On Nowism


More than a few times recently I've heard people describe themselves as "nowists" or "presentists," mainly in discussions about the role and perceived value of futures and futurists in solving imminent problems we face as societies and as a planet.  At an event last year, John Thackara described himself (rhetorically, I believe) as a "presentist," setting up a contrast to my description of my work as a futurist in the talk immediately preceding John's concluding remarks.

John's was a humorous poke, but also an interesting way of expressing the need to  focus on immediate challenges rather than pursue what many see as futurists' propensity to constantly point us forward, invoking growth, change and (shudder) progress for their own sake. I took John to say that we're needed here, now, not just speculating about what might happen. I agree. More on that below.

Shortly after, at a tech event in Cambridge, MA, MIT Media Lab head Joi Ito took the stage to say

“I don’t really believe in futurists. I don’t believe in the ability of people to predict the future that well. We usually get it wrong.”

Ito continued:

“I’m a now-ist,” he said.” Now-ists “don’t think about trends. We think about being resilient and being prepared for anything.”

Ito's example of bad foresight is emergency planning in Japan, which was shown to be inadequate in the face of a triple disaster of catastrophic earthquake, unprecedented tsunami and subsequent failure of safety protocols at the Fukushima nuclear plant. He stressed agility over brittle kinds of forward planning, which is hard to disagree with, though one faulty disaster management plan hardly a massive foresight failure makes. Nor does looking forward preclude dealing effectively with the now. Done well, prospective thinking should enhance our ability to address both the near and the now. 

And now comes Douglas Rushkoff's new book, Present Shock, and subsequent PR push to support it. He was kind enough to author a piece in GOOD titled "Why Futurists Suck: The Real Promise of the Digital Age," also taking a "nowist" position:

"And that’s when I started to hate futurists. Here we were already in possession of the things we needed to break free of the corrupting cycles of corporate culture—and yet we were now supposed to see them as the basis for a whole new stage of venture capitalism. All a company needed to do is hire one of the TED-talk-like digital luminaries to imagine a new scenario through which the same old banks and corporations could keep on growing."

This sheds a bit more light on what "nowism" apparently represents: a backlash against foresight as a co-opted tool of capitalism, a call for growth for growth's sake, for endless progress and a constant embrace of the new—a kind of Manifest Destiny. It's a kind of future-fatigue that kicks back against the constant flashing of *NEW AND IMPROVED*.

Fair enough. I think many can buy into the position that economies based on perpetual growth are problematic: they assume infinite resources and position people solely as consumers and users—wallets with hands. We should not only question this, but actively search for other models. 

What does worry me is "nowism" becoming not only a lazy rhetorical device, but worse, a kind of reactionary conservatism that spurns change and progress, believing change can only end in depersonalized dystopia. I don't believe that, and I don't think anyone I take seriously in foresight does either. In fact, we do our work precisely to uncover new options and opportunities, and to actively explore the benefits, liabilities, implications and possible unintended consequences. Change involves newness, and new is not the enemy of now.  

I can't think of anything more brittle than burrowing into the now as a kind of Golden Hour. John's point is correct—let's not get so distracted with later that we neglect the existential crises we face in the present. It takes some skill and creativity to both start now and think about what's next. But I think we're up to the task.

[Ed: Rushoff subsequently posted this piece apologizing for his broadbrush putdown of futurists.]