We already think about the future a lot

Contradicting Jane McGonigal, Martin Seligman says that we already spend plenty of time thinking about the future:

We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected…

Even when you’re relaxing, your brain is continually recombining information to imagine the future, a process that researchers were surprised to discover when they scanned the brains of people doing specific tasks like mental arithmetic. Whenever there was a break in the task, there were sudden shifts to activity in the brain’s “default” circuit, which is used to imagine the future or retouch the past.

Though there are limits:

Less than 1 percent of their thoughts involved death, and even those were typically about other people’s deaths.

I’m surprised this was found to be mostly a positive phenomenon given the stress it causes, but the absence of prospection would cause much bigger problems. Makes sense that this is baked into our natures.

Why thinking about the future matters

Jane McGonigal on why and how to think about the future:

Some people regularly connect with their future selves, but a majority does not. And this matters, beyond the links between future thinking and greater self-control and pro-social behavior. Thinking about the five-, 10-, and 30-year future is essential to being an engaged citizen and creative problem-solver…

Make a list of things that you’re interested in—things like food, travel, cars, the city you live in, shoes, dogs, music, real estate. Then, at least once a week, do a google search for “the future of” one of the things on your list.

The shape of time

I thought I’d posted about this before, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the “B-Theory” of time, and world lines, and the possibility of our actions in the present forming something visible outside of time. So here’s a post that includes all those words that I can add to when I find new stuff.

  • The Growing Block universe is another formulation: “The present is an objective property, to be compared with a moving spotlight. By the passage of time more of the world comes into being; therefore, the block universe is said to be growing. The growth of the block is supposed to happen in the present, a very thin slice of spacetime, where more of spacetime is continually coming into being.”
“Pretty good. The ending was a bit predictable.”- New Yorker

So perfect no one will need to be good

So much for futurism?

They constantly try to escape

From the darkness outside and within

By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

But the man that is shall shadow

The man that pretends to be.

T.S. Eliot

The Museum of Tomorrow

We wanted to bring to the Museum of Tomorrow a different concept of time: the idea that in the present, you prepare, you make a different path to different possible futures. It’s not a river in the sense that you have one source and one end. You have, in fact, a delta of possibilities.

I love that image: “a delta of possibilities”. A great interview with the chief curator of this new Rio de Janerio museum by Stuart Candy. A better reason to visit Rio than the Olympics!

Absentee futures

We congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment of democracy…But regardless of who votes, what is the real meaning of any such choices if the alternatives among which we are selecting are underimagined, or clichéd – or simply absent? – Stuart Candy

My most influential role these days is less “tastemaker” and “decider” than simply “option generator”.

Designing better futures for Syria

My own career goal is to “help people think about the future.”

I can’t imagine a better application of that than a group from the University of Washington which helps Syrian refugee children design a better future for themselves and their families.

We asked the participants to work in pairs to fuel creativity and help ease literacy barriers. They used LEGO Mini-Figures and Bricks, art supplies, color pens, and FUJI Instamax Cameras to create the devices…

Magical devices often depict means of transportation…Mobility is a challenge in Za’atari for different reasons–many people have physical disabilities, exasperated by war trauma, and there is no public transport to assist with lack of roads…

Teams also designed devices similar to existing technology, such as Google glass, but that address particular needs in the camps. One team, who called themselves “Future’s Butterflies,” designed glasses that help discover and cure diseases.

Forecasting our memories

When the Long Now audience of 2515 looks back on the audience of 2015, their level of contempt for how we go about judging political debate will be roughly comparable to the level of contempt we have for the 1692 Salem witch trials. – Philip Tetlock

It will be interesting to see–and invent–the ways we do improve political debate.

Digital despair

Neal Stephenson identifies the paradox of a tech-centered society that is attracted to visions of technology failing:

At the mass-market consumer level, we have a strange state of affairs in which people are eager to vote with their dollars, pounds and Euros for the latest tech but they flock to movies depicting a relentlessly depressing view of the future, and resist any tech deployed on a large scale, in a centralized way, such as wind turbine farms.

Previously: The impact of the future

The impact of the future

I recently read an article bemoaning the recent spate of dystopian and utopian movies; arguing that by visualizing dire fictional situations and how those characters get out of them, we dull our responses to the real-world dangers all around us. Rather than learning helpful attitudes and strategies, we learn to be spectators.

At least that’s what I think it said, because I couldn’t find the article again when looking for it. I did find several other interesting pieces referencing this topic, however, that are worth noting.

