When time future is contained in time past

Girijaa Upadhyay | Updated on: Mar 15, 2019

Today’s technologies were visualised in the genre of science fiction decades ago. Education, therefore, needs to be imaginative

The accelerated change in technology with its wide-ranging impact on various aspects of human existence, raises an issue whether societies in general and India in particular, need to engage in Futurist Studies (also called Foresight Studies).

A corollary is to foster a way of thinking and the role education pedagogy can play to achieve this. We have the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Fifth mode of transport! (hyperloop), 3D printing... Mobiles that have redefined the financial services industry, e-commerce, removed information asymmetries, and enhanced business and social communication. Humanoids are attending bank customers as their first interface; you have chatbots, robotic pets, dominance of social media in all strata of society — the list of the technology-human/societal interface is expanding exponentially.

With the expected wider usage of AI and intelligent machines, the future of jobs, skilling of the human force is being redefined.

In the current context it might be necessary to look at time horizons farther than those in perspective plans, anticipating “disruptive” technologies, and new models of transacting by society. Close to home the 4th Asia Pacific Futurists Network Conference was held in Bangkok in August 2018. Taiwan and Korea were active conveners.

In India, except for Kerala University, where a Master’s programme is offered on Futurology (and that too for certain technical fields), there is no other university or think-tank that has ventured into this space. Global Foresight.org — a community working to advance a global foresight culture — lists around 23 courses in various countries of which 13 are English-based Master’s and PhD courses. Select universities or centres of higher education, research/think-tanks both independent and in association with academia and industry could be set up in India. Closely linked is India’s own self-perception as a technology feeder rather than a hub of initiators/innovators. This is in contrast with China which filed the second highest number of patents in 2017, an increase of 13.4 per cent , as per WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation).

Before Futurology Studies are initiated, a directional plan is perhaps required to identify priorities. This would involve multidisciplinary participation keeping environmental concerns, inter-generational equity principles, social welfare and “Happiness” in mind.

For India with its dichotomous structure, facing issues such as open defecation, lack of basic needs such as water and food for a third of its people on the one hand vis-a-vis its capabilities in frontier technology like space technology on the other, arriving at priorities is going to be challenging.

It might sound strange but a suggestion is to have a department of Science Fiction writing at these centres! Perhaps even a desi Marvel Comics type! It is often wondered if art imitates reality.

Reality follows fiction

Somehow in technology and science it appears that Reality has been following Fiction. Technologies which are a reality today, were visualised in the genre of science fiction several decades ago.

Tesla’s driverless car’s fictional harbinger were the automatic control car in Arthur Clarke’s story Imperial Earth (1976), in Sally by Isaac Asimov (1953); or by another name the Automatobile featured in The Living Machine by David Heller (1935).

Today’s PDA’s fictional counterpart was Minisec (Imperial Earth). Genetics, bio-engineering, cloning were covered with dramatic effect in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1953). The frontier tech of 3D printing had seeds as Matter compiler in Diamond Age by Neil Stephanson, or the replicator in Star Trek! (source: Technovelgy.com).

And that raises the vital issue of pedagogy in education. Questioning and exploration are two important aspects of human inquiry. For decades we have had assembly line-production of intelligent drones who keep the wheels of society turning. But something else is required from humans what with advances in AI. ‘What-if’ analyses that address ‘problematiques’ related to human issues need to be instituted in the pedagogy. It is also imperative to have a culture that is receptive to new ideas, technologies, processes, and practices.

In sum, to prepare for the future should we also prepare for Futurology? There should be brainstorming involving multidisciplinary streams on setting up Futurology Centre/s. Or should we just live in the Present and flow with the tide?

The author is visiting professor of Development Finance at the Gokhale Institute of Politics & Economics.

Published on March 15, 2019
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