Facing the Future

books & arts

John Urry. 2016. What is the Future? Malden, MA: Polity Press. 226 pages.

One of the greatest rewards of reading John Urry’s latest and, unfortunately, last solo-authored book, is that it so vividly reflects the kinds of concerns and commitments that led him to become one of the most influential sociologists of the past half century. In What is the Future? Urry pursues three agendas. First, he seeks to provide an empirical study of the way social actors and institutions imagine, make and contest the future across different domains of human activity. Second, he wants to “reclaim the terrain of future studies” for the social sciences and offer a theoretical perspective for analyzing the complexity and contingency of future worlds. Last, this is a work of critical sociology. Urry argues that the social sciences can and should play a central role in “democratizing” futures and interrogating the consequences that future visions have on peoples’ lives in the present. Given its scope and ambition, Urry’s book will be of interest to a wide readership, academic and otherwise, that is grappling with the most urgent of questions: how can we face the future?

Urry begins the book by noting that “futures are now everywhere,” having become “a central concern for almost all organizations and societies.” While he readily concedes that premodern societies were also interested in knowing what lay ahead, and relied upon a cadre of experts and texts to do so, he contends that prior to modernity the future was largely understood to be fated, rather than fabricated by human beings. This shift in sensibility, or as he refers to it, “time regimes,” has had profound consequences for modern social life. Today, the desire to mold the future can be gleaned in projects as varied as environmentalism, finance and risk speculation, urban planning, marketing, transhumanism and political polling, to name but a few.

Such attempts to shape the future are inextricably bound with questions of power. Urry not only encourages social scientists to ask “who or what owns the future?” — a question that inspired the title of Jaron Lanier’s trenchant critique of digital networks and the information economy — he also points out that the capacity to own futures has become central to the way power works in contemporary societies. Indeed, part of what makes Urry’s foray into future studies so robust is precisely his ability to anchor his discussion to perennial issues within the social sciences. Throughout the text, he tips his hat to enduring sociological questions: How are we to account for the constitution of society? How are we to understand and model processes of social change? Nor does he shy away from proposing answers. Moreover, his ability to marshal a wide range of concepts from social theory enables him to illuminate dimensions of future making in ways that are often overlooked by other disciplinary perspectives. For example, Urry insightfully observes that future making by powerful actors is not just a matter of planning ahead, but is also predicated upon their abilities to actively “perform” and “frame” issues in the present. Since September 11, 2001, for example, “the war on terror” has provided a pivotal frame for responding to violence across the globe — a frame that, as Judith Butler has argued, works to preclude certain kinds of questions and actions while functioning as a moral justification for others (e.g., retaliation).

Although the first part of the book is pitched as an empirical study of the way social actors and organizations make and contest the future, Urry, unfortunately, does not provide any detailed case studies that would offer readers an instructive example of how to analyze these processes as they unfold over time. Here, Urry could have drawn upon a rich corpus of anthropological writing that explores how futures are being made across a variety of human domains. One could cite Karen Ho’s study of Wall Street investment bankers, Joseph Masco’s writing on American nuclear strategizing, David Valentine’s research on new space entrepreneurs, Abou Farman’s study of American projects to achieve physical immortality through tehcno-scientific means and Gretchen Bakke’s new book on America’s energy infrastructure, all of which provide ethnographically nuanced accounts of the ways powerful stakeholders attempt to shape the future. Moreover, this research demonstrates, as Urry himself reminds us, that despite social actors’ best attempts to anticipate and engineer the future, it often turns out to be very different from what was expected or planned.

Instead, Urry devotes the first part of the book to a rather meandering discussion of various writers, technologists and thinkers from the sixteenth century to the present who have generated utopic and dystopic visions of the future. The sources and data are mostly literary and textual. In Chapter Two, for ex- ample, his discussion spans from the utopic writings of Thomas More and H.G. Wells to the dystopic visions engendered by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the classic 1982 film Blade Runner. Chapter Three focuses on the “new catastrophism” in social thinking. Urry catalogs almost two pages of scholarly books that have been published from 2003 onward warning of “the dystopic sides to globalization.” These texts variously predict growing inequality and warfare, societal collapse, species extinction and even planetary annihilation.

