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Futurological vertigo

Emmanuel Grimaud et Julien Wacquez
Traduction de Dominic Horsfall
Cet article est une traduction de :
Le vertige futurologique [fr]


Following a critical review of the history of futurology as a discipline, this text suggests a number of research avenues for approaching speculative activity in general and the anticipatory work of futurologists in particular. It calls for the creation of a science of vertigo, or vertigology, and examines the most common ways of projecting oneself into a dizzying future, from the end of humanity to the change of scale.

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“Did you know the number of futurologists grows at the same rate as humanity as a whole?” Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress, 1971

  • 1 Ossip Kurt Flechtheim, « Teaching the Future », Journal for Higher Education, vol. 16, 1945, p. 460 (...)

1Today, the future inspires far greater anxiety, fear, and strangeness than the fringes of the civilised world. In “L’humanité, c’est quoi? (What is humanity?), an interview with Madeleine Chapsal for French magazine L’Express dated 20 October 1960, Claude Lévi-Strauss did not conceal his bewilderment at what might be termed a regime change of the unknown: a transition from one system where alterity is for the most part geographically localised to another where maximum alterity lies ahead, in our future, driven by an “exoticisation that pushes from within” (Lévi-Strauss 2002 [1952]). This was a seismic moment for the humanities akin to the advent of relativity in physics, for it touched on the very nature of a spacetime that Lévi-Strauss perceived as being in full transformation. More than half a century later, the phenomenon highlighted by Lévi-Strauss has only intensified, and the idea that tomorrow’s world will be utterly exotic compared to now has increased exponentially, almost to the point of conventional wisdom. When all manner of unknowns arise in unexpected forms, the only way to counter uncertainty is through a science of vertigo. One might have expected anthropology to lead the charge, insofar as it has always sought to catalogue what is possible. Yet it has unquestionably been lapped in the race for new horizons by futurology. Our greatest vertigo is not past or present, but lies ahead. When German political scientist Ossip K. Flechtheim (1945) proposed the term “futurology” in the mid-1940s1, the goal was to establish a legitimate futures science capable of identifying trends, mapping out potential futures, and anticipating anything else that might transpire.

2In 1970, Alvin Toffler compiled his work of the preceding decades with that of his fellow futurologists into what remains his most famous book: Future Shock (1970). In it, he acknowledges the great debt he owes to Flechtheim while also drawing on the notion of cultural lag proposed by sociologist William Fielding Ogburn (1922). Toffler defines “future shock” as an affliction of our age, a mental disorder, a psychological response to a disturbing truth: the future (synonym for change, the unknown, the arrival of the radically other) is already with us, in us. It hurtles towards us unrelentingly from without, yet remains the – unexpected, unsuspected, imperceptible – result of our own actions. Indeed, we harbour it inside us, like the exoticisation that pushes from within. Against this irrepressible momentum, this frantic, unstoppable march of the future, historical facts soon become “perishable”. (Toffler declared his book would be obsolete the moment it was published, the present having already had time to transform in step with the impending future.) In such a context, being of one’s time is hardly a given.

3These experts of the so-called “future” therefore specialise in grappling with the unknown. They call themselves futurologists (or futurists, futures researchers, prospectivists). They might be engineers, scientists, administrators, but they are also increasingly speculative designers or even science fiction writers. They are individuals of many different stripes tasked, here and now, not only with forecasting, with anticipating Toffler-style shocks and extrapolating from a mass of parameters, curves, and indicators, but also with producing roadmaps, preparing for any eventualities, and making the previously inconceivable conceivable. And therein lies the paradox of their work: by the very fact of resituating themselves in a time yet to come, these masters of recentring bring about new forms of the unknown and the unexpected, in some way squaring the unthinkable and the improbable.

4Those for whom innovation is a drug, or who cannot relate to this world other than by radically transforming it, and, where possible, through disruptive technologies, could reasonably be accused of coopting all possible futures, elevating futurology to a new theology, science fiction to demiurge. Such delusions of emancipation merit due criticism. As historians and anthropologists know too well, it only takes a few months or years for the limits of speculation, rooted in a given era, to eventually become apparent, even when we stretch our minds beyond imagination.

5Take, for example, one of the very first issues of The Futurist magazine. In the April 1969 issue, this publication from the World Future Society (founded by renowned American futurologist Edward Cornish in February 1967) bore the headline: “Is Man’s Industry Upsetting World Weather?” Climatologist J. Murray Mitchell Jr had observed that human industry was producing enough dust and smoke to block out the sun’s rays. From this he deduced that, in time, winters would become increasingly harsh and the Earth would enter a period of cooling. In the June 1971 issue, Colonel Wayne O. Evans, a doctor and director of the US Army’s Military Stress Laboratory, foresaw the potential to attain universal happiness, but only through the large-scale distribution of new drugs “that will make man feel happy, cause him to forget his past, arouse his sexual desires, and give him dreams”. At the turn of the current millennium, the World Future Society listed out the futures teetering on the brink of extinction: almost all forests, species, and languages were doomed to disappear by 2030 (though potentially conservable through the collective global memory of the internet). We would also see an end to religious fundamentalism, violence, male chauvinism, human medical diagnoses, not to mention paper, anonymity, critical thinking, queues, hardware, privacy and personal data, road accidents, gender differences, human service, plastic, quiet public spaces, physical sex in favour of augmented sex, shame, and wilderness. The authors of this somewhat immoderate scenario – a kaleidoscope of all possible ends, some of which have sadly come to pass while others not – included professors, corporate futurists, “resource planners”, and other members of the American futurist intelligentsia.

