Saturday, 13 February 2010

. . . One Eye on the Future

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Compared to the widespread ignorance and disinterest in the past that characterises our society, it could be argued that we are in fact obsessed with the future. We are, after all, deep in the grip of the cult of youth: our popular culture is preoccupied with what is new and unheard of. Fashion, music, Art and wider culture are engaged in a process of constantly inventing new forms and attempting to replace what had been popular or regarded before. We are obssessed with new technology and the next innovation and gadget and live in eager anticipation of the promise and expectation of ever newer advances and technology. Our time has seen the furore over the turn of the millenium and the rise of the issue of Global Warming to worldwide political and social prominence. It would seem odd, therefore, to claim that our era is characterised by a lack of interest in the future. And indeed, I mean this in a very particular, but no less important for that, way.

On the level of individual people a claim that we are unconcerned with the future seems even stranger. People plan obsessively who and what they want to be. They dream about where they want to go with their lives and, on a more mundane level, they plan their holidays to come, their shopping tomorrow, their bills, their mortgage, their retirement, their love life. The issue here though is precisely this very fact though: People are concerned with my job, my life, will I find someone. People are intensely concerned with what faces them as individuals. Just as with our ignorance of the fact and lessons of history is really one of our amnesia at a societal level, rather than individual forgetfulness so with our societal future. We are, each of us, intensely concerned with my future, but we have lost, if we ever had it, an awareness and concern for our future and those things that must be affected primarily not as individuals but as a whole. We are unconcerned with the future, then, in a very particular sense.

Although our lack of concern with our social future is, to a degree, merely a matter of neglect, as I think is overwhelmingly the case with our past, it is partially also a matter of deliberate encouragement. Nothing is more uncertain than the future and, in the sense of unconnected specifics, nothing has been less successful than long term predictions of our future. This has led to an intellectual, and also in a vaguely connected manner, cultural antipathy to any kind of prediction concerning the future. This does have a legitimate basis. The type of predictions often popularly made about the future, whether about politics or the development of technology are normally excruciatingly poor. Even worse than this: the 20th Century was scarred by the advocates of explicitly historicist philosophies, who appealed to a certain necessary historical development to justify the most appalling violence and persecution in human history. Historicism, the belief that history as a whole is moving towards some inevitable conclusion is itself, when phrased in purely secular terms, everywhere and always a fallacy. The contingency of all natural occurences, including the development of human society, alone assures this. It is moreover deeply dangerous, even in the more limited, non-universal sense, in that it encourages complacency towards whatever end for which it is invoked, which is itself the most sure method of ensuring that end does not occur.

The problem with these types of future prediction is that they are, almost everywhere, dreams, which may or may not take place. They are hoped for possibilities, in the same sense of our personal hopes and daydreams for the future. They also often rest on a mistaken faith in the inevitability of certain complex events, which are in fact under the control of complex and varying forces. This phenomenon itself is familiar from our personal lives. How often do we see people, often ourselves, assuming that something: a job, an exam, a partner, a dream, a sucess, is in the bag, only to see it slip from our grip due to our naive underestimation of the complexity and difficulty involved. We take things for granted, that they will occur, that they will always be there, and thus fail in drawing the correct conclusions for what we must do to secure them. It is in this sense of failing to make the logical leap from where we are now to where we are going, to what we must do to get there, that our awareness of our social future fails. It is a sheer failure of our logical thinking. We are seemingly incapable, as a society, of considering what we are doing at the moment, looking at what the inevitable or likely long term consequences of these actions will be, and preparing for them accordingly.

