The very long now
A reader links to an interesting debate between Niall Ferguson and Peter Schwartz at the Long Now website. The Long Now foundation, for those who don't know -- and that included myself up to about fifteen minutes ago -- is devoted to lengthening our attention span, which is typically days, into considering longer-term trends. "It began with an observation and idea by computer scientist Daniel Hillis":
When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 2000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.
It's impossible to give a complete flavor of the interchange between Ferguson and Scwartz without linking to the podcast, which because of design shortcomings on, there's no way to do without providing a direct link to the actual .mp3, something I ethically shouldn't do. But if you go to the main page and scroll down you'll find the .mp3 for now. What I'll try to do is provide a taster of the discussion.
Ferguson contends that the hitorian is at an advantage over futurists because while there is no future, only a number of possible futures, there is a definite past. "A planet inhabited by dead people". Moreover, composed of dead people because it is above all, a record of consciousness which we can only dimly represent.
Why is it then that people insist upon imagining a series of alternative pasts in the way a futurist might script out a variety of possible tomorrows? It is because, Ferguson argues, we are compelled to find reasons why alternative pasts didn't happen. Here Ferguson is overreaching himself. It's wonderful to imagine, as he does, what would have happened if World War 2 had begun in 1938, but we never know exactly why things happened as they did. The past was a complex system and too much information has been lost in the system change of state to reconstruct it. If history were like a transactional database it might be possible to replay it; but such a transaction log, if it exists, is accessible only by God, if you will allow the term. To most mortals the past is as obscure as the future.
Ferguson, perhaps instinctively realizing this problem, proposes that we instead "commune with the dead". (See my previous remarks on the "Communion of Saints"), and quotes an old philosopher as asserting that all of written history is the product of people imagining themselves in the past.
It's a startling observation which suffers from one glaring shortcoming. The dead are remembered in our present in ways we often cannot apprehend. Our present world is built on their bones even when we do not know it. We do not know how to speak the language of dead. We can only imagine ourselves speaking to them in ours.
Ferguson attempts to redress this weakness by adducing what he calls "covering laws". These are macro-historical and macro-economic models which claim, among other things, that when rapid change and the collapse of empires coincide for example, then all hell tends to break loose. And if that unsettlingly resembles the situation today well we had better take heed (and buy more books).
But despite this, historian is in better case than the futurist, who are (Ferguson argues) nothing but historians too, in disguise. Futurist take past trends and project them into the future. They compound the inherent uncertainties of history with those of projection. If the past is a Distant Mirror, the Future which is built on its image is even more clouded.
It occurred to me, as Ferguson was speaking, that a futurist held one advantage denied to an historian. He could perform a running a posteriori analysis on a hypothesis. A futurist could predict and observe whether his prediction came true. Unlike the historian, who could only tell which horse had won the race last derby but only guess why, the futurist can guess which horse will win the next horse in advance, depending on his reasons why.
Niall concluded by saying that we have as much to learn from the past about the future as any scenario can offer. And what we can take away from the past (and specifically his book), is that scientific and economic progress is no innoculation against war; that globalization may bring about its own destruction. We are not safe. Nor have we ever been.
In order to keep from giving the game away (and because I have to meet other day job deadlines) I'll leave the rest of the podcast to interested readers. I'll only add that whether or not we can predict the future we ought to be interested in it because, as the immortal psychic Criswell once said, the future is where we are going the spend the rest of our lives. It's interesting to consider that even theology, the Communion of Saints contains people who haven't been born yet. The future is real, but it's not our kind of real.
And for that reason an interest in the future remains as vital as fascination with the past. And we are helped by the fact that it's not always necessary to stare far into the future for it to be useful. A little warning is often enough. A shooter doing angle searches around corners is engaged in a kind of futurism because recognizing the significance of things we see before they fully come into view is often all that we can do -- and all we need. Both the immediate past and the impending future live on the edges of our Long Now.
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