6In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Future Society set itself an arguably more reasonable goal: “Helping to develop and co-create a Civilization Type One”.2 This referred to the civilisation scale (applicable to both humans and extraterrestrials) initially proposed by Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964, and later adopted and refined by Carl Sagan in 1973, classifying civilisations according to their technological prowess and capacity to harness the available energy in their environment. The scale ranges from Type 1 civilisations, able to consume all their home planet’s energy (in theory, Earth would have 1.74 x 1017 watts); to Type 2, able to harness and exploit all the power emitted by their star; to Type 3, having mastery of their entire galaxy (4 x 1037 watts for the Milky Way, according to Kardashev’s estimations). The aim for this society of futurologists was to get our species past this first evolutionary rung on the Kardashev Scale.

7Fortunately, futurology does not always produce such extravagant roadmaps. Is another conception of time then possible? Not only other futures (both individual and collective), but something beyond beginning or end? Rupture or status quo? Progress or regression? Surpassing, replacing, inverting, or overturning? Even when all indicators flash red, as seems to be the case for many experts nowadays, we will never have exhausted all possible disaster scenarios and eventualities. So let us take speculation to the limit – not least about our own demise. What if other forms of “future-oriented” reasoning existed, complex forms of extrapolation better suited to confronting our challenges, yet still too hidden or scattered to subvert prevailing forms of futurology?


  • 3 To cite a few: Norbert Elias (1992 [1984]), Alfred Gell (1992), François Hartog (2003), Reinhart Ko (...)
  • 4 H. G. Wells “Wanted! Professors of Foresight”, broadcast by the BBC on 19 November 1932 and republi (...)

8Thus far, the humanities have only taken a marginal interest in the field of the future. If and when they take the plunge, it is usually in terms of “sociotechnical imaginaries” (Jasanoff & Sang-Hyun 2015), “representations” (Beckert & Suckert 2021), “prophecies”, and increasingly from an angle of forecasting methodology (Tavory & Eliasoph 2013) and decision-making techniques (Aligica 2009, Zeitlyn 2012, Dotson et al. 2021). While they have produced a relatively significant corpus regarding the breadth of experiences of time,3 few have delved into futurology per se, that is, to examine purported expert approaches to the future, the individuals devoting their entire careers (indeed lives) to it, techniques of prediction and speculation, or how these unlock or close up possibilities. This led sociologists Barbara Adam and Chris Groves of Cardiff University to reiterate, in their 2007 book Future Matters, the famous appeal from science fiction writer H. G. Wells once broadcast by the BBC in 1932: “Wanted! Professors of Foresight!4 Their modern version appears in a box titled: “Wanted: 21st Century Experts on the Future” – as if no progress had been made in almost a century. The 2014 launch in Tallinn of a Future Anthropologies Network by the European Association of Social Anthropologists resulted in a “manifesto” declaring anthropology too late to the “futures research scene” (Salazar et al. 2017). Only in the 2010s did studies begin to appear on, say, late 19th-century weather and agricultural forecasting techniques (Pietruska 2017); the financial speculation following the 1929 economic crash (Friedman 2014); the American visionaries of the 1970s/1980s (McCray 2013); and finally the work of futurologists on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War (Andersson 2018).

  • 5 From the 1960s, Wendell Bell started to view the future not only as an object of research, but also (...)
  • 6 In 2008, the Association of Professional Futurists selected this double volume as one of the 10 mos (...)
  • 7 Bell nonetheless continued to contribute articles and chapters in various anthologies, as well as a (...)

9As the 20th century drew to a close, Professor Wendell Bell, following a career as chair of Yale’s Sociology Department (and an academic career devoted entirely to studying the future5), set about writing a two-volume text entitled The Foundations of Future Studies (Bell 1997), almost immediately hailed as a classic of the genre.6 The impetus behind this final academic work7 was to review the history of futures studies, identifying some of its major figures and the concepts and methods they developed, with the goal of refining an innovative pedagogical tool by which to better teach the discipline at university level. But this was also a question of institutionalisation. Bell’s primary objective for his book was “to show that futures studies exists as an identifiable sphere of intellectual activity that has already made […] important contributions to the knowledge base of modern society” and has “a body of sound and coherent thought and empirical results […] that can be the basis of a serious course of study” (Bell 1997: xxix).

