but by adopting a mental stance in favor of the new, the different, and the strange.  Not in terms of technology, but by thinking of the world as a complex system with many interconnected and changing domains.  I remember reading into Future Shock (Alvin Toffler, 1970) and laughing cruelly at the thought that anyone could be unprepared or dangerously thoughtless about an onrushing future.

As a teenager I moved away from this to a degree.  I was 13 when Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, and so my future visions turned towards the degraded, the desperate, and the apocalyptic.  At the same time the social toll of being an eccentric proto-futurist grew strong enough to depress me into isolation and self-loathing.  I learned coding – BASIC, FORTRAN, COBOL, even a bit of assembler – but set it all aside in years of self-doubt.  Science fiction remained in my mind and before my eyes throughout, always offering new possibilities.

buy fluoxetine online buy fluoxetine no prescription generic

  I kept reading sf, fervently hoping for future different from and better than a repulsive present, terrified by what seemed likely to transpire.

(To this day, I find myself horrified by anyone who looks back fondly on their junior high/middle school and high school years.)

Some other time I’ll write about how going away to university saved my life and rebooted my brain.  The key detail here is how I started studying science fiction with the very great teacher and  scholar Eric Rabkin.  As my studies turned towards literature and the profession thereof, as I moved from undergrad to master’s then PhD, Eric’s deep love for and uncanny perception of sf’s full range and complexity was one of the greatest forces shaping my career.  As I read extensively in political science, then history, then literature, Eric held out science fiction’s gleaming road forward.

Becoming a graduate student, preparing to become a professor, studying literary history and historicist methods, I gradually turned back to the future.  Through a futures orientation I saw new ways forward for learning, for literature, for my students.  I returned to technology in the 1990s, glimpsing in it a transformation for the whole enterprise of education.   Infusing this spirit into my professional work, I won a professorial position.  Years later this unusual spirit caught the eye of people working for a nonprofit called the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education… and now we’re back to where I started this post.

It would take some years for them to germinate, but the seeds for a futurist’s career were deeply sown from my childhood on.  The futures path was one of those accidental, shambling, stumbling vectors that seems unlikely or invisible until it’s been traversed, and then we can only marvel it took us so long to see what was before us the entire time.

buy flagyl online buy flagyl no prescription generic

(spaceship image by erp_wyatt)

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
This entry was posted in personal. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Becoming an accidental futurist

  1. Bildungserzählung? An interesting exercise.

    I think of my futurist interest as a sideline — or perhaps branching out, less subsumed into education. Science fiction reading is a common factor and will, I suspect, be the case among likely foecasters. Unbridled curiosity is another.

  2. Roxann D Riskin says:

    Reading your timeline definitely makes me ponder past events that helped shape us! I’m favoring this eloquent, and profoundly academic 🙂 part where you wrote, “I applied futures methods, assessed their efficacy, sought feedback, and improved.”
    I think the feedback part is sometimes what helps sustains us presently, in some optimistic, Ray Kurzweiian way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *