The future? A modern concept
In our Western (post-)modern time, the future has become the focus of all attention. Whereas the pre-modern era paid reverence to a divine order which drew its legitimacy from the past, the modern age is characterized by a consciousness of the future which emerges together with the Enlightenment, its technical breakthroughs and capitalist societies. Preservation of a divine order is therefore gradually replaced by the quest for novelty and innovation specific to modern times, which in turn hold the promise of better futures.
Hence, “Utopia” as a concept and a word came to life under the pen of Thomas More (1516) as an elusive island somewhere in the then little known South Americas, and became situated in a distant future only with the Enlightenment’s first anticipatory novel entitled Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1770). The future is indeed a modern concept.
The second half of the 20th century sees techno-economical interests take control over tomorrow and dictate their ideological, target-oriented futures – be it about satisfying the need for endless growth or about some techno-utopia where artificial intelligence and algorithms will replace politics. But rationalising and commodifying the future doesn’t come without risks and what we coyly call collateral damage. Soon becomes visible the profound absurdity of the Western world generating risks at home, and elsewhere, before desperately trying to assess and mitigate their subsequent and immediate (local) negative effects. This in turn fosters the emergence of Future Studies as a scientific discipline, and often as a “tool discipline” to those in power.
Now at the beginning of the third new millennium, we are left with a techno-capitalistic abstract time order which compresses the present while emptying the future of any substance by preemptive means, whereas the lengthy time and uncertainty inherent to both political and social processes seem more and more outdated.
Where are our utopias gone?
It comes as no surprise that the social and political utopias dear to the modern times have been turned upside down into dystopian futures which, it seems, will bring only harsher “power and economic inequalities”, not mentioning some ecological cataclysm, whereas the only left “utopias” are of technological or regressive nature claiming the past as “better times” (see also Chapter “Myths of the Future”).
It also comes as no surprise that we conceive of any of our individual or collective actions as oriented towards a goal or target in the future – just as imposed on us by the techno-economical complex. Although existing in our heads only, visions of the future thereby enact themselves in the present.
The revolution starts in our heads
A change in perception of the future is therefore critical for the social transformation we need as we are facing earthly challenges. But it is not only about changing the type of futures we envision (e.g. different from techno-utopias, see “Myths of the future”), it is rather about changing how we think about the future. “The revolution starts in our heads,” wrote the French sociologist Bourdieu.
Indeed, as soon as we human recognize that we have spaces of agency and social potential for change, what we call ‘the future’ becomes full of uncertainties and no one can tell what future will be. Actually, there is no such thing as ‘the future,’ but only plural futures. Futures remain wide open and unknown. And this is so because the present holds the potential for countless futures.
This is precisely what the metaphor of the “butterfly setting off a tornado” (Edward Lorenz, 1972) tells us: even within a deterministic, none random complex system, any minor change of the initial conditions can lead to major future differences. Therefore, the possibilities lie in the present. And how to qualify our contemporary world, if not as a complex system? Ever evolving and process oriented, it bears no overall hierarchy, thus no possibility to control it from any single legitimate point. This is good news since it means that only the many can rule it, and in the many precisely lies promises of social and political transformations.
Like a billion butterflies, the present holds the promise of many different futures
Changing how we think about the future is thus about giving up the target-oriented approach toward a single future and work instead with futures as open-ended processes in the making. Whereas the target-oriented future pertaining to conventional Future Studies represents an enclosure of what is yet to come – quite simply a colonized future; “futures as processes in the making” remain unknowable. But far from being detached from the present, these futures indeed rather come into being from it. Opening ‘the future’ to futures shifts the focus of attention to the present, which, just as a billion butterflies, encloses countless possibilities for transformation.
The same applies to the past: “the past is never dead, it is not even past”, wrote William Faulkner. The thickness of the present indeed holds the physical traces and memories of the past just as it contains the seeds of countless futures in potentia. Future Studies speaks of these realities that have not yet solidified into significant, notable facts as “latents” or “dispositions”. Latents are maturing realities which haven’t yet crystallized into meaning-bearing facts, such as the effects of radioactivity or climate change. Dispositions are properties which can be triggered like the capacity of sugar to melt in water, but more than that, the dispositions relevant to future studies are that of societies and individuals to change.
From a target-oriented approach to a concept of the future as a process “in the making”
“Futures as processes in the making” is thus about embracing the multi-layered complexity of the present instead of reducing it. To that aim, this approach uses imagination and speculation (“what if?”) about the future, and their unexpected and counter-factual scenarios or narratives (see also “Future as a target or future as a process “in the making”). Then by reflecting these back onto the present, alternative ways of seeing and embracing future potentialities become uncovered. Such a practice shall lead to an embodied ability in acting and making decisions in the present informed by the many unpredictable possibilities connected to it – using creativity, spontaneity, and experimentation together with a commitment to change. “Dancing on the unknown” says Riel Miller. “Staying with the trouble,” writes Donna Haraway.
Committing to an open future is indeed what best honours our human disposition for change. It opens up many paths for our becoming as individuals, groups, and societies on this planet. It also reminds us of a moral responsibility to preserve an open future for generations to come. A fortiori, when we colonize the future, we play into the hands of the techno-capitalist complex and undermine at the same time our collective potential for transformation.
Hanna Arendt wrote that by asking the ontological question of what is happiness, we get closer to happiness. By asking ourselves what is the future (ontological approach), and not what the future will be like (epistemological approach), we are getting closer to the future.
Roberto Poli (2017) Introduction to Anticipation Studies, Springer Int.
Riel Miller (2011) “Being without existing: the futures community at a turning point? A comment on Jay Ogilvy’s ‘Facing the fold’”, Foresight, 13(4): 24–34
Image retrieved from the original edition of Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516)