10Across the 60-odd-page opening chapter entitled “Futures Studies: A New Field of Inquiry”, Bell retraces the history of the “pioneers” (from H. G. Wells to his own contemporaries such as Arthur C. Clarke, Harold Lasswell, and Edward Cornish), while highlighting how futures studies has been taught in high schools and universities since the mid-20th century, when entire programmes and faculties emerged; the number of specialist academic journals and editorial collections on the subject exploded; and research associations, as well as different types of public and private organisations, think tanks, companies, and consultancies, proliferated. As such, he ticked all the boxes needed to demonstrate the existence of a legitimate field, a domain of expertise simultaneously academic, scientific, economic, and political. And yet, throughout his book, the author poses a number of questions that always circle back to the same: does futures studies actually exist?

11This might well be a defining feature of futures studies: despite a relatively long history, an established field with its own institutions, and a plethora of literature boasting its own classics, it is still not enough. The discipline struggles to distinguish itself as a science in its own right, meaning that a future for futures studies, in which many “futurists” seem to believe, may well never materialise. Forced to constantly restructure and reinvent itself, the field is emerging, but has been doing so for almost a century; never quite managing – despite already having managed – to establish itself as a profession or university subject. As such, the latest futurologist work always presents itself, inevitably, as the first; and, in this never-ending story, all previous works become forerunners – or, to reuse Bell’s term, the latest in an increasingly long list of “pioneers”.


12This collection looks to explore three lines of research into futurology. We do not approach this in terms of true or false, assuming the authority to distinguish what is or is not possible, to separate the savants who saw it all coming from the self-professed prophets who got it all wrong. Futurologists and science fiction writers alike have long prefaced their works with the disclaimer that no one can know what the future will look like. And when told one of their predictions has come true, they readily admit this was mere accident. So, then, what is the point of all these futures experts if even they, by their own admission, cannot determine what will happen (to us), nor have any handle on what lies ahead? What function do they serve if not to spell out our trajectory?

Approach 1: Speculation for speculation’s sake

13A good starting point would be not to see any contradiction here. These days, there is an entire field of human and social sciences dedicated to “ignorance studies” (Abbot 2010, McGoey 2012, Barbier et al. 2021), all motivated by the very fact of knowing we know nothing of the fabric of tomorrow. Accordingly, our first approach demands we suspend our disbelief and focus on the field of speculation per se, on the entrepreneurs, scientists, or writers from within our leading institutions to the fringes of society. What constitutes good foresight? What are the relevant criteria? Should we hold ourselves to a measure of plausibility, to probabilities and margins of error? Or do we owe it to ourselves to envisage the wildest, even the most shocking potential scenarios? And what timeframe should we be confined to? Do we consider time linear, cyclical, multi-stranded? Does it move forwards or backwards, proceed infinitely or interrupt, slow or accelerate, run ahead or lag behind, repeat or split, expand or contract, invert or reverse?

Approach 2: The proliferation of wild hypotheses

14Our second line of questioning examines the effects that predictions have on us: the limits they invite us to explore or surpass (between science and literature, fact and fiction, possible and impossible); the displacements and shifts they provoke; how they shake our foundations; the emotions and sensations they arouse in us, from wonder to terror, all the way to vertigo.

15In The Will to Believe (1897), philosopher William James distinguished between “dead” and “living” hypotheses. What he forgot were the “wild” ones – the very ones we need to question. These proliferate, gain a foothold, gain credibility, and sometimes grow into billion-dollar ideas. Are such wild hypotheses the symptom of a modern world struggling to reinvent itself? Or the mark of a new age of prediction where these are the only way to increase our chances of getting it right? The driving argument of this collection is that futurology is a genre (or subgenre) of vertigology, which has gradually taken root in our modern world as the science of vertigo that can provide us with reasons to believe or indeed reject what is happening to us.

16Effective extrapolation, even if it represents a mere intuition of the future, is a visual instrument, a line on a graph, an act of divination. Humanity may indeed wash away “like a face of sand on the shoreline”, as Foucault wrote in 1966. A single, measurable line is all we need to jolt everything into perspective, to grasp our fleeting condition, plus a few well-chosen curves for today. Our extinction, if it happens, will have been largely quantifiable. We calculate the energy expenditure of our bodies and our communities, the carbon footprint of our smallest habits, the tons of plastic we produce each second, and the grams of it we ingest each week. We calculate the number of hours people sit at the steering wheel and the accumulated time humanity as a whole has spent playing World of Warcraft (some 6 million years in total – far longer than the time separating us from the emergence of Australopithecus [McGonigal 2011]8). We measure the distances travelled by global merchant fleets and private jets and the areas of felled or razed forests (some 350 million hectares a year according to Planetoscope – six times the size of France9). We track and record population movements, whether human, animal, virus, or plant… As part of this incredible quantification of ourselves and our world, even our wildest dreams and deepest fears manifest in the form of physical measurements, statistics tables, and evolutionary curves. The number of government agencies, international institutions, and research bodies devoted to detecting “weak signals” and identifying “megatrends”; the number of futurologists, designers, activists, and science fiction writers envisioning “alternative” futures and other possible worlds has only grown since Stanisław Lem first wrote the words we chose as this introduction’s epigraph. But has the future really become more predictable as a result?

