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

  • The Griff

    This is my map of the future.

    I know it doesn’t look like a map of space, but then it’s a map of time.

    Each of these tiles represents something I think could transform us.

    How did I compile it? Over several years, I have kept a list of things that made me go “hmm.”

    There are around 250 tiles here. This is beginning to feel like a useful number. There is one futurist who tracks 200,000 trends. Too many, surely. Others prefer to trumpet just one thing (the next big thing, dammit!). Too few.

    The idea is to start small. With a thought, a glimmer, a thing that might be a thing. Or to use the language of engineering, “noise” that doesn’t really qualify as “signal.”

    That is the challenge here. We have to see things early, when they don’t really look like things at all. And then we have to be prepared to repudiate them in the event they were really just “noise” after all. Or to watch them transform themselves into something entirely unexpected.

    I have a bias when it comes to mapping the future. As an anthropologist, I’m interested especially in the social and the cultural things that will have shape our future, sometimes as causes, sometimes as effects.

  • 2 How the Griff works
    outtake from Griff, with red rectangle around the term Empathy

    Empathy may seem like a weird thing to spot and track. What can it possibly have to do with our future?

    Well, we all listened to the 2020 Democratic nomination of Joe Biden. The term “empathy” featured so prominently, it has been called the theme of the conference.

    “Asked and answered,” you might say. “The Dems were distinguishing themselves from Trump, a man widely seen not to care about the feelings of others.”

    Well, yes, and no. The point is that all presidents are now measured on their empathy. With Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Nixon no one cared.

    In fact, the Google Ngram (below) suggests that empathy didn’t use to matter at all. And then it began rising steadily.

    Google Ngram Viewer on “empathy”

    And this leaves us with a question: why the stratospheric rise? What is it about empathy that appeals to us so deeply? Why is this a feature of contemporary culture? Why does so much “heat” attend the term?

    So, yes, I am keeping a watch on empathy and the puzzle it represents.

    The software I’m using here is called TheBrain. It helps us visualize all the things we’re trying to track. And it allows us to attach research materials to any one of our tiles.

    If we click on the term “empathy” below…

    outtake from Griff, with red rectangle around the term Empathy

    …we can see what’s beneath the empathy tile.

    There are a variety of data points. Some are blog posts. One is the Wikipedia entry for empathy. The Ngram data is there. I had a conversation with Lenore Skenazy that touched on it. This is stored in Notion, and I have a pointer to it there. And you can see me asking myself “does empathy make a diffusion journey?” This is me wondering whether “empathy” began in some corner or class of our culture and spread.

    This subentry also captures a passage I have clipped from a good book by Susan Lanzoni on the topic. (See on the right-hand side of the image below.) I have a strong hunch that Lanzoni’s definition of empathy is NOT the one now circulating so widely. And that’s a “finding” all on its own.

    So the watch is on. I will continue to look for evidence that tells me what the empathy trend is, where it comes from, where it’s going, and what our interest in empathy tells us about the state of American culture.

    By itself, this tiny fragment of American culture is neither here nor there. It doesn’t really tell us very much. But added to lots of other fragments, it begins to give us a larger picture, something like a map. Especially when we wire this map up with ethnographic data (person to person, talking data), survey data, statistical data and someday, AI.

    As we approach the completion of this map, there will be strange and wonderful discoveries. Take, for instance, what happens when we ask Google Trends to break out empathy data by state. It turns out (below) that the part of the US where people are least interested in empathy is Washington, D.C. How very telling!

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.”