Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Four Futures: One Humanity

Posted on | January 2, 2020 | No Comments

I’ve had a long-term interest in an area of research called “Futures Studies.” I read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock in high school and Third Wave in college and reading science fiction actually led to my studies in biochemistry and other sciences as an undergraduate. But the future is hard to predict and it was coming on so fast that by the 1990s, one of my favorite authors, William Gibson, quipped appropriately, “the best science fiction is on CNN.” So I wrote my PhD dissertation on electric money in dystopias and I continue to use “cy-fi” or cyberpunk as a mode of investigation for social and technological changes.

This post looks at a few of my favorite futurists and a book I recently found intriguing that presented four visions of the future.

One of my favorite futurists was Buckminister Fuller. He mixed science with politics and had a unique view on economics. Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science was the name he gave to his approach to the future.

It was, in part, based on his “Synergetics” science that would eventually lead to a significant discovery in chemistry called Fullerenes or “Bucky Balls.” These are small soccer ball-like molecules that are leading to new materials and medicines. One of his first inventions based on Synergetics was the geodesic dome, which provided durable protection for radar installations starting in the Cold War and is still used in the design of many buildings.

Fuller challenged the status quo with his peculiar use of language that seemed to counter common sense and yet is surprisingly insightful. He often used the metaphor of a bow and arrow to describe the importance of history in the study of the future. The further back you can pull the bow’s string, he explained, the farther the arrow will travel. Likewise, he believed the further back you take your historical analysis, the better you can project into the future. Fuller promoted a utopian future based on technologies, if those technologies were based on synergetic design principles, and did more with less.

Another major influence was Jim Dator, a professor at the University of Hawaii while I was working on my PhD. He dissuaded his students of the idea of a one true future whose probability could be calculated with positivistic certainty, and suggested we use a futures visioning process to envision and develop several alternative scenarios.

Dator has been working on the analysis of four types of future scenarios: Continued Growth, Decline and Collapse, Limits and Discipline, and Transformation. Its possible to use a standard S growth curve to visualize these potential paths as shown below.

Continued Growth projects the current emphasis on economic development and its social and environment implications.

Decline and Collapse suggests a catastrophic turnaround due to natural or human-made disasters. Pollution and changes associated with massive carbon dioxide and methane releases are current concerns as they are linked with massive weather changes influencing droughts, floods, and wildfires.

Limits and Discipline appeals to a society that values precious places, processes, or values that are threatened by the existing economic and social trajectory. In this scenario, it is believed that life should be “disciplined” around a set of fundamental cultural, ideological, scientific, or religious values, including “green” solutions such as recycling or social distancing and mask-wearing in pandemic times.

Finally, a Transformative society anticipates a radical makeover of society based on technological or biological revolutions. A “singularity” of network connected humans and AI is one projected scenario. The creation of new genetically reconfigured “posthuman” bodies is another vision, perhaps due to the viral innovations of COVID-19 research. This scenario posits entirely redesigned sets of global economic and political structures.

S curve futures

So I was immediately drawn to Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (2016) by Peter Frase when it was recommended by a former classmate. It is an extremely interesting read. His publisher Verso, advertises it as “an exhilarating exploration into the utopias and dystopias that could develop from present society.”

For Frase, something new is coming, and its based on two main drivers: climate change and automation. These issues are bringing problems and promises for humanity and will likely result in one of four scenarios:

  • a society of equality and abundance (Communism);
  • a society of hierarchy and abundance (Rentism);
  • a society of equality and scarcity (Socialism); and;
  • a society of hierarchy and scarcity (Exterminism).

Or at least we can use these four “ideal types” to think about the future and plan strategies for approximating a preferred one.[1] They set up contrasting visions of the future and work to produce an analytical structure that provides provocative ideas and insights. Granted some of these terms are quite charged in contemporary society. Communism is the boogeyman of the right, Exterminism is the great fear of the left. Rentism is probably the most unfamaliar term but maybe the most relevant.

Socialism is a future that has not kicked its hydrocarbon habits but decides to share the misery. Frase puts socialism at the conjunction of equality and scarcity. Or as China’s Deng Xio Peng pondered after he replaced Mao, “I can distribute poverty or I can distribute wealth.” Contemporary socialism operates within the limits of hydrocarbon access on the one hand, and the extreme ecological damage it creates on the other.

Addressing the resultant environmental issues may create new conditions for democratic governance and distribution. Moving from carbon scarcity to electric abundance is the major economic and technological challenge of our time, but a post-scarcity without provisions for equality present equal dangers.

Exterminism is a future of both scarcity and inequality. Automation has made labor redundant, and environmental damage has made them dangerous. The rich hide in “enclave societies” behind gates or perhaps “off-world” and become increasingly desensitized to the conditions of the poor. Just as tabulating machines, punched cards, and tattooed prisoners enabled the Nazi’s Final Solution, social media and big data technologies are available for identifying those classified as unwanted by a society. Immigrants, refugees, gender deviants, as well as poor people in general, could be easily targeted.

Rentism is a future that is produced when strong intellectual property (IP) laws persist and dominate over a new era of manufactured commodities and creative products. These are produced by 3-D printers and Star Trek-like replicators as well as digital cameras and other ICTs. We already live in a world economy dominated by supply chains that produce major international flows of royalty payments. Copyrights and patents bestow rents to the owner of these intellectual properties, making them the newly rich and also creating a new era of scarcity. Legalism will proliferate to keep track of all the IP uses, but AI will largely replace lawyers.

This is not your father’s Communism. This is a highly automated future with increased leisure time and a new abundance of resources based on renewal energy. Frase sees it as the combination of social equality and economic abundance. I prefer the term Utopianism as it’s differently loaded with meaning.

While some think this only comes with great political mobilization and struggle, Frase believes this process will be facilitated by technological change and the institutional responses that come with regulatory adjustments. Those technological changes will also be the catalyst for a stronger democracy.

Frase grounds his work in The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014), by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. The first machine age was made possible by the application of steam power to industrial processes that led to subsequent innovations in energy and other technologies changing work, society, and the economy. Brynjolfsson and McAfee argued the second machine age is based on digital technologies. These technologies produce information that has little to no marginal costs when reproduced and shared, continues to double in processing power every two years, and stays user-friendly with its “combinatorial” power.

Music, for example, can be reproduced and distributed with little cost and distributed to smartphones with incredible abilities to provide high-quality sound, produce playlists, and provide lyrics and other artist information. That same device records data, takes and stores pictures, makes phone calls. The authors call this “bounty,” massive benefits allowing us to do Bucky Fuller’s more with less – like talking or videoconferencing overseas for hours for virtually no cost.

Lastly, the term “spread” refers to the increasing inequality that is also resulting from the widespread adoption of new technology. Automation will continue to eliminate routine jobs and at least keep wages stagnating in certain areas. Furthermore, networked technologies tend to create winner-take-all markets, and the globally linked stock markets have dramatically improved the wealth of investors.

These digital technologies produce more: more education, more entertainment, more health care, more travel, etc. Still, the future of the social and political institutions that they will produce is yet to be determined. Futures studies is an interesting exercise in thinking about available directions and choices to be made.


[1] The notion of ideal types comes primarily from Max Weber.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, Victoria University in New Zealand. He keeps his American home in Austin, Texas and has taught there in the Digital Media MBA program atSt. Edwards University He joyfully spent 9 years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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