Approach 3: A healthy dose of detox

17Having become a speculative market, the future feeds on impossibilities, on a smorgasbord of vertigo, on our inability to see further or better, not to mention on old, recycled dreams. Are we even capable of stretching our minds beyond chronologies and genealogies, origin stories and end times; of granting ourselves anything beyond utopian tomorrows, total apocalypses, partial collapses, or – in the end – endless new beginnings? Herein lies our third approach, concerning the limitations and malleability of speculative imagining. For example: an ethics committee contemplating the car of the future (Camille DARCHE); architects designing tomorrow’s living houses (Juliette SALME); or a group subverting the concept of “red team” to test out alternative futures through role-playing games (H-CHRONOTOPIUM). All contexts that might prompt the question: what shift in perspective is triggered in the present by situating oneself in the future? While certain futures are being stage managed into reality (Laure ASSAF), so-called “speculative narrative” workshops continue to pop up, and “design fiction” enthusiasts deploy countless strategies designed to unbridle the imagination, including interactive games and simulations using supports and artefacts (Nicolas NOVA). Across such varied domains, from architecture to think tanks to spaces of open conjecture, does speculation draw on the same resources? And how do we explain this unique alliance in recent times between wild hypotheses and gameplay? Whatever playful element forecasting practices involve, which sensations are we chasing by projecting ourselves into “X situation” or “acting like…” in real life? Our collection’s authors offer their insight into this array of vertigological techniques within a field too often viewed through the narrow lens of narration.

18A bonus feature of this issue sees the “future” – as a monolithic concept – crack, diffract, and distort as we follow our authors from America to Russia, Africa to China, the Gulf States to India. Arnaud SAINT-MARTIN, Brad TABAS, and Nikolas SCHULTZ provide fresh context here for “astro-futurism”, today so prominently represented by champions of the global economy Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (among others). For colonising Mars and the wider solar system, asteroid mining, building habitable megastructures in space – these are not their dreams. These are dreams at least a century in the making, the earliest traces of which appear in the output of science fiction writers, scientists, engineers, and intellectuals from the turn of the 1900s. Bezos and Musk offer nothing new beyond seeking to realise the visions of old-school sci-fi, reigniting past imaginaries, a dated future conceived by others. Such continually resurfacing retrofutures acquire new topicality when they leave storytelling behind to enter real-life experiments, financial mechanisms, heavy industry, or the geopolitical scrambles for space, tech, information, and arms.

19Far be it from us to promise our readers a plausible image of the future or, say, the futures market at any given moment. What this collection aims to demonstrate is how the future is debated and speculated here and now. Certain trends and scenarios seem to recur – sometimes subverted, though often borrowed wholesale – among modelling experts, scientists and amateurs, artists, advocates of capitalism and “terrestrialism”; but also between American versions of the future and their decolonial alter egos (Arab-futurism, Afro-futurism, Sino-futurism). In this context, how can we truly differentiate between gimmicky dreams and genuine game-changers? In shifting perspective to the future, are we not inevitably confined to a hall of mirrors reflecting the hopes and fears of a given time? Let us then construct a typology of vertigo, from little to large. Just as end-of-the-world scenarios take many forms (Danowski & Viveiros de Castro 2014), futurological scenarios deserve their own periodic table. Without suggesting a systematic grammar of futures, which could only be programmatic, this collection offers an alternative path to both cynicism and resignation in the face of prescribed or pre-programmed futures.

20The first question is whether futurology can be anything other than a conveyor belt churning out dreams that become nightmares or the futures of another age, and what a healthy dose of detox could do for it. Does futurological thinking from here and abroad, or among those who seek an alternative approach, contain certain devices to curb the toxicity of certain visions, other methods to “make sense of the future”? What approach is taken by those seeking to introduce vertiginous reasoning into our present (namely José HALLOY, artfully juggling various areas of expertise)? All this presupposes astronomical amounts of data, zigzagging between different fields, from physics and biology all the way to economics. A new race towards synthesis is underway along interdisciplinary frontiers so as to better confront the improbable. This is a quest all the more essential when we consider the ecological challenges ahead. Dizzying challenges call for dizzying science. Good futurology is vertigology – but not all vertigo is equal.


Type 1 vertigo: Following time’s arrow towards a new species

21Let us start with the more easily conceivable types of vertigo, generally based on extrapolations from one aspect of the present taken to the extreme. This is how historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his 2015 bestseller Homo Deus, envisages an algorithmic society driven by the “religion of dataism”. He then takes certain things for granted and 100% effective that are currently neither, such as in vitro fertilisation (demonstrating in his words our “mastery” over creation) or uploading our brains to computers. Such extrapolations are often bundled together. Thinking in terms of decades, he writes, “global warming, growing inequality and the disruption of the job market loom large”; but if we take a step back, what should really scare us is algorithmic “data processing” associated with the “decoupling” of intelligence from consciousness and the fact that “non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves” (Harari 2015: 397). This hierarchy of priorities is not so different from that which futurologists have posited since the 1950s, having seen technology as the alpha and omega of evolution, often divorced from the ecological issues presented here as a “contingent” problem. To emphasise the here-and-now of it all, Harari takes a great leap forward, evokes our extinction, and deploys the future past tense: “Looking back, humanity will turn out to have been just a ripple within the cosmic dataflow.”

