For several decades now I have been contemplating our relationship with the future.

Many of my colleagues think of me as that crazy guy who assigns human attributes to this thing we call the future.

On occasion you can hear me uttering phrases like, “I know it’s going to be a great day because the future is clearly happy with me today.” Or, “no, that’s not a good idea because the future is probably going to push it off a cliff.”

At one point I even tried to convince my wife that the future wanted me to buy a new car, but she wasn’t buying it.

So why is it so important to study the future? For starters, we all have a vested interest in it. We will all be living in the future.

The Physics of Time Vs the Physics of the Future

“As physicists, we believe the separation between past, present, and future
is only an illusion, although a convincing one.” – Albert Einstein

From everything I’ve studied, past observers have focused on the concept of the future as being a consequence of time, rather than a stand-alone force of nature. So, is the future merely the result of the movement of time, or is the future itself a definable force?

Since all of the formulas we use to make sense out of our physical existence are logic-based constructs within a known framework of understanding, I would propose that we revise our thinking about this abstract phenomenon we refer to as the “future.”

While many will have difficulty wrapping their mind around this concept, I would like to propose the notion that the laws of time are different than the laws of the future. No, I’m not going to try to prove this point with an endless array of mathematical formulas. Instead, I will present you with a uniquely different vantage point from which you can draw your own conclusions.

The History of the Future

In researching past “laws of the future” I came upon three examples that illustrate how we, as humans, view our relationship with the future. Each of these “laws” requires much more explanation so I’ve added some links so you can probe their thinking further.

1.) Sir Arthur C. Clarke liked the number three, and his Three Laws of the Future helped to make him famous. But they evolved over time. Here is the final version of Clarke’s Laws of the Future:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Clarke often joked that Newton had three laws, and so three were also enough for him. Additionally, his friend and colleague Isaac Asimov, with whom he sometimes competed, had his Three Laws of Robotics. However, in the 1999 edition of Profiles of the Future, Clarke added one additional law: “For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.”

2.) Mary O’Hara-Devereaux, Ph.D., is an internationally renowned futurist and author specializing in the future of work. She presented her four “laws of the future” at the WorldatWork’s 2007 Annual Conference:

  1. If something is unsustainable in the long run, it will come to an end.
  2. If something big is going to happen, it has to start somewhere.
  3. People overreact to short term ramifications of innovation but underestimate its long term effects.
  4. Beware of conventional wisdom because it is usually wrong.

3.) Jim Dator is a Professor, and Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa. Here are “Dator’s Laws of the Future” in abbreviated form.

  1. “The future” cannot be “predicted” because “the future” does not exist.
  2. Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.
  3. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

The last statement was first made by Canadian futurist and philosopher, Marshall McLuhan.

12 Laws of the Future

We live in a very backward-looking society. We are backward-looking because we have all personally experienced the past. When we look around us, we see evidence of the past everywhere we look. The past is very knowable.

And yet we will be spending the rest of our lives in the future.

It’s almost as if we are walking backwards into the future.

My job as a futurist is to help turn people around and give them some understanding of the driving forces that are forging the world of tomorrow.

As a way of making the future understandable, I have assembled a series of “12 Laws” to both expand our thinking and put it into a usable framework for others to work with.

1.) The future is one of nature’s greatest forces. It is a force so massive that the entire universe is being pulled forward in time simultaneously. We have no choice in this matter. The future will happen whether or not we agree to participate. There is no known way for us to either speed it up, slow it down, or even try to stop it. The pace with which the future is unfolding is constant, and at the same time, relentless.

2.) The present is separated from the future by an invisible “field of knowability.” Everything in the present is knowable, but in the future, nothing is completely knowable. We can personally witness, experience, and make sense of the present, but on the other side of this interface lies a veil of understanding that we don’t yet have.

3.) Each of us experiences the unfolding of the future differently. Every person is on their own personal journey. We each have our own ringside seat as we personally watch the field of knowability reveal itself to us in a unique and different manner. We are the star of our own hyper-individualized storyline.

4.) The future is non-existent until it exists, but we create our own approach vectors. The energy that exists in the present creates an inertia that flows into the future. The inertia that is in place as we leave the present is still in place as we enter the future. If we witness the act of someone throwing a baseball, using a superfast strobe light, each billionth of a second motion is tied directly to the next billionth of a second motion. Our inertias give motion to the present and direction to our future.

5.) The future is being formed amidst a backdrop of existing inertias. On a personal level we are each dealing with the inertia of our body and the inertia of our mind. Both are constantly in motion. At the same time, our personal inertias are taking place inside the context of every other person’s inertia, as well as the inertia of every other thing around us. Nature has its own sets of inertia, with the forces of nature providing the inertia for every living and every non-living molecule in the entire universe.

6.) The “unknowability” of the future is what gives us our drive and motivation. The fact that the future is unknowable is a good thing. Our involvement in the game of life is based on our notion that we as individuals can make a difference. If we somehow remove the mystery of what results our actions will have, we also dismantle our individual drives and motivations for moving forward.

