Sunday, October 21, 2007

about ways of thinking about the future

I follow or take part in lots of discussions of the future, and besides being keen on all the juicy futurific topics themselves, I always find myself noticing the ways people think about the future, and wondering, how should we think about it?

For instance (and because I'm self-conscious about this): what do I even mean by "the future?" People are always thinking about the future: tonight's dinner, a coat of paint for the house, college for the kids... Everything's about the future; what sense making it a separate topic? What's up with treating it like something new?

So one way to think about "the future" is skepticism at the term. What assumptions is someone smuggling in under such a generality? Will they use it to excuse themselves from common sense in some way? On the other hand I'm being slightly disingenuous and dramatic because of course I think there's a Future.

Turning around now, my instinctive response to any two-sentence dismissal or debunking of a popular belief or concept, is to wonder how the supposed debunking can be used to clarify just what the wisdom in the popular wisdom is, so:

The difference between The Future and tonight's dinner is that people have planned a lot of dinners before. The Future is what's unprecedented, and not just the random exact placement of an almond sliver on a green bean, but, well there's an html thingie for a Spanish Inquisition of things like this:
  • unprecidented--at least to most people
  • coming soon to a theater near you
  • important--at least to a lot of us
  • non-random and possible to think about in useful chunks
I have seen gung-ho futurists, budding technocrats out to finally rid us of things I hold dear, and people who think that my favorite improvements will destroy everything they hold dear. Some people focus on an ironic harm to the exclusion of everyday good. People fret over piecemeal scenarios like, "What happens when everyone lives to 200 but retires at 65?" There's a particular form of optimism disguised as skepticism, as in, "I know why that's never going to happen." A lot of questions aren't so much about the future as let back out of the box by thinking about it. If everything is up for grabs, then, What does it all mean!?

Do you know the answer to that one? It doesn't do to just dismiss all the crazies and worriers-- especially if you think that anyone who isn't worried isn't paying attention. Change really seems to be happening faster, while our lifetimes are getting longer, so that more times more is being stuffed into our brains. "The future" seems to be defined by what's difficult to think about. Sometimes it's a demon who carefully tends our buried muddles until they sprout in our front yards.

I want to know, how can we think about this stuff without going nuts? In particular, are there ways to get handles on things to turn them for the better, in some qualitative way better than just building better mousetraps and bandaids, greasing the skids?

For that matter, what kind of future counts as okay, worth working toward, sufficiently grand? How can it be possible for people to see the future as something other than baffling, scary and alienating? One metaphor (getting slightly ahead of myself) is of continually re-packing for the Mayflower-- what's worth keeping and can be packed in a trunk? Can we take seeds?

I collected lists of ideas, both fallacious and hopeful, in the backs of a couple notebooks, enough to write about for at least a month. Time to dig em up and air em out.

1 comment:

jm said...

You have made a beautiful statement, Steve, both in form and content. For me the sentence “Will they use it to excuse themselves from common sense in some way?” was worth the price of admission (so to speak), with “How can it be possible for people to see the future as something other than baffling, scary and alienating?” a close second. I wish you the best with this new blog.

Let me chime in with a few random comments about the Future (and the past):

1. You ask, “how can we think about this stuff without going nuts?” I’ve been asking that about garden-variety philosophy for decades. In fact, maybe I have gone nuts.
2. Blogs are themselves a big part of “the future” for me (as in, “the future is now”). They are something totally wonderful and yet, as my communist namesake might have put it, seem to contain an internal contradiction. For their infinite proliferation makes it impossible to keep up with them. I assure you that I will not be checking yours regularly, even though I think it is likely to be superb. Simply because I have come upon many others I would also like to follow, but I hardly have time to … write my own! Will the medium of unlimited communication therefore turn out to be the new wastebasket into which every writer’s output falls? Will total accessibility become the most effective possible censorship? I know I’m not the first to have these thoughts.
3. OK, here’s a bona fide thought about the Future. I used to think of certain anticipated Big Events as all-of-a-sudden catastrophes – asteroid impact, or 9/11 for that matter, being paradigmatic. But when I observe the way in which global warming has, quite suddenly it seems (with the awarding of Gore’s Nobel Prize?), become not only accepted fact but in progress, I see that the future can kind of creep up on one and then become a part of daily life. An analogy is what cancer has become. It used to be (you know, in the distant past, like maybe five years ago) this instantly fatal menace looming over us all. But now it seems (always, “it seems”; I’ve given up trying to know what’s true, or even wondering what true is) that people are diagnosed with cancer and then (with, of course, exceptions) just live with it – “manage” it, as we say. Thus, to generalize, I see the Future, that is, the kind we communally anticipate as opposed to the kind that just happens, becoming manageable (with exceptions, of course: that asteroid could still wipe us out at any moment).

I hope this is the kind of thinking you’ve been meaning to prompt … ‘cause it’s happening.

Best -- Joel