22At their most extreme, the most common extrapolation figures always include an end, albeit one that may conceal a “world beyond”, or represent a tipping point, a power balance inversion (dominant/dominated), a shift in values – even a change of species. Vertigo from the precipice. André Leroi-Gourhan poked fun at the predictions of late 19th-century futurists who, inspired by the shape of a foetus, imagined our contemporaries a century later “having an enormous brain, a tiny face, and a shrivelled body” (1993 [1964]: 129). This did not stop him making his own prediction, however. Humanity’s self-externalisation through its tools is not complete, he tells us; we have reached a critical point where technology is no longer a simple extension of the body but is developed for its own sake. Contrasting Teilhard de Chardin’s technological optimism, he envisages “an anodontic human race living in a prone position and using such forelimbs as it still possesses to push buttons”. He hastens to add: “But have we the right to say that such beings would still qualify as human beings?” (1993 [1964]: 129). One thousand years hence, he warns, when all cognitive functions have been externalised, not to mention our flow of inner images, humans will end up unable to go “further”, little more than “living fossils” outstripped by our artificial doubles who will no doubt eventually do away with their biological hosts.

23Leroi-Gourhan is not the only one to have extrapolated to the point of changing species. War between species (organic versus cybernetic) is an old motif. Humans are but receptacles for machines that develop like parasites with their hosts’ complicity until the day they no longer need them, warned Samuel Butler in 1863: “man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man”, an “upshot” that is “simply a question of time [that] no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question”. Extrapolations are never more effective than when they create worlds of imminent possibilities that keep coming, keep manifesting, like Butler’s prophecy, still being fulfilled a century and a half later. By the time we notice the world changing, it is already too late.

24Unknown viruses, futuristic fungi – are these not fundamentally variants on the theme of interspecies war, where ultimately the fall of one marks the rise of another, one lifeform’s demise an opportunity for the other to proliferate? Prophecies and fantasies, apocalyptic or dystopian, all involve such thresholds, breaking points based on inversion or a great replacement (Aubin-Boltanski & Gauthier 2014, Danowski & Viveiros de Castro 2014, Carrey 2019). But modern futurology is more likely to invoke the theory of evolution than religious scripture, or what we know about the fall of past civilisations or scientific projections about the age of the planet. The most interesting extrapolations are not content to envision just ends; they explore the worlds beyond these ends, beyond the choice between fall or redemption. Propped up by evolutionary imaginaries, they watch for the faint signs of new species coming up. The end of someone’s world is always the beginning of another’s (of machines or other beings that will thrive in humanity’s ashes). In La mort de la terre (The Death of the Earth, 1912), Rosny Aîné, forgotten master of French-style forecasting, dared to depict a slow agony, the stage for an insidious rebirth: on a parched future Earth, a mineral layer of “ferromagnetals” develops from the ruins of human civilisation to infiltrate, mushroom-like, the skin of the last humans, growing ever more alive.

Type 2 vertigo: Unexplored futures, or everything we are not yet or have never been

25The classic types of vertigo remain anthropocentric. Yet there is a limit to the degree of vertigo that can be attained this way. In his novel Last and First Men (1930), Olaf Stapledon drives the thought experiment all the way to its outlandish twist. While keeping within the speculative boundaries permitted by 20th-century humanism, he imagines 18 forms of humanity beyond our own, one after the other, each different from the last. Unexplored futures are pushed to the extreme, with humankind persistently disappearing and reappearing in completely new forms at every turn. With each new fall, each new cataclysm, humans must start again from scratch, on fresh morphological, biological, ecological, and societal foundations entirely detached from those that came before. It is a monumental piece of work. Our species becomes an experiment in a universe itself conceived as an authorless experiment; time’s arrow moves haphazardly, aimlessly, a series of random events with no further explanation than the fulfilment of an infinite potential of possibilities that could have manifested differently. Within this paradigm, maximum vertigo is reached through the gradual understanding of the relativity of humankind as a fleeting form, an experimental moment in a “cosmic life” whose only goal is to ensure its own profusion.

