Mapping the future
how to, when to, why to
Mapping the Future
Richard Hakluyt (HAK-loot) used to go down to the London docks and quiz sailors back from long voyages.
His mission: to discover everything anyone knew about the New World and how to get there.
Hakluyt’s mission mattered because Elizabethans could be spectacularly casual about their trips to the new world. That’s why so many of them never came home.
Hakluyt wanted to capture what the explorers knew. He wanted to get it on paper. In the place of guess work, he wanted system. In the place of stories, he wanted a body of knowledge, new expertise, discipline and accuracy.
Here’s a map of the world as Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) understood it.
There are big chunks missing here. Cartographers had a rough idea of South America. North America was mostly a mystery.
Our future looks a lot like this. There are big chunks missing. Lots of guess work. Lots of stories. Not much system. Not much discipline.
Our futurists are a lot like Elizabethan sailors. They just set off across the ocean. And sometimes, they come to rest in the “Indies.” For want of a community of Hakluyts mapping the world, they aren’t really sure where they are. They hope they’ve discovered a passage to India, a watery silk road, but of course they can be wrong by many thousands of miles.
Mapping-the-Future is undertaken in the spirit of Hakluyt. Can we gather our knowledge? Can we quiz the travelers? Can we build a system? Can we get serious about this adventure?
Once the future was charming, the subject of science fiction magazines and World Fairs. Then it became less benign, less promising but still beckoning. Alvin Toffler talked about future shock, but believed we could manage. Clayton Christensen talked about disruption but he too had a plan.
Now that we are well into the 21st century, the future looks faster, nearer, meaner. Those who dream of empire know they have to go there. It’s not optional. And those who wish to avoid “wild beasties” that disrupt and devour enterprises, they have to go there too. The future is both more dangerous and less optional.
And the rest of us? Now that the future so insistently invades the present, one paradigmatic thing is clear. We can’t “wait til we get there.” We have to start now. And that, I believe, means we have get a little less casual and a lot more like Hakluyt. We have to start mapping the future.
Examples and illustrations
Mapping the future is going to take teamwork
About Grant McCracken
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. His new book A New Honor Code will be published by Simon and Schuster in January 2021. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. Grant has taught at Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He is a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project. He is the inventor of The Griff, an early warning system for social and cultural change. He consults widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Sony, Coca Cola, Sam Adams, Boston Book Festival, Oprah, PBS, State Farm, NBC, Diageo, IBM, Nike, and the White House. He is the winner of the Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America for his work with Netflix. He is credited with spotting the rise of Donald Trump, the fall of Second Life, and the disruption of CPG by Alice Waters and the artisanal movement. His performance piece the Automated Anthropologist was covered by The New Yorker. With Mitch Hurwitz and Wired magazine, Grant helped create what AdAge calls the “Snow Fall” of native advertising for Netflix. Malcolm Gladwell has called his work “brilliant.”