In reviewing the catastrophe literature, Urry usefully highlights how catastrophes are engendered by the “cascading effects” of “interacting systems.” He also makes a strong case for why catastrophic visions have become so pervasive at the dawn of the 21st century. These gloom and doom visions are viewed as responses to a number of factors, including the opulence and indulgence of “the roaring 1990s,” the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and its globally disseminated images of destruction, the shock and violence of the Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s, the 2008 financial collapse and the ever-mounting bad news coming from studies of climate change. All of this, Urry warns, has generated a deeply skeptical, quasi-apocalyptic “structure of feeling.” He borrows this term from Raymond Williams to denote an affective element that is perhaps not fully formed or articulated in thought or text but that can be readily tapped into by social actors looking to forward their own personal and political agendas — a point that seems to have been fully appreciated by Donald Trump.

What could have further enriched Urry’s discussion was some attempt to theoretically consider why imaginings of the future so frequently break down along utopic and dystopic lines. This kind of polarization calls to mind what psychoanalysts refer to as “splitting.” A defense mechanism invoked when subjects, and perhaps even societies, are beleaguered by feelings of persecutory anxiety, splitting enables people to manage their anxiety by classifying things as all good or all bad and thereby proceed in the world with some greater sense of control and confidence. The drawback of such a strategy, of course, is that it comes at the expense of being able to see people, situations and even futures as complex, “whole objects” with both good and bad dimensions. I raise this point because in the second part of the book, Urry provides a theoretical framework for understanding the way futures develop. Although he does not consider it, the tendency for social actors to imagine futures in either all good or all bad terms can indeed play an influential role in shaping their subsequent development.

Nevertheless, Part Two is where Urry makes one of his strongest contributions to future studies. He begins with critiques of two dominant approaches to anticipating futures within the social scientific literature. The first approach, widely deployed by economists, is premised upon “an individualistic model of human action” and emphasizes “the capacity of individuals to behave rationally.” According to this model, the future can be changed by incentivizing people to modify their behaviors. The other dominant approach emphasizes “the importance of relatively fixed and enduring economic and social structures.” Here, the emphasis is not on how things change in the future, but rather, how the present is reproduced by “self-correcting social structures.” Urry finds both options inadequate. Drawing inspiration from complexity theory, he argues that anticipating and analyzing futures involves steering “the tricky course between determinism and openness.” This means considering the way the future is shaped by enduring social structures and relations as well as by changes and contingencies arising from the unpredictable interplay of social forces. Complexity theory thus encourages us to consider the systematic as well as surprising ways social processes unfold.

While Urry proposes a complex systems approach to move beyond the theoretical limitations of individualistic and socially deterministic models, he also uses it as a way to draw attention to the “wicked problems” that we now face. Wicked problems occur where “there are multiple ‘causes’ and ‘solutions.’” Attempts to solve one problem often reveal or generate others. Moreover, the solutions proposed depend on how the issue is framed, and different stakeholders, Urry notes, often have radically different frames for understanding what the problem actually is. With wicked problems, the problem is not so much definitively solved as temporarily addressed, only to reemerge later in another guise and place.

The paradigmatic example here is climate change, though Urry suggests it might be more aptly referred to as a “super-wicked problem.” He writes:

In the case of super-wicked problems, there are extra issues: time is running out to find a ‘solution’, there is no central orchestrating authority, those seeking to solve the issue are also in part causing it, and there is what can be called ‘hyperbolic discounting’, which massively favors immediate rewards over rewards arriving much later.