26Stapledon is among those to have driven speculation to its furthest extent in recognising our species as an ephemeral variant and recontextualising humanity’s future in a branching diagram of potential trajectories. Despite other notions of spacetime coloured by astrophysics gaining traction, this conception of an arborescent future largely survived in American forecasting of the 1960s, notably around famous physicist and futurologist Herman Khan. After working for the RAND Corporation, Khan went on to develop the concept of a “think tank” and co-establish the Hudson Institute. His method, inspired by game theory, always produced multiple scenarios over just one, the aim being essentially to exhaust all possible outcomes, even concatenating them into outlandish “escalation ladders” of alternative narratives (see Khan & Wiener 1967). It does not sever time’s arrow; all possible forks remain possible in theory only. But is it not precisely this conception of forecasting (as an art of what is possible), which R. John Williams terms “world futures” (2016), that is now being seriously reconsidered in light of the ecological crisis on our doorstep? Between time’s arrow and infinitely multipliable potentialities, we might well wonder how much today’s futurologists have really shifted paradigm (Cornish 2004). The old frameworks endure, like those involving great leaps, sowing the future with images and churning up all possible scenarios. And not just in the world of forecasters and planners affiliated with business and markets, but also among artists and activists who, facing such imposed futures, rightly work to create speculative spaces. Life, as Bergson put it (2015 [1930]), is not a “cabinet of possibilities”.

  • 10 On this, see coll. “Futurology”, Revue internationale des sciences sociales, vol. xxi, no. 3, Paris (...)

27Williams, meanwhile, retraces the unlikely overlap between American futurology of the Cold War, chaos theories, and Eastern and neo-Buddhist conceptions of time that is open, unpredictable, yet full of infinite possibilities. He shows how this paradigm spread beyond the US10 as far as French futurist circles (Berger 1964) and the Futuribles journal (Jouvenel 1972). Regrettably, in terms of Eastern influence, these visons retain only the idea that all the most random combinations of events are possible; not exactly speculation along the lines of karma and the long-term effects of our actions (Kapani 1993). These conceptions of foresight, based around open time in infinite disarray, engender an inflation of scenarios that, the moment they occur, find themselves relegated to retrofutures or “retrotypes” (Bublex & During 2014). If “the future, by definition, has no image” (Valéry 1931), why then do we persist in ascribing one to it? Bergson likened the perception of time to an instrument of optical illusion (even distortion) that must be recalibrated, for human intelligence is designed to “take things the other way round”. While a “constant front-to-back remodelling is carried out by the present on the past, by the cause on the effect, […] the possible is the combined effect of reality that has appeared and an apparatus that casts it back into the past” (Bergson 2015 [1930]). We can therefore only rarely reach maximum vertigo by extrapolating existing trends or multiplying the “what ifs…”; there are other logical means to achieve it (Rescher 2009). Because, as Cornish states, “we all live psychologically in the world of the past”, and “[t]he actual world is quite different from what we think” (2004: 41), certain futurologists have set themselves the task of changing our conception of time and thus recalibrating our perception. Not so much by delving deep into other cultural systems, such as the Aymara language, where the future lies behind and the past is in front; or models of karmic time, where the logic governing the past is much more interesting to analyse than the future. Physics and astrophysics abound with thought experiments designed to make us understand that time is not what we believe. And here is where a form of defamiliarization in our relationship to the world occurs. The best types of vertigo, with the strongest somatic effects, are of this kind.

Type 3 vertigo: Sucked into a black hole, or vertigo on a cosmic scale

  • 11 An image borrowed from Calder (1977).

28When futurologists seek to incorporate at any cost the unpredictable “wild card” events (or “black swans” [Taleb 2007], to use a more modern gloss), they still remain within the “cabinet of possibilities”. So to where or to whom must we turn for a glimpse of other conceptions of forecasting? Conventional futurological trends trace time’s arrow from evolution generally to the point of entropy, but they also tweak it in other ways, drawing on physics and indeed astrophysics for inspiration. It is no coincidence that many adopt cosmic analogies, scouring intergalactic life for their reference models, including black holes. Stephen Hawking envisages an intrepid astronaut approaching the surface of a collapsing star becoming stretched out like a piece of spaghetti under the force of its strong gravitational field.11 Had Hawking used this vision of cosmic vertigo to describe our situation on Earth, it would have been an act of futurology. A radical scale shift to the point of metaphysical vertigo. This is how Gaston Berger (1964), champion of French-style futurism, arrives at his intuition regarding time’s modification. For him, time not only accelerates (Gautama Buddha made a similar observation on amplifying disorder – hence the need for meditation – in the 6th century BCE, well before Hartmut Rosa [2013]); it also reverses, with humans getting not older but younger. Berger seeks to replace the classic image of primordial degeneration with one of constant ‘aspiration’ continuously – and ever more rapidly – building complexity, organisation, ‘information’ […]. If we are, in fact, not pushed but drawn, it makes sense that our motion should keep accelerating. The reason for our actions lies ahead of us: we are moving towards our youth. The realisation of this ‘temporal inversion’ may be shocking. But we must not give in to disorientation and use our reasoning to harness this surprise.”

