Reading a talk given by science fiction author Ken Macleod, I came across this bit:
I used the term 'legacy code' in one of my novels, and Farah Mendlesohn, a science-fiction critic who read it thought it was a term I had made up, and she promptly adapted it for critical use as 'legacy text'. Legacy text is all the other science fiction stories that influence the story you're trying to write, and that generally clutter up your head even if you never read, let along write, the stuff. Most of us have default images of the future that come from Star Trek or 2001 or 1984 or Dr Who or disaster movies or computer games. These in turn interact with the tendency to project trends straightforwardly into the future.
What immediately struck me is that we all have this kind of cognitive "legacy code" in our thinking about the future, not just science fiction writers, and it comes from more than just pop-culture media. We get legacy futures in business from old strategies and plans, legacy futures in politics from old budgets and forecasts, and legacy futures in environmentalism from earlier bits of analysis. Legacy futures are rarely still useful, but have so thoroughly colonized our minds that even new scenarios and futures models may end up making explicit or implicit references to them.
In some respects, the jet pack is the canonical legacy future, especially given how the formulation (originally from Calvin & Hobbes, I believe), of "where's my jet pack?" has become a widely-used phrase representing disappointment with the future instantiated in the present.
People who follow my Twitter stream may recognize another example of a legacy future: Second Life. While the jet pack never really became part of anything other than Disneyfied visions of Tomorrowland, over the past five years or so Second Life came to represent for professional forecasters and futurists the vision of the Metaverse. Even though Second Life has yet to live up to any of the expectations thrust upon it by people outside of the online game industry, it has doggedly maintained its presence as a legacy future.
Just like legacy code makes life difficult for programmers, legacy futures can make life difficult for futures thinkers. Not only do we have to describe a plausibly surreal future that fits with current thinking, we have to figure out how to deal with the leftover visions of the future that still colonize our minds. If I describe a scenario of online interaction and immersive virtual worlds, for example, I know that the resulting discussion will almost certainly include people trying to map that scenario onto their existing concept of how Second Life represents The Future.
Sure, Second Life futurism may be a particular irritant for me, but the legacy futures concept can have much more troubling implications.
We can see it in discussions of post-petroleum transportation that continue to elevate hydrogen fuel cells as The Answer, even though most eco-futurists and green automotive thinkers now regard that technology as something of a dead end. We can see it in population projections that don't account for either healthcare technologies extending both productive lives and overall lifespans. We can see it in both visions of a sustainable future reminiscent of 1970s commune life, and visions of a viable future that don't include dealing with massive environmental disruption.
All of these were once legitimate scenarios for what tomorrow might hold -- not predictions, but challenges to how we think and plan. For a variety of reasons, their legitimacy has faded, but their hold on many of us remains.
This leaves us with two big questions: