My wife recently said to me, The past is the new future. She is given to remarks of that kind, full of vatic force yet requiring mental application on my part to make them useful. The sense I make of it is that instead of growing clearer as we probe it, the future has grown dimmer, less solid, almost hard to believe in, but the past has continued to expand rather than shrink with distance: the actual things we did do have gained rather than lost complexity and interest, and the past seems rich, its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.
As a guide to present action and long-term planning, the future is anyway relatively new. The shape of things to come was not a constant concern of most people for most of the past. The Romans could imagine future wars and the founding of new cities and dynasties, but these would resemble in most ways the old ones. Christians foresaw an absolute end to time and history located (depending on specific creed and perceived signs of the times) at varying distances from the present, but between now and then it was all to be much the same, only worse. The Founding Fathers announced a New Order of the Ages, but it was a new order explicitly modeled on the classical republics that had existed in Rome or Athens. The idea of a future that will not at all resemble the past really only comes when advancing technology changes the conditions of life and work within a single generation. To that generation it is apparent that, just as the past differs radically from the present, so will the future.
At that point (it’s not really a locatable point, and not a universal one, but it can be thought of as somewhere in the first half of the nineteenth century, earlier in some places, later in others) a change can also be discerned in the efforts of planners and projectors to determine the future shape of the coming world—“determine” both in the sense of finding out what it would be and in the sense of controlling it. Early utopias from Plato through Thomas More (inventor of the term) and on to Charles Fourier were all about proper social organization, good laws, societies that fit human nature better than the state or society the utopian lived in. After this point utopias are almost all set not on remote islands or mountaintops but in the future, and all must take into account the force of accelerating technology on everything from wealth creation to population expansion to world peace.
So also must all the dark warnings of decline, disaster, waste, and failure that are the left hand of the predicting impulse.
And both of these impulses, hope and fear, are swept up in, and give power to, the characteristic fictions of mass change and of futures that entirely replace pasts: books such as the one that my imaginings led me inevitably toward.
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