29Further on, he acknowledges Teilhard de Chardin for his conception of the notion. Like him, he believes “the universe is concentrated” and “gathers around a centre like the layers of a cone”. “This suggests the world is tending towards a certain point, it has an end,” he writes. No different in principle from Teilhard de Chardin’s “Omega Point”, towards which he posited all human evolution is converging. Thus, in Berger’s view, speculation constitutes an exercise in abstraction to extricate ourselves from prevailing models of time:

“a somewhat analogous exercise to that performed – in the field of spatial representation – by the inventors of perspective. […] A question, now as then, of achieving a new vision of the world, like comparing a Da Vinci landscape with the Bayeux Tapestry or Chinese prints: a vision in depth, no longer in space but time.”

30Plunging into a black hole to come out the other side into perspective space? Acrobatic, to say the least! Time’s arrow drops, rolls, and reverses, and other images materialise. Labyrinths, multidimensional planes, staircases, concentric circles – these have long been used to depict the beyond, a hinterworld or other world entirely. And they also feature, borrowed or distorted, in futurology. Fractal images, the patterns and shapes inspired by chaos theory, were widely used in American futurology of the 1950s/1960s, not to mention by futurist designers and architects like Buckminster Fuller, as extensively documented (see Williams 2016). Also among these images are numerous diagrams of Eastern and esoteric inspiration (notably, Gurdjieff’s “enneagrams” reinterpreted as trees of possibilities), which persist today as tools for visualising the future. Maps, cosmograms, and other mandalas designed to represent as well as forestall time are endlessly recycled and recirculated. Forecasting is a matter of depiction, of images and diagrams, serving to perpetuate the idea that potentially myriad possible futures lie ahead. Cornish, after several decades making models and predictions as head of the World Future Society, explains how he came to recognise a highly particular conception of time that may well have surpassed acceleration. An erratic time, unpredictable, as rich in chain reactions as a Rube Goldberg machine, “discontinuous, nonlinear, or even quirky”, “subject to the forces of chance and chaos” (2004: 48). Yet this observation ultimately results in a fairly classic conception of an open future, no different from his 1960s predecessors: “Our future is not singular; it is multitudinous. Myriad potential futures lie before us” (Cornish 2004: 62).

  • 12 On the butterfly effect, see meteorologist Edward Lorenz’s famous article (1972).

31The idea of the unforeseeable continuously expanding is not new. Paul Valéry, who remarked in Regards sur le monde actuel (1931) that “a shock that reaches us from an unforeseen quarter can give us a sudden, novel sensation of the existence of our body as an unknown quantity”, also lamented how the nature of the unforeseen had changed. “I told you that the unforeseen itself is being transformed and that what constitutes the unforeseen today is almost boundless. Imagination crumbles before it.” What is striking here is not that Valéry’s observations in 1931 could still apply, word for word, in 2024 – in other words, the “disarray of resonances within a confined space” he highlighted has never stopped materialising.12 Rather, it is that, 80-odd years on, the only means we often have to counter the unpredictable and ballooning entropy is a fallback to dreams of a bygone age; a frenzy of calculations to mask our fear.

Type 4 vertigo: Scale change and deep time

32Against such a backdrop, it should come as no surprise to see other voices emerge, namely Nicholas SCHULTZ or physicist José HALLOY, to help us detox from one particular futurology in favour of other, truly vertiginous forms of reasoning capable of shifting scale from the nanometric to the planetary. Today, discourse from a future perspective increasingly comes back to the forgotten aspects of our present, to anything that might suddenly become unhuman or superhuman in scope. We need to change our conception simultaneously of time, space, and the present. Are you sitting comfortably? Like astrophysicists, do you too believe that, once we have taken all we can from this planet, we can seek refuge on Mars? Now you know this is not your dream; life on Mars is not a dream but a nightmare. Time to come back down to Earth. Those who oppose it do so in the name of a different conception of time, invoking planetary rhythms or what is known as “deep time” (Irvine 2020, Chakrabarty 2021). Bringing back depth of time into modern life is no easy feat; we might as well ask ants to manage mountains or cats to regulate air traffic. For every effort has been made to shield us in our everyday lives from the energy sources, the cables, the very make-up of things, the diversity and complexity of large-scale rhythms, to keep us blissfully ignorant of the ways in which they flow and interact. In this context, when the bubble of modernity is about to burst, the most interesting strands of futurology are no longer those content to tinker with human morphological traits and project themselves light years away. They now take a different approach to the long term, highlighting for us every step of the way up to now, revealing the intricate tapestry of phenomena, in short, all that occurs unbeknownst to us, from the deepest layers of life on Earth to the highest strata of the atmosphere, whether we see it or not. Good futurology puts the present back into perspective.

33On the scale of Homo sapiens, we might ask if losing sight of our fleeting condition justifies how we have come to perceive ourselves through such distorted temporalities, so abstracted from our ephemeral nature; how we have forgotten the spatial dimensions of our own complexity, invented so many systems by which to defy time, eternity, a future reduced to its technological aspect or an eternal present purged of cataclysm (Ghosh 2016)? Now that cataclysm is once more the “new normal” of our present, a new breed of visionaries and prophets has emerged to help us adjust our perspective, respatialise and rescale the dangers, within a futurology that had been readily reduced to the imposition of un-dreams morphing into “bad trips”, or scenarios with N-possible outcomes, as effective for inducing a sense of infinity as Colonel Wayne O. Evans’ drug.

