On the art, science and politics of predicting the future

How much control over our future do we really have? Perhaps more than we think, says Jordan Harper, CTO of Iris in London, who argues that we should be looking to the future, not the past, to escape the dystopian fears that are being caused by the present

I want to tell you a story about a man who I think is one of the most underappreciated people in the history of technology. Not because he invented a machine that changed the world, but because he’s given us a way of thinking about the future that may save us all.

Roy Amara was born in Boston in 1925. After graduating high school in 1942 he cut his engineering course short to serve in the US Navy during the Second World War. With the war over and having been honourably discharged, he finished his studies at MIT and completed a post-grad at Harvard, but his time in the Pacific Fleet had led to a love affair with California. It was this that led him, like many pioneers, to move west to find his destiny.

After a short stint as a high-school teacher, Amara joined the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), founded in 1946 as a non-profit think-tank set up as an R&D lab looking at the huge influx of new technologies that emerged in the wake of the war.

He spent 18 years at the SRI, which in that time invented the (computer) mouse, the idea of videoconferencing, and became one of the first nodes connected to ARPANET – the proto-internet developed to connect scientists and researchers across America.

By the late 1960s, it was clear that the world was struggling to keep-up with the pace of technological change. Society at large was becoming fearful of the direction that advancements and science and technology were taking us. From the mutually assured destruction of nuclear weapons and the close connection between technological advances and war, to conservative dismay at the sexual revolution sparked by the invention of the contraceptive pill. The latter half of the decade marked the end of a period of unabashed enthusiasm for science and technology, despite being capped by one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

It was at this time that Amara and a group of his contemporaries reasoned that fear is a natural reaction when our environment changes around us faster than we are able to adjust to it, and that when we’re afraid, we are at risk of adapting in destructive ways. Their belief was that the most effective way to prevent this was to give us the tools to plan for it, but to do that, we have to find a way to look into the future and try to work out where we’re going.