Though the term futurology originated in the 20th century, the concept of visionaries predicting the future goes back even further. Who were the most inspired futurologists and did they get it right?

Words Michel Cruz

Though the term futurology originated in the 20th century, the concept of visionaries predicting the future goes back even further. Who were the most inspired futurologists and did they get it right?

Words Michel Cruz

There were those, such as Nostradamus, who made cryptic predictions built upon visions received in dreams or discerned from other sources considered to be rather magical and mysterious. Futurology, on the other hand, is based on more rationalised ideas of how the world will evolve in the medium to long-term, and it has often been associated with science fiction, and formed the inspiration for it.

Futurology is by nature visual, as it involves painting an unfamiliar picture of the world we live in. Visionaries of this kind, who had the ability to look beyond their contemporary environment, imagined how mankind would develop, and this involved describing new technologies, future cities and homes, forms of transport, exploration and other advances. Jules Verne was perhaps the most visual of all, and one of the early pioneers of futurology.

The World Jules Verne Described

French author Jules Verne painted a very clear picture of a future world that had audiences in the 19th century transfixed. In his Voyages Extraordinaires adventure series – written from the 1860s to the early 20th century – he laid out the foundations of a world where technological advances would allow mankind to travel to the depths of the ocean (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea) in a sophisticated submarine, venture to the moon in a rocket (From the Earth to the Moon), live in A Floating City, explore the inner depths of the earth (Journey to the Center of the Earth), or travel Around the World in Eighty Days.

For millions around the world, it was the clarity of his futuristic visions that captured the imagination, accompanied by evocative illustrations which gave shape to his ideas. It was an imagined world of space rockets, submarines, floating cities, balloons and wondrous machines that opened up new dimensions to humanity. Jules Verne got it pretty much spot on, but how could he have envisaged so many things so well, writing in many cases 50 to 100 years before they actually became a reality? The answer lies in the visionary abilities of a futurologist, which rest not so much in mysterious visitations of the future, as in a power to analyse the present and project developments further ahead.

Leonardo da Vinci had done much of the same, drawings and all, but from the technical perspective of an inventor/engineer. His concepts for a moving fortress (tank), advanced pieces of artillery, helicopters and more have immortalised him as one of the greatest intellects of all time, and in many ways, he was one of the first true futurologists, even though only a handful of his outlandishly avant garde ideas actually made it off the drawing board. The mere idea of having ideas so far ahead of his time marks Da Vinci as a true genius and visionary.

H.G. Wells – Travelling In Time

By the turn of the 20th century, futurology had become an increasingly serious pastime among intellectuals, scientists and engineers. The previous century and a half had been characterised by rapid technological development, leading up to what is called The First Machine Age, an era in which machinery was notably impacting human society, life expectancy, travel and fast-evolving economies, paving the way for a level of prosperity not seen before. It is within this environment that Britain’s very own H.G. Wells explored the more distant future, maybe even as far ahead as 2023!

Like those before him, he foretold a world populated with tanks, aircraft, space exploration and devastating weapons of the kind we know as nuclear missiles. He even described something akin to satellite television and the Internet, not to mention biological engineering and aliens. At the birth of the 20th century, he wrote The First Men in the Moon, which came out shortly after The Invisible Man and The Time Machine, in which he showed great understanding in the origins and evolution of human societies. The War of the Worlds dealt with alien invasions from Mars, and in so doing became one of the earliest works of science fiction, and in The Shape of Things to Come, H.G. Wells penned a future history of the world that would end in 2106 – not so very far from now.

The Dystopian Visions Of George Orwell

If H.G. Wells was mostly hopeful of a good outcome for humanity in The Shape of Things to Come and not The Time Machine, then his fellow social and political thinker George Orwell wasn’t. Having lived through the experiences of the Spanish Civil War, followed by World War Two, this futurologist predicted a rather more sombre future. Even though he fought on the side of the Left in Spain, in the seminal book Animal Farm, he very neatly summed up the inherent failings of communism, or any similar system. It is, however, 1984 for which he is best known, and this work makes some very chilling reading in the present moment.

Now-famous terms such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘Thought Control’ and ‘Newspeak’ come from this novel, for which he drew inspiration from Hitler and Stalin’s regimes to outline a future technocratic dictatorship where citizens were monitored, recorded and controlled with the use of technology. If it sounds familiar that’s because there are already elements of our modern-day life which resemble those described in the book, and if you live in China anno 2023 then you would be tempted to think Xi Jinping resembles Big Brother – the omnipresent leader of dystopian 1984 who is always ‘watching you’. For your own good, of course…

From Science To Fiction… To Reality

In reality, science fiction was born in the late 19th century, but it became more popular as the 20th century progressed, reaching a fevered peak in the 1950s, when the future looked rosy and everything seemed possible. From children’s programmes such as Thunderbirds to Marvel’s many creations and the writings of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, the idea of a socially and technologically advanced utopian world in which people would fly to work, have robots (a phrase termed by Czech futurologist Karel Čapek) perform their menial tasks, and space travel would be an almost normal thing.

No specific timeframe was usually given, but surely by 2023 all the above would be a reality and life would be both sweet and easy. Gene Roddenberry, another celebrated futurologist, made his fame with the futuristic Star Trek series, which projected into a more distant future, while George Orwell believed his pessimistic visions would have become a reality by the mid-eighties, yet might only have been roughly half a century off. In futurology, it is not so much the accuracy of your timing, which is after all a guessing game, as the ability to accurately foretell trends both technical and scientific as well as societal and political.

Some writers and thinkers also predicted climate change, social trends, technologies and political developments with unnerving accuracy, and while hindsight is a deceptive tool in analysing the true futuristic vision of claims made many decades before, it cannot be denied that some people just have an almost otherworldly ability to get it right. Take Alvin Toffler, who in his focus on future technologies divined the digital and communications revolutions, complete with the now-familiar concept of ‘information overload’. In a similar fashion to George Orwell, Aldous Huxley pencilled a dystopian control state in Brave New World, a term that like many other futuristic descriptions has become part of our modern vocabulary.

Even if your positive outlook on life rejects the negative predictions of Aldous Huxley, his early recognition of such features as sleep learning and psychological conditioning place him well ahead of his time. The fact that it takes all kinds of futurologists to cast light on the future is shown by the visionary architect and industrial designer, R. Buckminster Fuller, who took the avant-garde notions of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier a step further to come up with truly sci-fi designs that were fifty to one hundred years ahead of the curve. The futurologists of the past decades and centuries have predicted many details and scientific inventions with uncanny accuracy, but the big question is: is the world of today, and tomorrow, as they predicted?

In futurology, as in most things, there seems to be several schools of thought, with a prominently positive and a prominently pessimistic leaning. Looking at the world in the 1960s, the enthusiastic vision of the future might have been considered the more likely one to have won out, but in the present climate one is tempted to accredit the pessimists with having got it right.

No-one knows exactly what the future will bring, but there are those among us with the capacity to look around them, analyse what is going on and create a picture of what might very well lie ahead. Some use these talents to predict consumer, economic or marketing trends, while others turn to science, fiction or even warnings of what lies in store if we don’t guard our freedoms. In all cases, it serves us well to pay heed to their predictions.