Sunday, August 23, 2009


What follows is basically a combination of two pieces from 1975 and 1976, both about the then-booming field of studying the future. The first—reflecting several drafts—was a piece I reported and wrote for New Times magazine. It was never published, victim in part of my editor leaving the staff. His name was Frank Rich, future columnist for the New York Times, and before that its drama critic.

In 1975 he was an editor for this new national magazine called New Times, and he wrote its film reviews. He left to become the film critic for Time magazine. Before he left, he did some editing on one draft that I have, so some of what I present here reflects his edits. Before and after this, New Times published other articles I wrote, including "The Malling of America."

Only pieces of other drafts of this piece survive, including material I added after attending the 1975 World Future Society convention in Washington. That convention had its elements of drama, which I wrote about in a piece the next year, published in a fledgling alternative weekly called Washington Newsworks. I was its editor at the time, so getting this published was easier. That 1976 article focused more on Washington, and reported both on that WFS convention and its aftermath a year later. There’s less of this piece included here, partly because I cannibalized this New Times material for that article. I’ve made my own new edits, trying to balance relevance and historical record. It was a fascinating period.

Though this field has much less cache in the early 21st century, many of its characteristics are the same, including incipient problems I noted in the 70s, such as the lack of diversity in its practitioners (it is still criticized for lacking enough women and non-white leaders and participants, and various political, technological and national biases. Still, photos from the 2008 World Future Society convention show a lot more female and minority faces.) One place self-described futurists have flourished in the years since is the corporate world.

Also I note that after more than 30 years, they still haven’t settled on what to call themselves or their field: futurism, futuristics, futurology, futures studies and other variations are still at war (as recently as the debate in 2009 on Wikipedia.) Except for the clearly academic field of futures studies, I’m personally settling on futurism, even at the risk of offending the memory of my long lost uncle Gino Severini, founding member of the early 20th century Italian art movement called Futurism. I think the capital letter is good enough to distinguish them.

In reading this material now, I have a few impressions and updates. I wrote about the dramatic events surrounding Hazel Henderson at the 1975 World Future Society convention, and how she was basically pulled out of the crowd (at least from my perspective) to become the convention’s star. What I didn’t say—perhaps in deference to the reigning sensibilities of the publications I was writing for—is that besides being intelligent and articulate, she was also tall, blond, charming and convivial, which definitely enhanced her stardom. I had some correspondence with her for a few years after that. She’s since published several books and is a legend still actively working the futures field, although probably no one calls it that much anymore.

Apart from Senator Ted Kennedy, you might note that a Governor Carter of Georgia is mentioned as a futurism backer. Not much more than a year later he would be elected President. Another political figure I recall UMass at Amherst futurists talking about was a young conservative congressman named Newt Gingrich, who was interested in futurism. I recall mentioning him in earlier and now absent drafts.

While noting that a lot of major issues of the mid-70s remain the same as the first decade of the 21st century ends, some may feel comforted that the apocalypse didn't come. I don't think that invalidates these concerns. I'm reminded of the title of a book about the decline of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, after many warnings were dismissed as "crying wolf." The book was called And the Wolf Finally Came.

My own interest in the future as a topic did not begin with these articles, nor did it end there. I’m still writing about it in 2009, so for me in particular it’s worth revisiting the future’s past... Which suggests this final warning: the present tense ("is," etc.) in the following posts dated today is located in 1975-76.