34Is it possible in this context – when dreamers do not realise they are dreaming and those who inhabit the dreams of others know no different – to sort the good dreams from the bad, the desirable possibles from the not? Is a powerful wake-up call enough to escape it all? When futurology aspires in contrast to subjugate a form of lucidness, the cost is even greater vertigo, as José Halloy (2018) aptly demonstrates, more spatial this time than temporal: seizing forgotten dimensions of the present, masterfully manipulating different scales, going back and forth between the most distant past, the most extrapolated future, and the deepest present. Trained in the physics of Prigogine, Halloy not only reiterates that man’s intuitions – life as a system out of equilibrium, dissipative structures, energy metabolism, time’s arrow, and the need for a new interdisciplinary partnership; he also develops complex forms of psychochemical reasoning, projecting himself onto scales rarely envisaged on the same page. Today, absolute, sublime vertigo is no longer attained by extending such-and-such a curve (like Moore’s Law to predict the coming of the Singularity) or modelling over-population with just a few statistical tools. It is reached by intertwining the infra- and the meta-, going back and forth between the Earth’s most distant past and its future, zooming in and out from data on exoplanetary history to data on living organisms and photosynthesis, incorporating along the way everything contained in the blind spots of our vision and our actions, rates and rhythms as yet unimagined in the flows of matter, the emergence of new layers of interconnectivity – all in deep, dilated time. “Deep time” = “deep space”. In intent, this fourth type of futurology does not break completely with those before; in methodology, however, it radically turns up the vertigo, artfully combining and manipulating the scales and the scenario-building and calculation techniques, demonstrating how the thresholds beyond which we end up in the unknown are not a question for the future; it is playing out, here and now, in the complexity of relationships of entanglement (see, e.g., Marck et al. 2017). In such a context, it becomes easier to see how “future-oriented” reasoning can in fact withstand all prediction errors and requires constant recalibration. With the imposition of such scale changes and time shifts, the future has proven a veritable recentring laboratory for the modern world. With the sun’s explosion – due in 4.5 billion years – will come an end to all our unsolvable questions, as Jean-François Lyotard (1992) reminded us. But one final warning – we are talking about the future here. So understand that we do not exist merely in a graveyard of retrofutures, dead hypotheses, cataclysmic scenarios, and outlandish prophecies. The future is where humans learn to be as far-sighted as possible regarding their condition. And in the kingdom of futurology, vertigo is king.


This issue is the fruit of a collective endeavour that emerged from the workshop on futurology and speculative narration organised by Labex Passés dans le Présent – Histoire, Patrimoine, Mémoire. We would like to extend our thanks to all the researchers, science fiction writers, and artists who took part and whose insights have provided fodder for this introduction.

35See more on the Labex website:​en

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1 Ossip Kurt Flechtheim, « Teaching the Future », Journal for Higher Education, vol. 16, 1945, p. 460‑465.

2 Online :

3 To cite a few: Norbert Elias (1992 [1984]), Alfred Gell (1992), François Hartog (2003), Reinhart Koselleck (2004 [1979]), and Ian Hacking (2006 [1975]), and. For a fascinating interpretation of Andrew Abbott’s work (2010), see Jean-Louis Fabiani (2015).

4 H. G. Wells “Wanted! Professors of Foresight”, broadcast by the BBC on 19 November 1932 and republished in Slaughter (1989: 3-4).

5 From the 1960s, Wendell Bell started to view the future not only as an object of research, but also as a valid perspective from which to approach social phenomena, thus overturning the temporal order through which we understand all causality. Indeed, for him, the present is neither the result of the past, nor what determines any possible future. On the contrary, it is through the lens of the future that we can better understand and explain the present in which we live. See, in particular, Bell (1966), as well as the collective work Bell & Mau (1971).

6 In 2008, the Association of Professional Futurists selected this double volume as one of the 10 most important works in their field.

7 Bell nonetheless continued to contribute articles and chapters in various anthologies, as well as a final book, in this case autobiographical (Bell 2012).

8 According to latest scientific estimates, Australopithecus lived between 4.2 and 2 mya.

9 The organisation’s website can be accessed at

10 On this, see coll. “Futurology”, Revue internationale des sciences sociales, vol. xxi, no. 3, Paris, Unesco, 1969.

11 An image borrowed from Calder (1977).

12 On the butterfly effect, see meteorologist Edward Lorenz’s famous article (1972).

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Emmanuel Grimaud et Julien Wacquez, « Futurological vertigo »Terrain [En ligne], 79 | 2023, mis en ligne le 13 avril 2023, consulté le 19 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Emmanuel Grimaud

Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative, CNRS

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Julien Wacquez

Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative, IHTP, ComUE Université Paris Lumières

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