I definitely spend more time wondering about the future than the average person, but I can hardly claim exclusive rights. Much like the sky, folks have been gazing into the future since ancient times. Here, I collect for you some of my favorite observations people have made on the subject over the centuries, along with a few thoughts about why they have such resonance. Enjoy!
Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. [Susan Ertz]
This throws into stark relief the difference between quality and quantity. When striving to make a future that’s better than the present, it’s tempting to take the shortcut of assuming that’s a future of more, including more lifespan. But what good is a longer life if most of it goes unappreciated? Further, a life lived without purpose doesn’t just serve its owner poorly, but also has no positive influence on the future lives of others. 70 years lived with purpose and impact are worth more, in the big picture, than 200 years squandered.
Nothing endures but change. [Heraclitus]
Sometimes poetically rendered as “You can’t step in the same river twice.” In the narrow sense, you’re not the same person you were yesterday: the sum total of your experiences, emotions and perspective is different than it was at some other time. In a broader sense, this applies to human civilization, too. Social norms, forms of government, technology of course, and even language have been constantly evolving since the dawn of humanity. The one prediction I can safely make about tomorrow is that it’ll be different from today.
We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. [Richard Feynman]
The brilliant physicist hits the nail on the head with this one. Consider: The history of civilization is a series of transformational uplifts (writing, printing press, electricity, computers). Each one enlightens and empowers us, allowing us to reach the next transformation even faster. If the future follows this pattern of acceleration, it’s safe to say the vast majority of our achievements are yet to come (meaning I won’t run out of things to write about for a long time!). I also appreciate the optimistic implication that we won’t snuff ourselves out before we get there.
As for the future, your job is not to foresee it, but to enable it. [Antoine de St. Exupery]
Finally, this gem from the French writer and thinker reminds us that the future is not a thing that happens to us, but a thing that we make. It’s definitely fun to predict and pontificate (and it actually is my job, kind of). But it’s vital that we take responsibility for imagining the future we actually want, and working hard to make it real. That’s why the quote graces my about page.
So those are four of my favorites. What do you think of these? And do you have any favorite quotes about the future?
Antoine de St. Exupery quote is definitely my favorite. Great list!
I’m a fan too. Thanks Jason!
Very fun post! It always niggles at me a bit, however, when people pull out the “ever accelerating technology” idea. Not least for the reason that so many scientifically minded people are drawn to it (and it certainly is a compelling idea), when the statement ignores both an obvious variable, and well as flies in the face of its very premise.
Ignored is the fact that we have no clear indication of how tall the next technological hurdle might be, and whether our tools to date adequately prepare us to tackle that problem (as they typically have so far). More irksome, is that while making the very pointing of having only just begun our technological journey in time, we overlook that only that relatively small period of time is being measured. We’ve observed a single, comparatively short lived trend. It is at the very least presumptuous to base a full hypothesis (and often times belief) in a single, small and inherently irreproducible data point.
I often wonder if our technological advancement is not more like pebbles strewn across a room. Those nearby are comparatively easy to pick up, especially with some practice, but those scattered at the far corners will necessarily take more time and effort.
I actually really appreciate the criticism being leveled here. It reminds me a lot of the problem with predicting the prevalence of intelligent life in the universe: namely, our sample size of one is far too small to make a meaningful prediction one way or the other.
So I agree it’s a mistake to predict the far future and pretend that it’s a scientific conclusion.
However, as long as we’re very clear that we’re only making an educated guess, not a hypothesis, I do think that the “accelerating future” idea has some justification.
In particular, the technological transformations I’m talking about are not just overcoming specific challenges in the world; they are force-multiplying levers that allow further advancements. For example, the development of computers has advanced 1,000-fold our ability solve many different kinds of problems, from engineering to genetics to astronomy. I could say something similar about the development of electricity or writing.
To follow along with your metaphor, we’re not just collecting stones, we’re incorporating them into a bridge that helps us reach ever further.
I understand this is nothing at all like a testable hypothesis. But since we don’t have the luxury of running an experiment on several civilizations at once, I’m happy to make the best guess we can based on what little we do know.
I enjoyed a laugh with the quote about “longing for immortality yet not knowing what to do on a rainy afternoon.” Thanks for a much-needed chuckle on a busy day.
I like an African proverb that goes something like this:
The gods made the earth round so that the horizon would curve away from us and we couldn’t see what was coming down the road.
That’s a good one. The state of not knowing is an essential part of the human condition. And it’s precisely the fact that we can’t quite see what’s over the horizon that motivates me to try and figure it out!
I enjoy your blog, despite the fact that (or perhaps because of it) I do not consider my self a technological optimist. I just think technology (and the large investments needed to enable it) will be inadequate to mitigating the complex disruptions we are just beginning to see set in motion by climate change. There will be profound suffering for the vast majority who don’t have the wealth to protect themselves from the worst. The the hill becomes steeper the longer we lack the political will to begin addressing it. This is a very difficult world we are creating for our children.
I’ve never thought of myself as a technological optimist, but on reflection I think that’s probably a pretty accurate description. I do think technology has the potential to improve our standard of living, reduce worldwide inequality and make our civilization more sustainable.
Then again, I agree with you that climate change is a problem so complex, so urgent and so powerful that technology alone is a woefully inadequate solution.
In fact, the persistent notion that “technology can solve anything” is deeply harmful, because it implicitly absolves us of any personal responsibility for our own actions, or lack thereof. (The opposite hypothesis, that technology is destroying the fabric of society, is equally irresponsible). Technology, however powerful, is only a tool, and far from a universal one at that.
So if I’m a technology optimist, it’s only to the extent that I’m optimistic about people. That we all have the best interests of the next generation at heart. That there are enough of us striving to make the world a better place. And that the right tools could give us a much-needed hand in doing it.
Only time will tell if this is optimism or naivete. Thanks for reading, John, I always appreciate your perspective!