Interview: Amy Zalman

“There has been a global epiphany about future thinking,” says Dr Amy Zalman. “I cannot imagine that it is satisfying for a futurist today to merely present a scenario of what the world will look like tomorrow. The subject or object of what we do is the future. But our actions are in the present.” Zalman calls this ‘now futurism’ and the need for it, according to the new CEO and president of the World Future Society (WFS), “is immense”.

Before Zalman discusses what her new role entails, she’s keen to outline what the WFS does. “It’s the oldest and largest membership organisation in the world for people to explore the future. Its main mission is to ignite the exchange of ideas about the future among experts and laypeople.”

It is by her own frank admission a complicated plane to fly, due to the sheer volume of complex parts. But at its root, what makes her organisation function is that “at its best, is its close-core network, broadening out to a significantly more numerous wider network of interested people globally who want to do futures thinking better. I want to share what they are discussing so that decision-makers will be able to shape better futures”.

One of the stated aims of the society is to advance the best ideas for ‘desirable futures’. It follows that the first thing I want to ask only the third president of the WFS in its 60-year history, is how to define what is desirable. “I don’t think it is for me to decide what a desirable future is. But, there is fairly wide consensus, across different geographical regions of the globe, across professions and constituencies that a desirable future is one where humans thrive, have their needs met, are fulfilled and autonomous. In a civic sense, it means that societies get to do the same. There are a lot of competing and even conflicting ideas about what that really looks like.”

Zalman develops the thought by stating that although advances can be made through the development of technology in areas such as health, comms, transport, environmental protection, space exploration, there’s some important methodology to be thought through first. “I understand why people want to go straight to the technology. But it’s hard to answer that without first looking at some of the philosophy behind this. First is the development of the technology itself and its capacity to deliver, for example, heath services and transport more effectively. Then there is what we decide to do with that technology.” It’s not possible to take the human decision making out of how we apply it, she says.

According to Zalman, professional futurists make it their daily business to “develop scenarios where they posit those possible worlds in which technology makes our surroundings and systems substantially different. These scenarios are foreign countries to most of us: we don’t know how to live in them”. The futurist is there to “make them vivid” which, according to the theory that underpins the thinking of the WFS, “should be an aid to decision makers in the present about how to legislate for and make decisions about a technologically sound future. A lot of this stuff – unmanned transport, robotics – is neutral, and you can do many things with them. But you also have to choose how you regulate them in society and how to interact with them”.

“Will we have augmented bodies? Probably. But the question is how to figure out who and what to augment. How will we make those decisions? It’s hard to answer the technological question without looking at the philosophy first.”

Zalman, who prefers the term ‘futurism’ to ‘futurology’, says that one technology that has enabled the WFS to gain traction has been the ubiquity of social media as an amplifier for what we do. But, social media raises an interesting point about how we legislate the future of technology. “How far do we want this to go? On the one hand it provides a fantastic vehicle for disseminating information of real worth such as meteorological data, while on the other hand it allows people to broadcast that they are having an extra-marital affair on Facebook.”

The development of a more robust and engaging social media presence will play a key role in the cultivation of newcomers to the WFS, from business and industry, global experts, and a younger generation of futurists. To fully engage the diversity of these members within the framework of WFS, Zalman will establish specialised schools of thought, or ‘hubs,’ as a means for futurists to “convene across a myriad of vertical markets”.

Erosion of privacy

According to Zalman “we live in a world of complex adaptive environments”, one of the most important of which is the Internet. “And when it comes to this space, one of the key concerns is privacy.” Zalman starts by introducing the term ‘selfhood’ in a historical context. “When I think about privacy I am tempted to think of my grandmother who is not that far away in either time or space. She had nothing in terms of privacy as we think of it today. And no Internet. She had 11 brothers and sisters and grew up in a room with five kids. The current notion of privacy is actually a new, middle class, bourgeois idea that has evolved in perhaps the past 200 years.”

It follows for Zalman that it is reasonable that our notion of privacy with respect to the self “could change. But if you are talking about government and its role in surveillance, or in commercial applications, then these are interesting areas too. There are already experiments in what is called telepathic marketing. The outdoor equipment company North Face is working on this”. An early version of this is already part of our daily lives in the form of dynamic marketing software. What this does is make available data about what you have browsed on (say) Amazon, so that similar products can be marketed to you on (say) ESPN Cricinfo. The problem is that, because it is in its infancy, should you have made a casual enquiry into buying a bird table online as a gift (which is likely to be a one-off purchase) you’ll end up being bombarded with adverts for more similar products for what seems like an eternity after you’ve disengaged from the purchasing cycle. If you’ve ever tried to refine your recommendations on large retail websites you will know how frustrating dynamic marketing can be.