7.) Predictions are based on probabilities, and most of our future is being formed upon a foundation of stable slow-changing elements that can be predicted with a high degree of probability. As humans, we tend to focus on the volatile and ignore that which is stable. Buildings, trees, and mountains change very little from one day to the next. Only rarely do they undergo a radical transformation quickly. The earth’s orbit around the sun, the speed of light, the changing of the seasons, the schedule of tides, the frequency of quartz crystals, and the laws of gravity are all predictable with a high degree of probability.

8.) The future is not a human-centric force. Without human influence, the future tends to be very cold and unforgiving. The future doesn’t care whether you’re happy or sad, employed or unemployed, married or single, personally content or emotionally adrift. The future is like a machine, impervious to our wishes, ambivalent to our goals. Only humans care about these things. At the same time, without humans, the future doesn’t matter because there will be no one to care.

9.) Amidst a backdrop of existing inertias, the future is ours to create. We do not have direct control over the future, but new inertias can be created and existing ones can be influenced. The future is constantly being formed in the minds of people around us. Each person’s understanding of what the future holds will influence the decisions they make today. As we alter someone’s vision of the future, we also alter the way they make decisions in the present.

10.)  Thinking about the future will cause it to change. The very act of thinking about the future creates a new inertia, and this inertia changes our energy flows into the future. The “future part of the brain” is like a muscle that rarely gets exercised. But the more we use it the better we get at leveraging the powers and energies of the future.

11.) The future is filled with power and energy. The inertia of all matter in the universe is like a massive river of power and energy flowing from the present into the future. As humans, we only have the ability to affect a tiny microcosm of change. But our seemingly insignificant existence can have massive implications.

12.)  Every avalanche begins with the movement of a single snowflake. Our ability to tap into and leverage the power of the future is directly tied to the number of times we think about it. The more we think about the future, the more we expand our understanding of it. And the more we understand the future, the easier it becomes for us to interact with it.

Famous Quote Series 11

My goal in creating these “laws of the future” is to prompt a conversation that will help further refine our thinking. I’m looking for feedback about what you agree with, disagree with, and what needs more explanation. So please, let me know your thoughts.

“The future is where our children live”

Our desire to leave a legacy is a uniquely human attribute. But our legacy becomes meaningless if we don’t have new generations of people to pass it on to.

To many this may sound like an obvious statement, but to those in the business world, there is a constant battle being waged over the needs of the present vs. the needs of the future. It’s very easy to place short-term profitability ahead of long term problems.

At the same time, the future cannot be our only priority otherwise we lose our ability to function in the present, and here is where it gets confusing. Near-term futures invariably take precedent over long-term futures, but our ability to prioritize importance is directly tied to the context of our own inertias.

Our thinking about the future cannot be made against a simple black and white, right vs. wrong backdrop. Every microcosm is a part of a larger microcosm, and I tend to agree with Mary O’Hara-Devereaux when she says, “Beware of conventional wisdom because it is usually wrong.”

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

16 Responses to “12 Laws of the Future”

Comments List

  1. Mark Turner

    I've been reading some Winston Churchill recently. Here are two interesting ideas relating to the future: 1) It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look farther than you can see. 2) The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.
  2. tom

    The use of the word "interface" suggests potential interactivity. What the range of "tools" exist in this regard and how can they be used to interact with the possible futures? I am familiar with the use of scenarios and scenario planning which always seemed very research intensive but perhaps required. On the flip side, the more inputs (present information) you provide, the more constraints on the possible alternate futures. Further, we need to be able to understand what alternate future is unfolding based on what we thought was going to happen so that we can improve our "interactions" with the future and possibly the tools we use to interface with it.
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Brian Enke</a>

    Hi Tom - Brilliant article (as always)! I like the quote, “The future is where our children live.” This drive motivates me to write SF, and it also motivates space-related futurist groups like the Mars Society who wonder, "Will our kids ever grow up so we can kick them out of the house?" Or phrased more philosophically, will the future be "greater" in scope or perspective than the present? This is a question of size, or perhaps of conservation of mass and energy between past, present, and future. Is the future growing or shrinking? Is it even possible for the future to grow or shrink - or is the system closed? If mass or energy is lost, where did it go? If gained, was it "created" or where else could it come from? I don't see this important issue addressed above yet... or maybe it is and I'll see it when my head stops spinning. Perhaps it is related to #10, if "change" could imply growth/shrinkage... so perhaps the transfer of energy that creates "new future" comes directly from us?
    • admin

      Brian, Great question - "Is the future growing or shrinking?" I spent most of the weekend pondering this question but wasn't able to come up with any way for us to know. So the short answer is - I don't know. But I will keep working on it because I find it to be a fascinating question. One thought I did have was that maybe gravity is a force that only occurs in the future, and dissolves as soon as it reaches a point of knowability. So all that remains is the inertia. Anything that occurs outside of the realm of knowability, in a future state as opposed to the present, would be non-discernible with our present-oriented technology. I'm pretty sure this line of thinking would involve rewriting all of the laws of physics, but that may indeed help us find the missing elements. Tom
  4. <a href='http://www.Insearchofeagles.comm' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Bill Shirley</a>

