Brokers scan stock projections. Corporations live for the next quarter. Families plan budgets so they can afford a summer vacation.

Multinationals seek modern soothsayers to help decide whether to sell smaller roasting pans. Hi-tech firms hire specialists to predict whether tomorrow's workers will demand in-office day care.

For many so much as a glimpse of what the future holds, government at all levels spends millions.

Call it a human condition, this hankering after the future.

"You've really got a great gimmick," an envious Virginia Commonwealth University colleague once quipped to futurologist Howard Ozmon. "Everything has a future, so I guess you'll always be in business."

Indeed, there's a virtual bull market in futures out there -- at least 2,000 full-time professional prognosticators and more than 200 research groups busily plumbing the future for everything from foreign troop strengths and famine to deforestation and dental floss.

We're not talking palm readers.

And we're not talking peanuts.

The futures industry pulls in more than $10 million each year from corporate and government clients -- the sort of success that even futurologists, the handful of them who were around a few decades ago, couldn't foresee.

And comes now the new year, which means future-analysts are booked solid, cranking out forecasts just as soon as their computers can spit out the numbers.

"Business -- indeed, life -- is like a chess game. Those who play skillfully look ahead a few moves," explains Joseph L. Fisher, secretary of human resources and no stranger to Future Fever.

"Some of this looking at the future is hairbrained, visionary and impractical, but a lot of it has become quite technical. And so vital that it can be perilous to make decisions without it," says Fisher.

Two years ago, Fisher's own boss saw the virtue of future-glancing, as several other governors in other states had done. So Gov. Charles S. Robb urged a 37-member bipartisan panel to look at Virginia in the 21st century.

The group -- no mere assortment of supermarket-tabloid astrologers, what with a former secretary of defense, retired chief justice and several corporate executives aboard -- has reported its findings. Some of the forecasts are so significant they could result in legislative action as early as next year.

But the Robb commission's view of a "New Dominion" was only part of a trend that is sweeping the land. Nothing is too grandiose or too insignificant to escape the divining instruments of these modern-day soothsayers, who use computers instead of crystal balls and "trend extrapolation" instead of palms.

And who usually come up with a whopper of a bill. (For a study on the feasibility of solar power in the 1970s, a large West Coast think tank charged Uncle Sam $275,000.)

Another think tank -- in a 10-year forecast that partly considered the fate of dental floss among lower income families -- predicted that, in the future, "an increasing proportion of males may not wear underpants because trousers can be washed easily and often."

Less outrageous was the formulation during the 1939 World's Fair, that picture phones would sweep the land. The experts were right about that technology; wrong about consumer demand.

Then, during the 1950s, there was talk of tourists on safari in war-torn Vietnam -- predicted for the 1960s. Close, but most futurologists then failed to predict the energy crisis.

Time and again, forecasting has failed. Many forecasters have simply built up a dismal record -- one which won't likely improve.

Some predictions have led economist Lester Thurow, among others, to conclude that futures research is "the intellectual's version of going to the palm reader."

Government has had its share of soothsaying snafus. In 1980, experts predicted that the United States could become energy independent by using certain minerals. There was one slight catch: America didn't have enough of the minerals.

Then, there's the fish story. During the Carter Administration, some specialists foresaw that, as the human population grew, greater numbers of fish would be caught. One problem: other experts concluded there weren't any more fish that could be caught.

This is to say nothing of the complaints over America's weathermen.

Which leads to a basic question: Just how reliable is any of this multi-million dollar, high-tech prognosticating?

"We've come a long way since science fiction, H.G. Wells and the speculations of Nostradamus," maintains Dr. Ozmon, an education professor at VCU. "We've gained a lot of respectability."

Two universities, in Massachusetts and Arizona, offer degrees in futures studies. In Virginia, the World Future Society -- an eclectic group of future-thinkers -- includes marketing experts and career planners, college professors and architects, and the secretary of human resources.

The magazine they read, "The Futurist," dwells on such issues as hyperintelligence, the use of video games to build a personal sense of accomplishment, robot burglar alarms and Europe's changing taste for lighter beer.

More science than art

"Very little of it is crystal ball gazing," says Maria Robotham, a senior researcher at The Futures Group, an 80-person Hartford, Conn., think tank whose clients include soft drink makers and the CIA. (Government contracts account for half of the firm's $6 million business.)

"It's much more science than art," says Marvin Cetron, a former Navy planner who claims his Arlington-based firm, Forecasting International, is batting an enviable .950 -- which includes predictions of the Shah of Iran's fall, Ronald Reagan's rise, and of Poland's turmoil.

Dr. Cetron's staff of 35 literally takes on the globe: among their clients are 76 industrial firms, 17 foreign countries, and 10 U.S. government agencies -- all of whom make it a booming $2 million-a-year business.

Dr. Cetron insists his views are founded in fact and soldered with pure science. "We look at quantitative indicators and do trend extrapolation. We use computers . . .We've got hundreds of global events in our data banks."

But, warn most futurologists: don't count on any of it.

As noted William and Mary law school Dean William Spong, who chaired Gov. Robb's panel on the future, "This represents our best judgment, but we don't pretend to be Moses."

Avoid assumptions

In a classic episode of "The Twilight Zone," a man manages to get a copy of a future newspaper. He duly scans the stock report and invests in the stocks that will gain the most.

In his frenzy, the man fails to notice one small item in the same newspaper: his own obituary.

Perhaps that's a good tale to illustrate a common warning issued by soothsayers these days: be careful, especially about assumptions.

"If you're a very responsible futures researcher," says Ms. Robotham, "you tell your client that 'there's no way I can tell you the future, only of things evolving.' We make it clear to people that we're not going to give them the magic bullet."

"The artistry is in knowing what assumptions to make," says Fisher. "And what assumptions not to make."

Fisher, a successful businessman and three-term congressman before joining Robb's cabinet, counts among his failures numerous predictions in his once-acclaimed 1950s book, "Resources in America's Future," one of the first compendiums of large-scale projections for the American economy.

He wasn't far off the mark on the gross national product, industrial production figures of the aggregate work force? But these successes, he said, "covered up a cancellation of errors in many other directions."

"In energy, we overestimated the nuclear. [But who could have foreseen all the problems that have arisen?] We missed on gas. [But we weren't so bad on coal.] We missed on women, too. Ironically, we'd been criticized for overestimating the number of women entering the labor force; in fact, we way undervalued it. In some cases, we were really wildly off the mark."

Some futurologists have gone so far as to deny they're making forecasts.

"A lot of people still believe we're in the business of making predictions. That's not the case. We're just trying to describe the possibilities," says Edward Cornish, president of the 30,000-member World Future Society, a multidisciplinary group of future-minded academicians and business-men.

This group, too, is nothing to scoff at when it comes to names. Directors include, besides Virginia's Fisher former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, former U.S. atomic Energy Commission Chairman Glenn T. Seaborg, and former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

"If we know more about the possibilities, we ourselves will choose the future," says Cornish, summing up their credo. "That's the only way that our future won't just be imposed by some fate."

It would be irresponsible, for example, for a corporation to make a 20-year investment, says Fisher, without first getting the best projection it can.

"When it comes to the future," he says, "even a poor view is better than none."

Document Type

News Article

Publication Information

Richmond Times-Dispatch at H-1, H-5 (December 30, 1984)