H-Diplo Review Essay 240 on Andersson. The Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post-Cold War Imaginatio

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo Review Essay 240

4 June 2020

Jenny Andersson.  The Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post-Cold War Imagination.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  ISBN:  9780198814337 (hardcover, $78.00).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by James D. Skee, University of California, Berkeley

Managers at Kaiser Aluminum received a curious Christmas present in 1966: copies of the board game “Future.”[1] The game let players explore the impact of potential future developments such as labor strikes, revolutions, ocean mining, household robots, guaranteed universal salaries, and fertility controls. “Future” was created by two RAND scientists, Olaf Helmer and Theodore Gordon.  They based its play mechanics upon Helmer’s Delphi method, a quintessential technique of 1960s futurology.  By the time the “Future” game was published in the late 1960s, Delphi had become RAND’s flagship approach to forecasting and surpassed even the scenario method developed by their more well-known colleague, Herman Kahn.[2]

A cultural history interpretation of an artifact such as “Future” might suggest that the game’s historical significance lies in showing us the kind of future imagined by historical actors such as Helmer and Gordon.  In The Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post-Cold War Imagination Jenny Andersson challenges this interpretation. Rather than viewing such material artifacts like “Future” as simply carriers “of discursive, ideological, or cultural representations of the future” (4), she suggests that we look at both the ideas and methods – including not only Delphi but also scenarios, systems analysis, operations research, and others – as well as newly professionalizing groups of practitioners, that produced those artifacts. Collectively Andersson calls this the field of future research: a “field of struggle” (14) that includes not the more well-known futurology but also the contrasting one of futures studies.  While admitting that the futures imagined by many futurists never came to be, Andersson proposes that their work nonetheless continues to shape the present through forms of governmentality.  More importantly, Andersson compellingly shows how the field of future research was a transnational phenomenon, and not simply one found in American think tanks such as RAND.  In doing so she highlights the need for historians to continue looking beyond the typical subjects of Cold War intellectual history if we want to better understand the impact of the era’s ideas on today’s world.

Andersson begins in the 1940s with the futurism of the American philosopher and historian Lewis Mumford and the German futurist Ossip Flechtheim.  In response to the bomb, Mumford argued that there was a moral obligation for humanity to avoid nuclear armageddon; a renewed concern about the future was key to changing that conduct.  Mumford’s futurism eschewed scientistic prediction, which was quickly coming to prominence at the time and that he believed was too much like totalitarianism.  A member of the German New Left, Flechtheim offered a “Third Way” (47) of thinking about the future that stood apart from both Western liberalism and Soviet Communism.  Mumford and Flechtheim together advocated for making the study of the future a part of American liberal arts curriculum, and therefore a way to reforming humanity.

While Flechtheim is credited with coining the term futurology, his idea of futurology contrasted from that more well-known version which had produced Delphi and “Future.” In this futurology, how to achieve a postwar liberal vision of the world was a question best answered by elite experts.  In the 1950s, the American sociologist Daniel Bell viewed the raw, uncontrolled power of a mass public not as a threat but instead as a question of how to direct its power towards ideal social outcomes.  Across the Atlantic, the French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel sought to rationally evaluate potential social outcomes in order to identify the ideal one. The best-known forms of futurology could be found at the American think tank RAND, where in addition to Herman Kahn’s scenarios there was Olaf Helmer’s Delphi method which, as mentioned above, became the foremost approach to forecasting at RAND.  Helmer intended Delphi to be a method that would “scientifically” (89) create consensus among a group of experts about future developments.  As stage-based models of social development (such as modernization theory) fell out of popularity among social theorists, techniques like systems analysis, scenarios, and Delphi drew attention from thinkers such as Bell due to the method’s suitability for engaging with a future where there were many potential outcomes, not just one. Bell himself popularized Delphi among co-participants at the Commission for the Year 2000.  He also helped secure funding for de Jouvenel’s Futuribles project from the Ford Foundation.

Not everyone in the West accepted the liberal vision of the world’s future advocated by elite futurologists like Bell, de Jouvenel, or Helmer; nor did everyone in the Eastern Bloc accept the vision offered by the Soviet system.  In two of the book’s most fascinating chapters Andersson describes future research in 1960s Europe both east and west of the Iron Curtain.  It is here where Andersson’s wide-ranging field work pays off.  In Chapter 7 Andersson takes us on a tour of future research in the Soviet Bloc, where a humanistic Marxism emerged shortly after Joseph Stalin’s death as an alternative to the stage-driven revisionist Marxism and reform Communism.  During the mid-1960s the Czech philosopher Radovan Richta was at the center of a group of Eastern European intellectuals who explored how future research could aid the larger project of humanistic Marxism.  In chapter 8 Andersson shows us how, in mid-1960s Western Europe, futures studies emerged as part of the larger “protest against [the] Cold War world order” (153).  Participants at the Mankind 2000 conference held in Oslo in September 1967, including the founder of peace studies, Johan Galtung, and the Austrian writer Robert Jungk, proposed futures studies as a “critical futurology” (161) to stand against the futurology of the establishment. They used the latter’s methods in their critical futurology in a kind of swords to ploughshares moment.  They also echoed earlier inter- and post-war thinkers such as Mumford by advocating for a world-spanning human consciousness that privileged human imagination over what they saw as the limitations of scientistic prediction.