“This is an interesting, provocative and in some respects dangerous space to be in,” says Zalman. She says that even if we can put aside our own feelings about whether we are private individuals or not “the capacity of governments and organisations to enter our space and have influence over us is possible. Steps taken towards creating a desirable future are raising awareness of this. At the moment it is not clear that people are fully aware of what is happening here”.

Futurists tend to keep clear of futurology. Their market is assisting to make decisions about desirable futures, while futurologists, to Zalman at least, predict what happens. “This is what Amazon is doing when they tell me what book I want to read next, or Netflix tells me what movie I should watch next based on what I’m doing at the time. And this is going to come at us hard and fast over the next few years and shouldn’t be confused with what futurists do. It’s an interesting space because Netflix and Amazon are not just reflecting back to you your desires – they’re actually helping to shape them. That is the ultimate definition of marketing: they’re creating a market in you as an individual.”

Neutrality is the key

Long time supporter and member of WFS, Zalman is well-known as an original thinker on national security strategy in the digital age and strategic behaviour on “an evolving global landscape”. Zalman sees her new role as that of ‘connector’, orchestrating exchanges of ideas in disciplines including climate, environment, innovation, education, public sector foresight and the arts.

“The World Future Society built an enduring and impressive brand around their mission to serve as a neutral clearinghouse of ideas on the future among both experts and laypeople,” says Zalman, who goes on to describe her mission as “to build on that strong foundation, to cultivate an organisation that ignites the world’s most dynamic ideas about the future, based on our core values of neutrality, imagination, and expertise”. It is these core values that have allowed the organisation to develop a reputation as an unbiased forum for applying anticipatory thinking: “we’re creating solutions for tomorrow’s problems.”

Zalman has experience in identifying leaders and influencers in markets that range from military and national security, to media and communications. Previously, she was the Department of Defense chair of information integration and a professor of strategic studies at the National War College in Washington DC, educating future leaders of the armed forces, State Department, and other civilian agencies in national security policy and strategy. Prior to that, she worked at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC, now Leidos), a Washington DC-based science and technology firm, where she developed new market strategies and basic research projects in the government strategic communications sector.

Wider reach of social media

“If people are foolish enough to post on Facebook things that they’ll later regret, then the question is, who are we to step in?” But on the other hand, says Zalman, “I have just come from the world of national security where one of the deepest concerns from the past ten years was the capacity of groups and individuals that are – at least from the point of view of the United States – adversaries, to use social media to far greater effect than the US government was capable of”.

The reason small interest groups can harness social media in a way in which monolithic organisations simply can’t, is due to inherent asymmetries in the system. “A country such as the United States or the United Kingdom is bound by a lot of legislation governing the ways in which people can use social media. For example, soldiers are not allowed to blog and yet adversaries can, because there isn’t much civil legislation that applies to them in a meaningful way.” For confirmation of how this can work against bigger organisations Zalman points to what she calls ‘Twitter revolutions’ such as the overthrow of the Egyptian political and military leader Hosni Mubarak. While Mubarak used state-sponsored television to broadcast his message, those protesting used new media to promote their social movement. Grass roots political protests in Moldova, Iran, Tunisia and Ukraine have evolved the same way.

Zalman agrees that there are “various ways of looking at these events as desirable futures. For many, a desirable future is simply to step into a technological utopia. But in reality we live in a complex adaptive environment. What that means is that people who think about technological futures and want to do something about them make incremental changes. And so there is incremental legislation toward what we want, which might be a more open and transparent society, or a greater capacity for individuals to express themselves, or for a reduced capacity for dangerous ideas to float throughout international communications circuits. I don’t think there’s a giant leap by which this can be achieved. But I do think that we need to make sense of what is happening now in order to make sense of an evolving technological landscape”.

The main strength of the WFS, as Zalman repeatedly stresses, is that it is a “network of networks, home to a professional community and others who have a stake in the future”. The people who make up the network make a living out of, or have a professional stake in, the future. But it can be an uphill struggle to be taken seriously in what Zalman calls “an embattled space”. A woman of bright outlook and clearly capable of taking a joke at her own expense, she wonders half seriously “why people treat us like magicians? People think that we make predictions, but we don’t. It’s our job to find out ways of explaining what we do. When you think about it, the WFS was formed back in the 1960s partly in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat of nuclear holocaust and the need to get discussions about the future of the world on the table”.