    Tom, The collective thrust of your 12 laws seem to support some concepts I've "massaged" for several years surrounding the observation that we use our minds to create our own (perception of) reality. It is our thoughts, most of them below our awareness, that control our destiny. One of the concepts that flow from your laws is: "Life is Binary: "1" or "0": In all situations, we are either Responsible or we are a Victim! There is no other alternative." It is amazing what follows when leaders internalize this belief into their reality.
  5. Charles Sorensson

    Thomas I thoroughly enjoy your deep insights - thanks. Often we say the word "future" (singular) like it is one definable future. I can picture the emerald city of Oz, but what was the future of Oz after the wizard left? My sense of the future is that it is becoming more complex and evanescent, like roiling clouds or the multi-year ecology of a coral reef. Probably I am assuming the future is a function of human population or easy access to knowledge. At any rate, I cannot imagine a shrinking future. Instead I imagine a multitude of fleeting ones. I understand that modern avalanch risks are assessed by identifying communities of snowflakes with a predilection to move strangely and as one. Does this model suggest a better way to predict the future? Where are the latent pots that are ready to boil? Egypt comes to mind... Another model of predicting the future is to future design. The world needs more nutritious rice so globally funded consortia have been collaborating to achieve that goal (e.g. IRRI golden rice). Global policies have resulted in strong reductions in CFCs (which I appreciate considering it is summer and I live below an ozone hole). Who is imagining what the future world should look like and what the prerequisites are to GET THERE? It seems as if most cannot imagine the world collaborating on such a scale. That is a very sad thought if it is true. What if it was not? I like rule No. 10: thinking about the future will change it. This is intuitively correct - the future starts within our own minds. But thinking together about the future is probably equally critical - thus the power of blogs like yours. The best rules are the ones that say if something seems impossible it is probably possible. Maybe a close cousin is to say that the future is dominated by (re)solved paradoxes. Perhaps this is a third model of future predicting - scenario plan given that assumption. Such a heretical model does not rest on the presumption that future forecasting is based on likelihoods (probabilities) but rather Black Swan-type unlikelihoods. Regards
    • admin

      Charles, Thanks for your comments. To answer your question, no, this model does not come with a better way to predict the future. However, why bother predicting the future when you can control it. In some of my future writings I will be discussing techniques for controlling certain aspects of the future. Control always trumps prediction. Is that a good teaser? Tom
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jeffrey Ross</a>

    Yes yes yes.. I wonder if these things are already within our minds from birth.. love everything you talk about..agree, understand and use... Thank you for putting what I believe into words I understand...completely.. yes why bother predictingthe future, rather control it all...with thought. Everything we see around us was thought it moved from the present into the future... "The gift is in the moment...that's why they call it the present"..! :)
  7. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>» Laws of the Future (from Thomas Frey) aeqquus</a>

    [...] “It is a force so massive that the entire universe is being pulled forward in time simultaneously. We have no choice in this matter. The future will happen whether or not we agree to participate. There is no known way for us to either speed it up, slow it down, or even try to stop it. The pace with which the future is unfolding is constant, and at the same time, relentless.” – Thomas Frey, Futurist (link) [...]
  8. Jeremiah

    Thom, when I read the famous books its clear that nothing happening or ought to happen on this globe that had not existed. It sounds that everything had taken place before, only that the existing generation was not there. However, I also wonder why is the future so hidden? Because if we were able to find it consistent, we could read it from the history! lets keep brain storming about the Future!!!!!
  9. Louis Sant' Angelo

    THe future is shaped by a myriad forces some more or much more powerful than others.Some forces such as known physical laws can be approximately understood whilst others are hidden and mysterious. Some forces can be seen to be already in operation whilst others are yet to come to light. The beautiful thing is that the human search for happiness is fullfilled in the actual struggle quite indepedent of final future results.
  10. jamfez

    "The future is filled with power and energy." Yes, sure, but what is energy? Really. Has anyone ever seen a joule? The 12 laws are very clever, engaging, intriguing. They are also squarely based on uncertainty. But one thing is for certain: Every person will expire from this existence.
  11. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jim MacKenzie</a>

    Tom, The problem with knowing the future is this: Our present is the future of some past. Even years ago, many people were dreaming about today and what it would look like. Today seems so obvious to us now. Why doesn't tomorrow seem as obvious? Thanks for all your insight. I look forward to reading your blog for many years to come. Cheers.
  12. James

    This is has to be one of the most incredible things I've ever read. I was doing homework on Laws and randomly came upon this. Life Changing.
  13. Timothy Dolan

    @Mark - Winston Churchill is a very quotable person and I've certainly quoted him often, however, he was not only a poor prognosticator, but a terrible tactician and ideologically ill-equipped as a futurist. He is symptomatic of a species of what are future contraries who drive into the future looking through the rear-view mirror. Most of human history has been routine with short episodes of innovation, or what Jim Dator calls, "novelty". What is now becoming increasingly clear is that novelty is accelerating and with it the comfort of routine is breaking down. We are moving too fast to continue to drive looking through the rear-view mirror.

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