Yet the promise of futures studies was, as Andersson tells us, eroded by the advent of a new neoliberal order.  The 1970s witnessed the rise of what Andersson calls the “future factory” (188), where consultants who are professionally trained in the techniques of future research seem more interested in selling their expertise in a professional services marketplace than effecting change for all humanity through government institutions. In the Soviet world the shift was rather sudden: the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ended efforts such as the Richta group in that country, and by 1989 future research helped usher neoliberalism into the former Soviet Bloc.  In the west, the shift was less abrupt, following a more gradual assimilation into the neoliberal marketplace as future researchers simultaneously professionalized and moved away from a systems perspective of humanity to an emphasis on individual development in their forecasting work.

Andersson’s field work is nothing less than impressive, spanning half the globe.  It includes not only archival research but also interviews and ethnographic fieldwork among existing future researchers.  The payoff of this effort is that she convincingly shows us how future research was and continues to be a global phenomenon stretching far beyond the cloistered world of experts at Cold War-era American think tanks and philanthropic institutions.  The book’s cast of characters includes several of the usual suspects from American Cold War intellectual history: RAND, Bell, and Kahn among them.  These are joined by lesser known actors, including de Jouvenel, Helmer, Richta, and Galtung - even L. Ron Hubbard’s second wife, Barbara Marx Hubbard, makes an appearance as the founder of a futurist association in the 1970s.  To find these stories Andersson examined the records of the World Futures Studies Federation (which Andersson notes has now published part of their collections online), Jim Dator’s collection at the University of Manoa, and Ossip Flechtheim’s collection of East European futurists in Frankfurt.  She also conducted nine interviews, corresponded with many futurists, and attended numerous futurist conferences.

I was left wanting more evidence supporting one of Andersson’s more provocative suggestions: that the techniques of future research continue to shape how we govern ourselves today.  She does trace the diffusion of Delphi into non-military applications as RAND itself moved into areas such as social welfare and urban planning, as well as the French government’s adoption of the technique.  She also references R. John Williams 2016 article in Critical Inquiry listing companies that experimented with methods from future research,[3] and describes the flowering of professional journals, conferences, and associations that blossom in the 1970s and 1980s.  Yet the impact of this diffusion is unexplored.  We can explore the question of the impact of future research, and by extension Cold War social science, by turning our collective attention as historians away from RAND.  RAND’s prominence in the book (there are four chapters discussing Delphi) echoes the institution’s prominence in the historiography of Cold War intellectual history.  In fact, the Santa Monica firm, a joint venture between the U.S. Military and Douglas Aircraft, was but one of many similar institutions that emerged after World War II. Consider for example another California firm, Stanford Research Institute (SRI) of Menlo Park.  SRI was the result of a merger between Bay Area industrialists, Stanford academics, and an earlier research institute founded by former Lockheed research staff in Los Angeles in 1945, three years before Douglass teamed up with the military to create Project Rand in nearby Santa Monica.[4] The non-profit research institute actively pursued clients in private industry as early as the late 1940s. Donald Nielson, a former SRI vice president, has given us an excellent published account which reveals the enormous scope of SRI’s impact on our world today. The institute’s “Business Group,” for example, offered long range planning services to industrial clients, and co-sponsored a quadrennial conference with Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune, where leaders of American industry met with representatives of foreign governments concerned about the future of their own states.[5] Although SRIs archives are restricted, the records of many projects worked on by its staff over the decades are readily available to the researcher willing to look for them.

The Future of the World is an important book that properly situates the history of future research during the Cold War within its international context and brings our attention to the methods that futurists used to justify the future worlds they imagined. Andersson’s book also highlights the need for historians to look at the broader institutional landscape of Cold War research firms, of which RAND was just one of many such examples.  Such work will not only help us better understand RAND’s historical significance, but also the ways in which professional expertise, consultancy, and method all intersected to shape the Cold War world and the one that came out of it.


James D. Skee is the Director of Learning & Development at a national technology services firm.  He is also a Visiting Researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society.



[1] For an image of the game see Figure 5.3, 95

[2] Jenny Andersson, Future of the World: futurology, futurists, and the struggle for the post-Cold War imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[3] R. John Williams, “World Futures,” Critical Inquiry 42:3 (Spring 2016): 473-546.

[4] “20 Years: The Story of SRI,” SRI Journal, Feature Issue 4, December 1966.

[5] Donald L. Nielson, A Heritage of Innovation: SRI’s First Half Century (Menlo Park: SRI International, 2004).