Todd Mitchell writes that “post-apocalyptic books offer us an escape from denial“–specifically, the denial of deep-seated problems in our society, environment, and selves. He views it as a starting point for action:

In some ways this is similar to the Greek notion of catharsis, but it’s not quite the same thing. Where catharsis offers an audience a way to release emotion (and blow off some steam), dystopian and post-apocalyptic books offer us a way to escape the constant cultural need to deny the underlying problems of our society.

Noah Berlatsky uses Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (on my nightstand now) to argue that dystopias, to the utopian protagonists, are not “not a nightmare of the future, but a nightmare that there is a future at all—and a past, and a series of exciting events connecting the two. To be in history is to be in a dystopic narrative illusion.” To those who imagine a better world, a dynamic system is terrible–far better to get to a perfect place and never change a thing.

Claire Evans writes that what we need isn’t more far-future utopias or dystopias–rather, we need “something new: a form of science fiction that tackles the radical changes of our pressing and strange reality.”

But purely apocalyptic stories don’t help us reckon with reality’s slower, but equally devastating, emergencies – forests that vanish acre by acre, sea levels that rise a few millimeters each year, demand for consumer goods that gradually leech the planet’s resources…

The point is to show them not just how the story ends but how we might get through the middle – while we still have a shot at changing it.

In response to the newest installments of Star Trek and Mad Max, Brogan Morris writes that dystopias and utopias face different challenges in impacting society. Utopias can give us a free pass to sit back and let problems inevitably solve themselves:

Glorious utopian visions like Star Trek’s, though, all too often fail to address contemporary issues. Such optimism tends to ignore problems by implying the future is rosy regardless of our actions today…

Interstellar’s conclusion is troublingly cheerful, though: when an advanced, spacetime-manipulating future race comes to the rescue at the eleventh hour, humanity is saved. A sideswiping twist, to be sure, but one based in impossible pseudo-science, offering hope that’s totally out of our reach. It suggests our survival as a species is inevitable, if only we sit back and wait for something other than ourselves to save us.

While dystopias can leave us too depressed to act:

In Fury Road, what’s left of the human race continues to wage war and wring the Earth dry of fossil fuels, even though the planet is already a desert as a consequence of man’s actions (and simultaneous inaction)…its subtext couldn’t be more serious: we either divest and disarm, or lose the world to more chaos, more hardship, more despair.

The best approach seems to be providing hope without a free pass; challenge without despair; a thread of possibility leading out of the darkness:

It’s difficult to measure the impact of dystopian fiction on film. We know 1983’s speculative nuclear holocaust drama The Day After so depressed Ronald Reagan that it convinced him to rethink his ideas on nuclear proliferation…Such concrete examples of dystopian cinema having a direct meaningful influence, however, are rare. The best dystopian films instead tend to contribute to ongoing discussions or create indelible images of our fears of tomorrow.

In Stuart Candy’s 2010 thesis The Futures of Everyday Life, he notes that there isn’t yet a great framework for measuring the impact of futures work (especially the experiential kind he practices):

To discuss such seemingly disparate configurations in terms of their experiential features and impact enables a perspective which has X-ray glasses with respect to conventional boundaries of discipline, medium and setting; boundaries that hide their fundamental comparability…

A valuable next step in the research agenda suggested by this would be to design and implement more systematic evaluations, such as ethnographic observation or post-intervention questionnaires of participants across different conditions.

Futurist pioneer Fred Polak noted in The Image of the Future that in order to imagine a different world, we must mentally separate ourselves into the real and “The Other”:

Man is only able to conceive of the existence of The Other, the something which is basically different from the here and now, because his mental structure has a dividing property built into it. … It is the capacity for mental division which enables man to be a citizen of two worlds, this world and an imagined world.

Does imagining the “other” living in a different world cause us to draw closer to it, or to give up our hope of reaching that place? The key seems to be connecting our real selves to that imagined place, perhaps through experiences of the type Candy designs.

The Kony 2012 phenomenon gives new insight into these issues. As Dinaw Mengestu writes, Joseph Kony turned out to be more than “a click away”:

The most common defense of Kony 2012 is that it raises awareness. This is the new activist model – to raise awareness through the power of our celebrities…[But] no one denies that Kony should be brought to justice. Millions of Americans may not have known that before, but millions of Africans have, and thousands of people have been working valiantly for years to do just that.

Change has never come with a click, or a tweet; lives are not saved by bracelets. We all want solutions, but why should we think or expect an easy one exists for a twenty-year-old conflict in Uganda when we have none for the wars we’re engaged in now…

If we care, then we should care enough to say that we need to know more, that we don’t have an easy answer, but that we’re going to stay and work until we find one. You can’t put that on a t-shirt or a poster. You can’t tweet that, but you can live by it.

At the end of the day, there is change that you feel, and change that you live. We need to find ways to create more of the latter.