Urry’s analysis of wicked problems may leave some readers in a state of panic or despair as the enormity of the problems he addresses can indeed feel overwhelming. Yet Urry’s discussion is neither intended to “freak people out” nor offered as an excuse to bury our heads in the sand and collectively resign to a dark and perhaps very limited future. Rather, Urry is making an appeal to social scientists and citizens alike to face the future in a sober, thoughtful and informed manner. Wicked problems, he argues, cannot be solved by tidy plans and elegant solutions, but they can and must be imaginatively explored and confronted.

Indeed, Part Three, entitled, “Future Scenarios,” is devoted to putting this kind of thinking on display. Urry draws inspiration from the technique of “scenario building,” which was first introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s and is now being used by academics and corporations alike to anticipate futures. Scenario building is an attempt to both forecast social futures based on existing patterns and trends, and identify “the conditions and events that need to occur so that the scenario in question will be realized.” He applies scenario building to a range of futures: how technological innovations such as 3D printing might shape the future of manufacturing; how automobility has come to structure urban life and the implications for urban planning, wondering whether an “after the car mobility-system” will develop in the future; and, finally, how to address climate change.

Urry notes that climate change is an issue that will “indeed ‘change everything.’” He considers four climate scenarios that could develop: (1) the “Business as Usual” scenario, where concerns about climate change are subordinated to the imperative of economic growth; (2) the de-growth scenario, which involves changing the demand for fossil fuel energy and engendering a low-carbon civil society; (3) the ecological modernization scenario, where economic growth will be promoted by developing and implementing a range of ecofriendly technologies; (4) a geoengineering scenario. This last scenario, he argues, would follow on a series of large-scale catastrophic events that would unequivocally convince the world of the dangerous realities of climate change and thereby marshal a globally coordinated attempt to engineer an alternative energy future.

This section does provide a good illustration of how scenario building can be used to anticipate different futures, but the chapters in it nevertheless read more like a loose assemblage of previous research interests and speculations than a fine-grained analysis of how any one of the futures discussed might unfold. Perhaps, given the unpredictability of the future that Urry rightly insists upon, such an analysis is not possible.

Ultimately, What is the Future? is an interesting and provocative book that makes a bold argument for why the future needs to be taken seriously. In answering the question that titles his book, Urry writes:

The future is too important to be left to states, corporations or technologists. Future visions have powerful consequences and social science needs to be central in disentangling, debating and delivering those futures.

This book, along with the Institute for Social Futures that John Urry and his colleagues at Lancaster University established, will play a pivotal role in furthering this agenda. And yet, as I noted at the outset, the most rewarding aspect of this book stems not from the specific contributions it makes to the field of future studies, but rather from the way it so vividly reflects John Urry’s illustrious career and commitments. Urry was animated by a sociological imagination that continually prompted him to take on timely issues in the empirical world. He was devoted to developing theories and models for better understanding the ways societies work. And perhaps most important, he was committed to using sociology as a tool for trying to make the world more just. My hope is that the style of scholarship he practiced and modeled will long have a place in the future.


Suggestions for Further Reading

Bakke, Gretchen. The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Futures. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 2016.

Butler, Judith. “Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear.” Grey Room 7 (spring 2002): 56–67.

Farman, Abou. “Re-Enchantment Cosmologies: Mastery and Obsolescence in an Intelligent Universe.” In Special Issue, Extreme: Humans at Home in the Cosmos, edited by D. Battaglia, D. Valentine, and V. Olson. Anthropological Quar- terly 85, no. 4 (2012): 1069–1088.

Ho, Karen. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham: Duke University Press. 2009.

Lanier, Jaron. Who Owns the Future? New York: Simon and Schuster. 2013.

Masco, Joseph. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2006.

Valentine, David. “Exit-Strategy: Profit, Cosmology, and the Future of Humans in Space.” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2012): 1045–1067.


Jenny Huberman is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is the author of Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change in Banaras, India (Rutgers University Press 2012). Currently, she is working on a new research project that explores how experiences of loss, mourning and memorialization are changing in the digital age.

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