When you start to think about it, this failure of our social thinking becomes glaringly obvious. We are embroiled in various problems as a society and as a species that can be traced directly back to our failure to consider the wider, likely consequences of the actions we are and have been taking, and to prepare for them accordingly. Just look at the major issues of our time. The Economic Crisis: An entirely avoidable global disaster brought on by our failure to take awareness of the simple fact that economic stability could not be maintained by taking up exponentially increasing levels of debt. The obvious consequence of this, that eventually we, as a society, would not be able to continue borrowing and to service our debts, was, indeed, obvious to many, but at a societal level the message did not seep through and together we failed to respond to this and avoid the inevitable. The War in Iraq: as clear an example as you could wish for of a failure of the consideration of the long term implications of our current actions. The invasion of Iraq was a complete success, but our leaders were so obssessed with getting to the war and completing the invasion they completely failed to take any account of the difficulty of the task that would come after it. This is a wide-ranging failure that both we and Iraq have then suffered from for years after. More examples come easily: The Demographic Crisis, as low birth rates mean our society ages and population declines; the Environmental Crisis, of the reckless destruction of priceless and irreplaceable species and habitat; the coming Energy Crisis, as oil continues to slowly run out and we do not have a plan to replace it. Even the Global Warming debate, which on the surface seems to represent our interest in our future, really betrays our inability to transform that casual interest into something more substantial. Many people see the possible dangers of Global warming, and it is given wide spread lip service as an issue of importance, but we seem incapable as a society of turning that knowledge into action, the difficult action, which that knowledge demands. We are incapable of turning our widespread individual knowledge into wider societal knowledge and action on the scale necessary and thus continue on much as before.

As in all these cases, this is not even just the case of the inertia of our society, with a small aware minority attempting to rouse a slumbering and foolish mass. Even those who are aware of the dangers of Global Warming, for example, and of the action that must be taken, are often the very same people who continue to fly, to drive and engage in various other actions that produce vast quantities of carbon. Each person deludes himself with the thought that my actions, alone, will do not nothing and then infers from this that therefore I have no responsibility to do anything, or often that this therefore means that the macro scenario will not itself occur. No one raindrop thinks that it is the cause of the flood. This is the fundamental failure of logic that is occurring here: The complete inability to reason from the society to myself, or my locality, or vice versa, from myself and the situation I see to the issues facing our entire society. We struggle with the fact that the macro issues that face society require our action, even if that individual action itself will not shift the whole issue. We are seemingly incapable of making the inference from our individual activity up the level of complexity to the action of our entire societal body.

What we fail with in each of the situations of these crises is not forecasting the future in the manner of a weather forecast, is not imagining the dreams we one day hope to have, but rather simply considering the inevitable consequences of where we are and what we are doing now. We do not need dreams about the "end of history" but what we do need is to do what, at the individual level, is considered an essential human skill: To consider the consequences of the actions we are undertaking, considering the state we wish to be in, and co-ordinating the one so that we meet the other. This is often a complicated process, requiring that we consider many variables and co-ordinate many smaller individual actions, but through its execution we are able to traverse our lives and accomplish what we seek to accomplish. THis same action is essential if we are to co-ordinate our society as a whole and interact with other societies. It is a process of checking where we are going, of keeping our eyes off our feet and on the road we are walking,so we don't trip up, to keep our eyes on the obvious consequences of our actions and to prepare for them, thoughtfully and properly, as we would instinctively do in our own lives.

It is a process of
If . . . then . . . ,
Given . . . then . . .

Obviously in all situations there will be a limit to what we are able to know about where our current path is taking us. The denial of this fact is the fortune telling, prediction of the future that is such a waste of time. Our inability to fortune tell our future does not take away our responsibility to consider the immediate consequences of our current actions and to act according to that knowledge. In all situations though there will be some facts and consequences that will be obvious, or at least calculable. Such investigations often require a great deal of academic work and understanding, at the level of the complex problems that face whole societies, or groups, but with all the resources that our societies have to muster we can do this and we must. What better use could there be for them? For if the Economic Crisis or the War in Iraq, or a whole manifold of other crises teach us anything, it is that it is considerably easier and cheaper to sort out a problem before it happens than to clean up the mess after it is made. It is easier and less painful to walk around, or step over an obstacle than it is to trip over it, hit the floor and have to pick yourself up again. Neither can this be considered a low priority. As we move forward into the future the economic, political, social choices we make will be and are having consequences, and it is of the greatest importance that we seek to consider and prepare for what consequences that are evident, with all the rigour and resources that our society can bring to this problem. We must stay focussed on our future, for we cannot afford the alternative.

This is not even a matter of merely reducing costs, but rather one of life and death. History is littered with the groups and societies and nations that failed and fell behind and died. Sometimes there was nothing they could do about this but too often it was a consequence of the actions they took and their failure to consider the evident consequences of the direction in which they were heading. They never thought it could happen to them, but it did, and if we do not pay attention to where we are heading, as well as where we came from, then eventually it will happen to us as well, if for the simple reason, that it is not the things behind you that normally trip you up, but rather the things in front of you that you are about to walk into.

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