Big future for a degree in whatever will be

Ann Treneman
Saturday 06 July 1996 23:02

The future is here - and it's in Leeds. From this autumn Leeds Metropolitan University is offering a masters degree in Future Studies, the first of its kind in western Europe.

No Star Trek jokes, please, because the degree, called the MA in Foresight and Future Studies, is for serious students of tomorrow. "The challenge is to make the future happen for us, rather than to us," said the principal lecturer, Graham May.

The MA, validated last month, lasts for two years and among the gurus to be studied are Alvin Toffler and the work expert Charles Handy. Toffler, whose Future Shock is not so surprising these days, is a champion of "anticipatory democracy".

Handy's books include The Future of Work and The Age of Unreason. He is a favourite of Mr May because of his interest in paradox: how to handle future trends that appear to be in opposition to each other.

"The future is still not seen as a serious subject. Anyone who comes into a university and says 'we want to study the future' is likely to meet raised eyebrows," said Mr May. "And yet the future is all we've got left. We've been to the past."

Anyone who believes future studies is New Age mumbo- jumbo should examine the Leeds syllabus. One course looks at methodology, which includes exercises such as "What are all the results of the invention of the mobile phone?" A course in ethics covers genetics, low pay and teleworking and the question of whether the future really has to belong to the white, Anglo-Saxon male.

Mr May sees the degree as essential in a world where predictions are often mistaken.

"Most forecasts are wrong but few people go back and check why," he said.

"With the early computers, they thought there was a market for two. That's true of most things. Wasn't it Rutherford who said the atom would never be of any use for anybody?"

As the millennium approaches, futurology is experiencing an upswing. A Futures Forum has been set up in Britain, meeting at British Telecom, one of the few UK companies with a "futurologist".

Some 2,000 will attend the World Future Society Conference that begins on 14 July in Washington DC. Up for discussion are topics big (the future of medicine, education, religion and government, for starters) and small, such as what's in store for the male self-image.

In America, graduates of the two future studies programmes can join "futures firms" which are hired as consultants by large companies. Other companies invite futurists to teach their workforce how to ask "What if?" - a money-making as well as a revolutionary question.

"One of the dictums in future studies is that the only useful statements about the future are those that seem ridiculous," said Wendy Schultz, a futures studies graduate of the University of Hawaii.

One of her favourite studies was entitled: "What do I do if my robot bows when my clone walks into the room?"

Then there is the Internet. "The e-mail system was invented by the American military to withstand nuclear war, but I doubt they could have anticipated the anarchy, or the supposed anarchy, of the Internet."

Mr May is an optimist, as the title of his forthcoming book The Future is Ours suggests. "In the Victorian age there was a positive belief in human progress through technological change," he said. "This century people are questioning the notion of this progress.

"This is reflected in science fiction. It used to be generally upbeat, but can you think of a single science fiction film these days that has an optimistic view? It's all Robocops. They are all saying that the future is going to be hell.

"One of the points of the degree is to say 'It's us that has got us into this problem, and it is up to us to get ourselves out'," Mr May added. "We can improve things: choose good futures instead of bad ones."

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