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7.11: The Prospective Method

The argument, presented in Chapter 2, that innovations in computer technology, innovations in telecommunications technology, and their convergence in informatics, are sweeping us from an industrial society, based on energy, into a post-industrial society, based on information, is called the post-industrial hypothesis.

I present it here because there is, as yet, no other hypothesis which better explains our current situation, which is best understood as a transitional period between a declining industrial society, based on energy, and an emerging post-industrial society, based on information. The post-industrial hypothesis is summarized in Figure 7-1, as a series of dichotomies which distinguish the industrial and post-industrial societies.

Such a social revolution, like a scientific revolution, can be usefully described as a paradigmatic shift.1 Just as the Einsteinian model subsumed the Newtonian model in physics, so the information society is now subsuming the industrial society. During the current transitional phase, it is important to distinguish the symptoms of the dying of the old paradigm and the symptoms of the birth of the new paradigm. Much of our current confusion is due to the difficulty in distinguishing between death pangs and birth pains. Those two processes may be seen as independent effects of the same underlying cause.

Current conflicts can be seen as between those people still working within the old paradigm and those working within the new paradigm. Some are looking back nostalgically to the receding shore and some, recognizing that we are long past the point of no return, are looking forward to the approaching shore. The former group is clinging to an outmoded framework, which no longer makes sense of our society, and the latter group is struggling to create an alternative framework, which does not yet make sense of our society.

Critics of the post-industrial hypothesis dismiss it as a case study of technological determinism. It is tempting to dismiss the critics in turn as Marie Antoinettes. (She was quoted as saying, shortly before she was beheaded, What revolution?) However, they do help remind us that the technology, in itself, is not causing the change but is merely the means used by powerful economic forces towards commercial ends.

Social scientists, like myself, tend to limp along far behind the turbulent wake of the economic-technological revolution in the laudable but laughable attempt to assess its psychological and social implications. This standard situation can perhaps be modified somewhat by exploring a means whereby the economic and technological changes can be determined by psychological and social considerations.

This means is the Prospective approach,2 which considers the future "not as something which is already decided and which gradually reveals itself to us but as something which is to be created".3 "One begins by defining ends which are noble enough to be generally pursued and thus can be incorporated into the culture of the society. Then action can be defined through a constant interplay of ends, available means, and present reality".4 This method has been advocated and used by Kenneth Boulding, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and many other scholars.5

The Prospective approach makes the common-sense assumption that, in order to get from A to B, one must first know where A is and where B is. In this case, A is the communication system before the current wave of technological innovations and B is the communication system after the revolution. This requires a shift in emphasis from trends from the past to visions of the future. It requires "imagination and the ability to conceive of utopias ".6 Unless we make the shift from trends to visions, our future will be determined by facts rather than values. To quote the famous philosopher Casey Stengel "If you don't know where you're going, you're likely to end up someplace else ".

Rather than following the day-by-day, blow-by-blow ripples on the surface - announcements of new products and processes, companies merging and splitting, debates and regulations, the prospective approach is to look ahead at the structure of the Canadian communication system (and, hence, to a large extent of Canadian society) after the penetration of this current wave of informatics technology. This book could be viewed as a progress report toward that future vision - that is, as an interpolation between the present and this future vision rather than an extrapolation of trends from the past.

The broad design of the emerging system is becoming clear. It will be a system integrated around the lowest common denominator of zeros and ones. Information (data, text, images, voices) will be stored and processed digitally in an increasingly integrated network of computer nodes and telecommunication links.

The paradigmatic shift has taken place. What remains to be done is simply puzzle-solving. How can we continue to store more memory in less space? How can we continue to process more information over smaller lines? How can we design input devices to feed different materials into digital form? How can we design output devices to convert zeros and ones into different forms?

The prospective method involves three stages:

  • Description of the system before the revolution - where A is.
  • Prescription of the system after the revolution - where B is.
  • Means-ends analysis of realistic means to those idealistic ends - how to get from A to B.
Let us look at each step in turn, as they apply to the communication system in Canada.

1   The argument for paradigmatic shifts in the history of science is presented in Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Second Edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. The argument that the same model can be applied to paradigmatic shifts in society is presented in Eileen L. McDonagh, Attitude changes and paradigm shift: Social psychological foundations of the Kuhnian thesis. Social Studies of Science, 1976, 6, Pages 51-76.

2   Michel Godet, The Crisis in Forecasting and the Emergence of the Prospective Method. New York: Pergamon, 1979.

3   G. Berger, The prospective attitude in A Coumand and M. Lvy (Editors), Shaping the Future. New York: Gordon & Breach Science Publishers, 1973, Pages 245-249.

4   Bettina J. Huber, Images of the future. In J. Fowles (Editor), Handbook of Futures Research. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1978, Pages 179.244.

5   Bertrand de Jouvenel (Editor). Futuribles: Studies in Conjecture. Geneva: Droz, 1963.

Kenneth E. Boulding. The Meaning of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

6   Langdon Winner, On Criticizing Technology in Albert H. Teich (Editor), Technology and Man's Future [Second Edition]. New York: St.Martin's Press, 1977.