Monday, September 8, 2014

Another look at The Future

A month or so ago, I mentioned that I had borrowed The Lapham's Quarterly called The Future from my son; this morning I finished reading it.  Believe it or not, I was continually impressed by how much this collection provided a wonderful perspective on man's history.  As quoted by someone in the book, "the vision of the future is shaped by the present".  Since all the future essays in this quarterly were written in present times that have passed... history.


I was particularly interested in two things I read in the last few days.


One was about how end of the world prophesies were both prevalent and powerful in the years leading up to 1000 AD, not unlike the recent surge that occurred in the time just before the year 2000.  So often we think of the past, especially the past encompassing the years 500-1500 AD, as times when barbarism and superstition ruled the day.  Clearly, logic and reason, compassion and empathy were less a part of the dynamic between the haves and have nots, the ruling class and everyone else.  But there were many individuals before the Age of Enlightenment, and before industrialization, who wrestled with the BIG concepts, whose early musings and insights led to the eventual breakthroughs that mark how we live today.  In terms of predicting and preparing for the end of the world, it appears that leading up to the year 1000, the world itself was influenced by the thinkers of the day into believing that 1000 years was the extent of man's existence as determined by the divine intervention of the Son of the Creator.  Whether it be 1000 years from His birth or death, each approaching anniversary produced the same reaction; the End is Near.  Obviously, the end did not occur but in not happening, this non-event led to what one essayist describes as a world wide change of perception.  Rather than marking time from the past to the inevitable end, viewpoints changed to a belief in the future as an amenable event that could be affected by those living it.  This was a huge paradigm shift that gave the impetus to the belief that the institutions of the day, the religions, the governments, the economic as well as social structures, could be influenced by man, not preordained to exist by the Creator.  It was if the world looked around at the lack of an ending and said, OK, let's make things happen ourselves.  Assuming this interpretation is anything close to true, imagine how powerful was that shift in thinking, s shift which occurred in a time that we dismiss as the Dark Ages.  Again, our egocentrism leads us to believe that nothing crucial happened before "recent times", and that everything about today is the ..est of all time.  Such a disrespect for history is this viewpoint, and such a shame that we assume that understanding the past is irrelevant.


Which brings me to a quote by, of all people, Sigmund Freud. 


"The less a man knows about the past and the present, the more insecure must prove to be his judgment of the future".


I would even take it a step further.  The less a man acknowledges the importance of the past, the more fearful will be his outlook of the present and the future.


From denying the age of the earth and the evolution of man, to dismissing the lessons of the downfall of the great civilizations, we seem to be surrounded by people who prefer controlling how we think than helping us to learn to think.  I have a friend, my brother, who has been reading one book each about the United States Presidents, starting with Washington.  (I believe he is on his 21st President or so).  In reading about these men, my brother will often enter a conversation about a topic of the day with an insight into how it was perceived by one of our past leaders.  Inevitably, the debates of that time were very similar to the very debate of today.  The problem still existed, both sides still had their points, but nothing had been learned.  Now, my bother is a smart guy but he is no genius.  I say that, not as a shot against my brother but as a challenge that anyone can enlarge their knowledge base if they read.  With the information technology at hand today, it is not that difficult to develop one's own opinions from fact and research rather than sound bites from TV and radio that emanate from those with agendas not related to educating you but to keeping you fearful and ignorant.


Certainly the past does not have all the answers.  But in ignoring what has happened, and reducing the past to insignificant events that have nothing to do with today, we bring life to the oft repeated saying "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it". 


Even more troubling, with all the bad news that is heaped upon us in the 24 hour news cycle that has become our media, we are rapidly becoming afraid of the present.  It doesn't matter that actual crime is down, we are constantly bombarded with reasons to fear our neighbors, although it is not our actual neighbors that are demonized but those "others" that can take the form of other races, other religions, other cultures.  Even our government, when politically expedient, is to be feared.  Should we condemn the recent actions of ISIS?  Of course.  But do we equate their ability to do evil with the fear associated with the Cold War and the very real ability of both the United States and Russia to create a nuclear wasteland of the earth?  Is Putin a jerk for invading the Ukraine?  If I was a Ukrainian who preferred self rule, I imagine I would be upset.  But to think him the next Hitler, and that France or England or Germany is next on his list is absurd.  Sadly, it is more likely that an American will die because of poor maintenance of our infrastructure than an ISIS attack or Putin's plan to annex the Ukraine yet they are the fears that drive our politics, not to mention our stock market.


The future is tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to follow.  As I talk to those I encounter in my life, there are too many of us who fear that tomorrow will be the same as today; or worse, as Janis Joplin once said, "tomorrow never comes, it's all the same f...ing day". 


Finally then, are we so fearful of the present, and hence the future, because we are an aging society, and that with age comes the twin fears of no longer being young and the inevitable death?   Is it a grand conspiracy controlled by the powers that be who prefer to maintain the status quo and so use fear to keep us from questioning the chips that seem to fall in the direction of the few? 


I would imagine that over the course of history, a large percentage of people, when pressed for an opinion, would have expressed the belief that mankind would not last another 1000 years.  Even today, I would bet that less than 50% of those asked would believe man will someday mark the year 3000.  Yet, up until now, those predicting the end have been incorrect.  In reading The Future, there have been visions of what might come that were relatively accurate, as well as those that were completely wrong.  I imagine that in 1000 years there will be a similar distribution of accurate and inaccurate prognostications.  I just hope that there are more positive descriptions, utopias, and forecasts of what will come than negative, so that when the math is done the people of the year 3000 will consider us a happy, forwarding looking bunch, and not the gloomy, fearful group that we seem to be at this moment.     


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